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Rooted in Tenacity: UMD's Farm 100 Years Old

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Site of UMD Farm
UMD FarmhouseUMD farmhouse today  
The original superintendents home, left, moved to the corners of Martin and Jean Duluth Roads, right, after the Northeast Experiment Station closed

Mildred Kallio reflects while sharing pictures of a striking yellow bungalow, her family’s home from 1968 to 1976. “It’s a very happy house.” Kallio describes it as well built and sturdy, the perfect base for her three little girls as they explored acres of farmland and orchards on their bicycles.

The house was nestled on the end of a cul-de-sac at the Northeast Experiment Station, the Kallio’s home for eight years while Mildred’s husband, Arvo Kallio, was the director.   

Today you can see the sidewalks where the girls once rode, a heavily patinaed fire hydrant, and a streetlight, the only evidence of residency still remaining. The house is gone. It was moved to the corners of Jean Duluth and Martin Roads when the farm closed 37 years ago. But this isn’t where the story of UMD’s farm ends.

This summer marks the centennial of a legacy of tenacity, tragedy, and triumph; that of UMD’s Farm. From 1913 to 2013, the farm has been created, destroyed, abandoned and reborn.

Its story begins before a single seed was planted. In the 1890s, Duluth was experiencing a boom that resulted in more millionaires per capita than any other city in the country. The only problem? Feeding those who’d flocked here to make it rich in lumber and iron ore. As Duluth State Normal School geographer Eugene Van Cleef declared, “Mineral resources alone do not invite a large population; they must be accompanied by food to support the people who market them.”

Back then, food had to be shipped from far away so the cost of living in Duluth was astronomical. Looking for ways to maintain residents of the Zenith City, leaders with names that would later become iconic parts of Duluth’s history - G.G. Hartley and Sam Sniveley - started small farms in the Woodland area. With their resources, Hartley and Sniveley were successful. The trick was figuring out how ordinary Duluthians could make a go of it.

“A northern farm must be created before it is operated.”
The First 25 Years of the Northeast Experiment Station, Duluth

UMD farm in the mid-1920s
The Northeast Experiment Station in 1925

Without a lot of open space downtown, the Duluth Commercial Club started lobbying for a site to create a working farm. In 1911 it got just that. The legislature appropriated $65,000 for the University of Minnesota to buy land that could be used by farmers in northeastern Minnesota. They found what they were looking for one year later near Jean Duluth and Martin Roads, a site that was being used by Greysolon Farms, a company created in 1910 for “….intensive cultivation, market gardening, and dairy farming under the most modern scientific conditions.”

Negotiations as tough as the rugged landscape ensued, as the University of Minnesota leveraged for purchase. One year later, in 1913, the University bought 240 acres at Greysolon Farm’s asking price. The Northeast Demonstration Farm and Experimental Station was established. (“An experimental station is a federally funded farm that’s part of the land grant mission,” explains Randy Hanson, current Director of Sustainability and Agriculture at UMD.)

In The first 25 Years of the Northeast Experiment Station, Duluth M.J. Thompson writes, “Land inventory indicated five acres more or less plowable; 55 acres of contract clearing allegedly ready for the plow. We were actually able to break about ½ acre, less than 1% that spring. The ground was too full of roots chopped off at the surface.”

Armed with ambition and vision, the Northeast Experiment Station team got to work. By mid-July 1913, nine buildings were constructed and the first crop of corn and oats were planted. The farm was officially created and in operation.

In the coming years, orchards were planted, electricity was integrated into the farm, and water mains were laid. But progress came to an abrupt halt in 1918:

UMD Farm After 1918 Fire
Farmer inspects damages after Fire of 1918

"The first wave of fire came from the northwest about 3:30 p.m. This passed directly to the rear and about the poultry buildings, but with the entire crew fighting the fire and with a providential shift in the wind, these buildings were saved. The second wave struck about 6 p.m. By 7 p.m. the superintendent’s residence and assembly hall were on fire and, shortly after, the horse barn was in flames. The balsam grove directly behind the first two buildings was the immediate cause of their destruction. Escape to Duluth was cut off from 6 p.m. until after midnight. Men, women, and children took refuge under blankets and in open fields, under bridges, and in streams." 1918 – 1919 Northeast Experiment Station report

It was the worst natural disaster in Minnesota’s history, the Great Fires of 1918. Killing at least 500 people and destroying more than 1,500 square miles, the Northeast Experiment Station was among the losses. Organizers began reconstruction in November and by April the new horse barn, superintendent and herdsman’s cottages were built.

Other buildings were added and construction on the farm continued through 1930. “Regional food production thrived,” says Hanson, until, that is, the 1950s when families started turning away from the farms and instead filling their grocery carts with food that was convenient. The farm started a slow fizzle that went out with its closing in the late 1970s. “In 1976 it was closed for good and the land sat empty,” says Hanson.

But instead of ‘closing for good’ it was the beginning of a new chapter. Just like after the fire, its experiencing a resurgence compliments of Randy Hanson, who is leading the charge, an increased focus from the University on sustainability, and a shift in society’s priorities. Says Hanson, “All around the country people are trying to figure out how do we rebuild these systems so that we can enjoy more of the health, environmental, and socioeconomic benefits that small-scale agriculture brings.”

Today, this same piece of property where the Kallio girls rode their bikes is once again thriving with agricultural activities. One part of this renaissance revolves around the creation of a 10 acre organic farm on the site, where Hanson, his students, and community members are producing fruits, vegetables, and possibly soon, harnessing wind energy. Their efforts combine to provide experiential learning to students and community members around food, farming and gardening, as well as deliver thousands of pounds of produce to the UMD Dining Services who use this healthy, minimally processed food as a step in their own process of 'going local'.

The new model for agricultural and food learning, research and production on the site involves many productive partnerships. Internally, UMD Dining Services, the College of Liberal Arts, the Natural Resources Research Institute, and the Office of Sustainability are closely involved, and externally, community groups like the Duluth Public School System, the Duluth Community Garden Program, the Intertribal Agriculture Council, and the Northeast Beekeepers Association are collaborating, to name a few. Most importantly, says Hanson, “Students are getting a lot of hands-on activity and learning how to interact with nature in a respectful and productive way, and in the process of this learning we are helping our institution shift to more sustainable practices. In short, we're doing our part in creating new models for learning and leadership in sustainability."

UMD Farm Turns 100  
A special thank you to Pat Maus, UMD Archives, Millie Kallio, Brett Groehler, and Zenith City Online for their help with this story.


Story written by Lori C. Melton,

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UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,

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