In the Fall of 2022, the Finland Wild Rice House was visited by a Sustainable Food Systems undergrad class from UMD. After the whole class received a general tour of the processing facility, five of the students stuck around to familiarize themselves further, because they intended to identify a research topic for their semester project that would be helpful to the Finland Food Chain, the community, and its efforts towards sustainability. Together, with wild rice project coordinator Meghan Mitchell, they settled on diving into a topic that has much relevance here: how to grow AND process small grains on a small scale. Below is the final research paper, including highlights of interviews with local farmers and the students conclusions.
Small Grain Processing in NE Minnesota
By: Aaron Reiser, Keegan Tank, Olivia Goulet, Ella Stewart & Zach Logelin
Nestled along the north shore of Lake Superior, the northeastern corner of Minnesota has long been viewed as a region of economic boom and bust with a history of mining and logging in the bedrock-laden topography. The boreal forested landscape has seen the introduction and passing of industry and other natural resource-based enterprises; in the contemporary north shore how can one make a living? With special intrinsic value in the beauty of the shores and wilderness lakes, it is pertinent to pursue a culture of resilient and diversified livelihoods that can be provided through sustainable agriculture.
Despite the challenges associated with cultivating a food system in the rocky Lake Superior basin, there is a history of agriculture in the region. These farms fell during hard times due to high tax delinquency. “Between 1905 and 1934, many of the 48 farms in the Finland area ceased active cultivation, 8 were abandoned entirely, and most residents lived in poverty and isolation” (Cultural Resources). In our contemporary American lifestyle we have grown dependent on a food system under the control of just a few corporations while “nearly half of all the crops consumed by humans today depend on nitrogen derived from synthetic fertilizer” (Saladino, pg 68). The geography of Lake Superior’s North Shore can make it difficult to access fresh food through localized food systems, underlining the importance of developing a cooperative agricultural community. The purpose and intention of this paper is to gain more insight and express how the Finland Food Chain may support the community of farmers in NE MN.
Just a stone’s throw away from Lake Superior, lies the community of Finland, Minnesota nestled in Lake County. A grant-supported project operating out of Finland, the Finland Food Chain, currently offers a facility with equipment for members of the community to process Manoomin (wild rice). Small grains as well as beans and other legumes were once grown in the region, and production of these crops, for a few reasons, have faltered with time largely because of the lack of grain processing capacity. “The dehulling, winnowing and sorting equipment used for wild rice is similar to that used for small grains, and because the seasonality of processing small grains differs from that of wild rice, there is the potential for one facility to support multiple small grain crop processors” (Mitchell, Finland Food Chain).
Juxtaposed with the historic resource extraction based enterprises of the north shore, small-scale agriculture brings us liberation from dependence on corporate food systems, is generally more resilient to climate change, and restores the community aspect that used to be fundamental in our past food systems. As students, we haven’t been exposed to the challenges and nuances faced by the farmers operating in the Lake Superior basin. We had a chance to connect with some of the farmers that operate in Finland and the broader community in the Lake Superior basin, all the way up to the Iron Range to gain some insight into what kind of support they would require to increase food production.
Interviews and Community Consensus
We set out on our journey of networking and interviewing with the general mission asking: how can we help support a sustainable and diversified north shore agricultural community? Community supported agriculture helps us stray away from the industrialized food systems reliant on complex supply chains and industrial agricultural practices vulnerable to climate change. To get a better understanding of how we can mobilize the community, utilize existing resources, and hopefully provide some new equipment and funding, we chatted with some of the people already making a difference in and around the Finland area.
