Producer Profile: AgroEcology Center

By Dan Cahill-Mathews

Farmer: Mark Dahlen
Farm Size: 10 acres, although not all in production
Key Farming Practices: Regenerative, no till, organic
Years Farming: 1st season growing here in Finland

On a calm, cool, early November afternoon I visited the AgroEcology Center deep winter greenhouse and regenerative farm on Silver Hill Drive in Finland. Mark Dahlen, the affable and soft spoken farm manager, greeted me in the deep winter greenhouse – a space lush with vibrant greens from vertical plots of salad greens and rainbow stalks of swiss chard in floor plots. 

Mark Dahlen: AgroEcology Center

Before I could pose a question, Mark eagerly shared details about the cyclical growing system of the vertical plots and the experimental mustard greens and other “cut and come again” varieties. “Leaf lettuce, mustard, arugula, spinach, will continue through the winter,” Mark tells me. “Come spring and summer, we can do ginger and turmeric. I’d like to see about getting some dwarf citrus happening up here.” His boundless curiosity and agricultural expertise became apparent as he leads me around the property, demonstrating a variety of home gardening techniques including keyhole gardens, terraced plots, and hügelkultur in a serene and beautiful demonstration garden. 

On the other side of the property, he guided me through rows of berm and swale plots – an innovative gardening method that holds water and directs irrigation to make the most of limited rain with mounds and trenches. Planted in the berms were flowering fruit bushes including honey berry, elderberry, and seaberry. The flowering plants provided ample food for pollinators including the bees on the property, which were prolific despite the dry conditions this summer. 

For Mark, every corner of the farm is an opportunity to explore regenerative systems which, as he states, are “designed in a way that we not only harvest a yield, but do so in ways that actually increase soil life and organic matter.”  At the core of this regenerative mission is an “aim to mimic nature with closed loop systems, as there is no waste in the forest.” Mark demonstrates this on the farm with a variety of growing techniques and experimentation with waste-to-resource systems. The AgroEcology center turns manure from locally raised alpacas and chickens into compost and repurposes the spent grapes called “must” from the North Shore Winery in Lutsen into usable growing material. 

AgroEcology Center’s Market Garden

You may have seen Mark at the Finland Farmer’s Market this summer with tables full of stunning cosmic purple carrots, mesmerizing patterned chioggia beets, and Russian varieties of tomatoes that endure the northern rowing climate. In addition to the market farm providing abundance at the Farmers Market, the AgroEcology Center’s mission is to be a resource for the community. “We hope to start offering classes/workshops and tours next year,” Mark shares. “If people have ideas they want to experiment with, but don’t have the time or space, perhaps I can do that here, and we can find out what works for the benefit of all.” 

Mark demonstrates this mission to aid local producers and growers through three different levels of greenhouse growing systems on the farm. The first an entry level farm tunnel built with about $70 worth of material including cattle panel that extends the growing season. The second a larger high-tunnel system for producers looking to invest a little more to grow a large amount of food. And the third, a deep winter greenhouse for farmers ready to  grow year-round. Mark hopes local farmers, producers, and home gardeners will find inspiration from these examples on the farm that assist their plots at home. 

As the sun began to set, painting the sky with vivid orange and magenta between the clouds,  we climbed the terraced medicinal herb garden surrounding the greenhouse. It dawned on me that there is so much positive and exciting agricultural work at the AgroEcology Center that I could never do it justice in one article or interview. Mark and I agreed to stay in contact about the happenings on the farm and share the mission of the AgroEcology farm being a valuable resource for all farmers, producers, and growers in Finland and on the North Shore. 

“The community is an incredible place. The people I have met are genuine and kind, interested in ecological connection and the things I care about.” Mark tells me. “They make intentional efforts to make Finland what it is, and I really appreciate that. In addition to growing innumerable varieties of plants, Mark hopes to continue growing relationships within the community with an open invitation to explore the farm at the AgroEcology Center. Just as I did, you can meet him in the deep winter greenhouse. “I’m usually there mid-late morning and people are welcome to stop by and say hello. It’s a really nice spot on a cold sunny day.”

Mark’s salad mix and greens such as swiss chard can be found at the Finland Co-op in addition to the Finland Farmer’s Market throughout the summer and select winter dates. The AgroEcology Center hosts summer farm apprentices through the Savanna Institute for prospective farmers. For farm tours, inquiries about regenerative gardening techniques, and suggestions for classes/workshops next year, Mark can be contacted via email at Mark@organicconsumers.org 

What is your background in farming? 

Both sides of my family come from farming families, but we did not grow up on a farm. I come to the Agroecology Center as a next step in a 2nd career. I spent over two decades working in the music business as an audio engineer mostly doing live concerts across the country and a few other continents. 

