RSDP Happenings - Focus: Wolf Ridge Farm
By Ronnie Schwenn
David Abasz shows visitors around the Wolf Ridge Farm greenhouse in June.
This past summer brought many changes to Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, located just outside of Finland, Minnesota. The staff and many volunteers have been working hard to help farm director David Abazs make his vision for a robust local food system in the north woods a reality. In the past two months, the crew at Wolf Ridge has completed two new 30' x 96' hoop houses, finished a new timber frame education pavilion, and installed a pizza oven-all in time for the busy, full-day curriculum season for school groups.
During the school year, Wolf Ridge is a frequent field trip destination for K-12 students from all over the state, who come there to learn about Minnesota's natural history and the environment. More than 350 students visit the center every week. "The goal is to produce the 140,000 meals consumed here annually," said Abazs. Thriving local food systems may not be the first thing people think of when they think of northeastern Minnesota, but Wolf Ridge and the Northeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (NERSDP) hope to change that. "A lot of people think we're just forestry and mining, but that's not the case, there's a lot of food going on in this area," said Northeast Partnership Executive Director Okey Ukaga in a recent television interview.
NERSDP and Wolf Ridge farm have been partners for many years, with Ukaga working directly with Abazs and the farm for the much of that time. NERSDP, which is one of five Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP), has been able to connect Wolf Ridge with knowledgeable people within the U of M, such as Randy Hanson, director of the Sustainable Agriculture Project at UMD. Indeed, Ukaga stresses that connections, not funding, are the most important resource the Partnership has to offer. NERSDP's board has also approved and provided seed funding, which Ukaga sees as the "gas money" to help projects get to where they want to be. For Wolf Ridge, that seed funding has meant being able to match other donors' contributions, constructing the roof for the new timber frame education pavilion, and purchasing equipment necessary for the farm curriculum.
The changes that the farm has seen this summer and those still underway will help Wolf Ridge upgrade its curriculum and give visiting students a one-of-a-kind experience. Over the summer Abazs and his crew were able to complete one of the new farm buildings, which will be equipped with a certified commercial kitchen, a room for washing and packing vegetables picked on the farm, and a walk-in refrigerator and freezer. The new timber frame pavilion will host many of the center's classes, as well as the new pizza oven, where students will be able to make and eat pizzas created with vegetables they have picked throughout the day. Roughly 50 acres will be cleared in the next two years to create crop fields, as well.
Abazs has relied on a lot of sweat equity to help make his vision come true. The farm is currently staffed by three interns, and receives frequent volunteer visits from school and community groups from all over Minnesota who are hoping to get involved with local food system development. The Northeast Partnership has taken the opportunity to build a relationship with Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center and create a model for sustainable food sources as well as active community engagement. "It's a very exciting time to mix the raw ingredients of food, and specifically healthy local foods, with education," said Abazs.