We first spoke with David Abazs, the Executive Director of the MN NE Region of Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships and head of Round River farms with his wife and family. A general consensus is that the North Shore of Lake Superior is very rocky: with such a challenging agrogeology it “took about 15 years to clear boulders with a pickaxe and get land ready to be farmed.” There is no shortage of work required to cultivate the land, with oftentimes only inches of naturally acidic soil. Abazs operates on a relatively small scale property and produces a substantial amount of food each growing season. He describes the process of harvesting small grains as “very challenging.” At Round River Farms, he grows wheat and mustard, processing on his own. Because of the small scale of their production, machinery is not cost effective. David pointed out that collecting and threshing the grains was the most labor intensive and difficult part of the process, along with the lack of storage. He expressed the need for a communal combine, flour mill and mobile threshing unit. But even without the equipment, David was willing to bring mustard and wheat to the facility as part of the grant.
Located near Round River farms lies Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, accompanied by a farm currently managed by Sarah Mayer. The farm operates in order to feed the many campers that visit Wolf Ridge each year, and produces over 35 different types of veggies and herbs. Labor and funding associated with paying workers a fair wage is a constraining factor mentioned by Mayer which limits the expansion of operation and food production. The farm at Wolf Ridge does not currently grow grains because of these constraints. As growing and producing grain on a small scale is much more labor intensive than on a larger scale with the proper machinery, Wolf Ridge does not currently have the resources to accomplish grain production but is willing to lend land for research purposes.
To gain more understanding of the challenges with agriculture in the region, we talked to Kaare Melby, a local farmer who is carrying on the family tradition of agriculture in the North Shore region. Melby is a testament to the character and resilience of the people who farm on the North Shore, practicing regenerative polyculture in production of perennials/annuals, livestock, apple and pear trees, berries, rye, wheat, garlic, potatoes, and the locally traditional bear island flint corn. Kaare mentioned that many of the prior cultivated fields are now forested and threatened by spruce budworm, meaning he is constrained by space and could use more livestock to bring back agricultural land. He currently grows winter wheat and rye which he brings to the Finland Food Chain to be processed. We were able to view firsthand how the wheat was threshed and cleaned at the facility. To thresh the wheat, we had to stomp on the bundles to remove the grain from the stem. It was a long and tedious process which could be relieved by better machinery. Kaare recalled that much of the grain production in the area stopped because of the loss of a communal thresher. He finds the biggest barrier to grain production is the lack of a mobile thresher because transportation is such an issue.
We also spoke with Julie Allen, Harvest Festival Director and LS-SFA Chapter Coordinator for the Sustainable Farming Association about her perspective on small grain processing in the region. Through her involvement with SFA, Allen works closely with many local farmers, as well as operating a small farm herself. In talking with her, we found that having enough land is one of the biggest barriers to growing small grains, as it is a big scale-up in comparison to growing vegetables. Allen also echoed similar sentiments to other farmers we interviewed who mentioned how equipment and labor are necessary components to be successful in growing small grains. Small combines, winnowers and threshers are all examples of equipment that would be needed to support small grain farmers in Northeastern Minnesota. While it is possible to do without these machines, Allen says it is not labor-efficient to process small grains by hand. As we saw in our tour of the Finland Wild Rice House, processing small grains by hand can be a tedious, time-intensive process. It has been one of Allen’s goals to grow gluten-free grains on her personal farm, and she expressed an interest in a partnership for research purposes. When we asked Allen about Kernza, she showed great interest and seemed to believe that this crop would have potential in Northeastern Minnesota. While Kernza is a crop most commonly grown in southern Minnesota, Allen was optimistic about implementing it into the north shore area.
We were also able to sit down and talk to Jason Axelson, who operates Wildhurst Lodge and Campground. He worked as a project manager for Buhler Inc. in Plymouth Minnesota for 15 years. Buhler is a plant equipment manufacturer that produces equipment for processing grains and other small materials. Buhler incorporates advanced technologies into their engineering to be a global leader in providing services that expedite the global production of wheat, maize, rice, pasta, and cereals. Jason shared his knowledge on the equipment as well as some of his insight into increasing productivity of the northeastern region of Minnesota. While Buhler makes equipment for large scale production sites, there are key machines that can be utilized on the small scale level as well. He stressed the importance of magnets, specifically plate magnets, that are an inexpensive way to make sure metal doesn’t ruin other equipment or contaminate any batches. A cheap, second hand community shared drum sieve may also have benefits, as it pre-cleans grains for a smoother production process. A communal combine, such as the handheld combine from GrainGoat, can be used on multiple grain types.