About 15 years ago I learned of Permaculture and I began to see the future was not going to continue as it had been. I transformed a couple of urban/suburban lots into food forests & annual food systems and I was hooked on growing things. 

The opportunity came up to work on a research farm, and I also spent some time on the oldest organic/biodynamic vegetable farm in Tennessee. I’ve been a lead designer on some large acreage projects, with tree plantings, wetland restorations and pollinator habitat creations. Most recently we had a small urban farm and plant nursery in Nashville where [my partner] Ellen and I lived until 2020.

What brought you to Finland, MN?

Synchronicity. Long story short, we came up to the north shore for Ellen’s birthday in 2020, and through a number of events I ended up connecting with Sarah at Wolf Ridge and then spent some time volunteering there. In that time frame we visited the Agroecology Center. This position became available this spring, so I came to see if it all made sense and if it was the right fit for me, and here I am.

What is your role with the AgroEcology center and what does the AgroEcology center do?

One of the demonstration gardens at the AgroEcology Center

My title is Farm manager and I oversee all of the happenings on site. This is a project of the Organic Consumers Association and the scope of the vision is long term. Much of the work up to this point has been transforming the site into a diverse regenerative space with multiple symbiotic enterprises, and we are now moving into a phase where more production will occur. We are a research, education & demonstration site focused on finding varieties that do well in this climate. Fruit & nut trees, medicinal herbs, mushrooms, bees, vegetable production and we have a home garden site to give people ideas and concepts they can explore in their backyards. We hope to start offering classes/workshops and tours next year. I’d like to make this place a resource for the community. If people have ideas they want to experiment with, but don’t have the time or space, perhaps I can do that here, and we can find out what works for the benefit of all.

What farming practices are you most passionate about? 

No till and soil health. It really is all about feeding the soil. In the last few years I’ve taken some courses with Dr. Elaine Ingham on soil assessment through microscopy and that has been pretty incredible to see the life in the soil close up, and then to attempt to make recipe composts to include the full soil food web.

How many people are involved with the work at the AgroEcology center?

In the growing season, we have a couple of apprentices for 4-5 months, and the rest of the year it is just me.

What does regenerative agriculture mean to you?

The current food system in our culture is extractive. Taking more out of the soil and leaving it more degraded with each season’s use. Regenerative systems are designed in a way that we not only harvest a yield, but do so in ways that actually increase soil life & organic matter. We aim to mimic nature with closed loop systems, as there is no waste in the forest.

What are the farm projects you’re currently working on?

Being the end of the season, things are slowing down a bit. Although, I was just harvesting some romaine a couple of days ago growing under some row cover while it was snowing… 
But really it is a time to review the season, tuck things in for the winter, and of course we have the Deep Winter Greenhouse at full production for the winter season as we look to start planning for next year.

What crops/produce are you growing in the greenhouse and over winter?

The passive solar greenhouse is pretty amazing, right now we have mostly greens growing in there. Leaf lettuce, mustards, arugula, spinach, which will continue throughout the winter. Come spring and summer, we can do ginger and turmeric, I may experiment with early tomatoes and cucumbers. I’d like to see about getting some dwarf citrus happening up here. I’m usually in there mid-late morning and people are welcome to stop by and say hello. It’s a really nice spot on a cold sunny day.

Greens grow year-round in the Deep Winter Greenhouse, and are available for purchase at the Finland Co-op during the winter months

Where can we find your produce for sale?

In the summer, I really enjoy connecting with people at the Finland Farmers Market, and we’ll have salad mix and greens all winter at the Co-op.

Do you have any tips for greenhouse farming or winter farming?

If you plan things you can really take advantage of the season extension in the fall and spring. It’s likely too late for this year to start from seed, but if looking to spring even if you have an unheated greenhouse, many crops will tolerate cooler temps and things like row cover can help you get a jump on the season. I like to plan to be early in spring and late in the fall and if you lose a few things it’s not that bad, but if you get the timing right it’s a huge pay off. I seeded romaine and head lettuce the first week of august, and radishes in mid September and that worked out well this year. It may not every year, but it’s fun to push the boundaries.

What has been a highlight of your time living in the Finland community?

This community is an incredible place. The people I have met are genuine and kind, interested in ecological connection and the things I care about. They make intentional efforts to make Finland what it is, and I really appreciate that. I could tell last year just being here for a short while, and meeting a few people that this place has an energy, and attracts like minded people. It’s obviously beautiful scenery, but the people make Finland more than a pretty place. I look forward to growing those relationships more and continuing to meet others.

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