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Wolf Ridge farm prepares for growing season

Lise Abazs and the Carleton College students planted peppers, tomatoes, Swiss chard, kohlrabi and cabbage that will be transferred to the Wolf Ridge greenhouse when it is complete. For now, they are growing under lamps in a Wolf Ridge classroom. (David Abazs).1 / 3
David Abazs and the Carleton College crew take a break during their week of labor earlier this month. (David Abazs).2 / 3
David and the Carleton students focused largely on the greenhouse during their work week. Here, David installs part of the greenhouse that will be covered with plastic for the summer. (David Abazs).3 / 3

With several inches of snow still on the ground, it's hard to imagine that the Minnesota vegetable planting season will soon be here.

However, the farm at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland was a beehive of activity during the last week of March. A group of Carleton College students and farm manager David Abazs spent the week preparing the land for its first season.

"This will be a challenging spring," Abazs said in early April after more than eight inches of snow fell on the region.

Farming is nothing new for Abazs. He and his wife Lise have owned the Round River Farm in Finland for 25 years, and he said he knew early in life that he wanted to be a farmer. He grew up outside of New York City, but the idea of working with the land was planted by a documentary he saw depicting life in Amish communities.

"I told my parents when I was seven years old that I wanted to farm," he said.

After college, he and Lise traveled the world following their dream, learning to work the land with experienced farmers. They've helped on farms in The Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Maine and New Mexico, among other locales. When they decided to settle down, Abazs said he picked Finland on a map and they purchased land in 1988, where they've been ever since.

The Abazs' have been involved in a variety of projects throughout their years in Finland. Their own farm is a study in diversification. They sell vegetables alongside balsam wreaths and wild rice. They also install renewable energy systems for others and have a small cabin on their land, the Chaletini, which generates rental income. Both are now involved in Wolf Ridge Farm, another extension of the work to which they've dedicated their lives.

David got the idea to start farming at Wolf Ridge when he was a co-principal investigator at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. The project was to define the agricultural landscape of the region and explore its potential for a healthy local food system. He said he spent a lot of time crunching data to quantify northeastern Minnesota's ability to sustain itself on food grown in the region. When he tired of spending his time behind a computer, he decided to put some of his research into practice and, in 2009, proposed a farm to Pete Smerud, then assistant director at Wolf Ridge.

"We wanted to take ideas and put them into real vegetables," Abazs said.

Smerud agreed. Abazs was banking not only on his experience as a farmer but also on Finland's history as an agricultural community for the project's success. As recounted in the Geographical Review written in 1934 by Darrell H. Davis, Finland boasted 40 farms nearly a century ago, totaling more than 600 acres.

The Wolf Ridge farm is only seven acres, but Abazs said the goal is to provide all the produce and eggs needed for the 140,000 meals served annually at Wolf Ridge. While Abazs acknowledges the unique challenges faced by a farm in Finland, such as snow in April, if historical precedent is any indication, the farm will be a success.

While this is the first year the farm will produce vegetables, the labor began more than a year ago. Volunteers began clearing the brushy fields last winter, and the work continued throughout the summer. Guthrie Cunningham, a Finland resident who now attends Carleton College, was the farm's first intern.

"Mostly, the summer consisted of very basic groundwork in the form of rock picking, brush clearing, taking down dead trees, seeding a cover crop and then preparing the foundation for the first large greenhouse and starting his construction it by the end of the summer," Cunningham wrote to the News-Chronicle.

In addition, he said he spent a lot of time generating interest in the community and letting people know about the project.

"It was just the very beginning of what will become a very large and permanent project," Cunningham added.

That hard work laid the foundation for this year. Cunningham's internship also paved the way for a strong relationship between the farm and Carleton College.

"Guthrie did a fabulous job keeping the ball rolling in the first and most difficult year," Abazs said.

Four Carleton students spent their spring break volunteering at the farm, focusing on the greenhouse and planting seedlings with Lise. The seedlings are now in a classroom at Wolf Ridge and will be transplanted when the greenhouse at the farm is complete.

The farm also just received the stamp of approval from the Department of Agriculture in the form of a $50,000 grant.

The seedlings, and later the farm, will become an important part of the Wolf Ridge curriculum. The school's mission is to develop a citizenry that has the knowledge, skills, commitment and motivation to work together for a quality environment, and Abazs said the farm is an obvious fit within that charge.

"The way food is produced has a great effect on the environment," Abazs said.


Wolf Ridge farm project

The Wolf Ridge Organic Farm has received up to $10,000 in matching funds from an anonymous family. Help Wolf Ridge get the matching gift by donating. Go to www. and click "Donate."

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
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