To get a better idea of farming in the Iron Range region, we spoke to Heather Mahoney with the Rutabaga Project near Virgina, MN. She explained how farming near the Iron Range is a huge challenge. Due to the “71-day growing season,” many of these farmers struggle with agriculture, let alone small grains. Considering the short growing season, it is unlikely many farmers in the area would grow small grains or utilize the processing equipment.
The need for community shared or second hand equipment is important for small communities as brand new large scale machinery is not economically feasible or practical. There are many factors that weigh into the result of the end product. Speed control, sanitation, and proper equipment are components that are sometimes overlooked. Grain quality is correlated with speed, as slower speeds often yield crops with less damage due to friction that ultimately helps maintain nutritional value and marketability. Jason stressed the importance of sanitation, as even small scale farmers risk ruining batches and wasting time. As the rise of factory farming is swallowing family farms, economic divides are broadening. Additionally, a lack of infrastructure in this area of the midwest can be attributed to the region’s long history of mining. A need to vary the economy is apparent, and cultivating a culture of community supported agriculture will prove profitable by adding a new source of sustainable income to the region.
We compiled a list of grains that may be suitable for processing in NE Minnesota, including our primary and secondary list of choices, along with their general planting and harvesting schedule. Based on the interviews, our top choices include: wheat, rye, mustard, barley and Kernza. The winter varieties of wheat, rye and barley specifically do well in the region. We also included a list of machinery that the community demonstrated a need for.
*Please note that growing seasons are variable and mere estimates*
Wheat (May-September) and Winter Wheat (August-May)
worked in fan mill at Finland facility
Rye (May-September) and Winter Rye (August-May)
Wintering wheat and rye varieties are a great option for grain production in MN because of the overwintering season and spring harvest.
A hybrid of wheat and rye
bioengineered, branded – winter hardy, climate friendly, planted in the fall, harvested late summer, perennial
Many varieties grown in MN, mustard greens very sensitive to frost
Winter oats would be preferred over regular oats
Barley (May-September) and Winter Barley(August-May)
Winter barely not grown in MN because no variety has sufficient winter-hardiness to survive (UMN Extension)
Researchers working to develop winter barley to survive MN winters (UMN Extension)
could be too small for effective processing
legislation could be too much of a barrier, requires similar equipment
Buckwheat (gluten free)
Native to Minnesota
DIY Farm equipment https://farmhack.org/tools/small-scale-thresher
Connecting the existing assets of the Finland Food Group with the aforementioned farmers above, we see potential in growing this resource to serve the expansion of small grain production in NE MN. As David mentioned, “planting small grains can help manage pest, weed, and disease cycles in row crops” while filling the gap of local grain production in the regional food system. The results of our research have led to finding that the community of Finland would benefit from a mobile thresher, communal combine, and flour mill for grain production. While the cost of labor, need for land and small-scale nature of small grains create challenges for farmers in the area, the lack of proper processing machinery was the most prominent hindrance to growing small grains in NE MN.
“Cultural Resources.” Cultural Resources – MnDOT, https://www.dot.state.mn.us/culturalresources/.
“Finland Food Chain.” Finland Food Chain, 18 Oct. 2022, http://finlandfoodchain.org/wp/.
“Growing Small Grains.” UMN Extension, https://extension.umn.edu/small-grains/growing-small-grains.
“The Past, Present, and Future of Agriculture in North-Eastern Minnesota.” YouTube, YouTube, 13 May 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQzlitPIMWU.
“SARE Partnership Grant Proposal Draft.” Google Drive, Google
“Small Scale Thresher.” Small Scale Thresher | Farm Hack, https://farmhack.org/tools/small-scale-thresher.