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Shoulders to the Wheel

February 11, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Community, Culture, Ecology, Randel Hanson

Laying the Foundations for Sustainable Local Food Systems

by Randel Hanson

How do you create a locally harvested food system for a city of 100,000? This question is being asked presently in a seminar, in Duluth, Minnesota and the broader western Lake Superior region, as well as in many other cities across the United States. It was also an urgent local question a century ago.

Indeed, across the U.S. at the onset of the 20th century, public and private concerns were scrambling to get a handle on the haphazard ‘system’ that transformed nature into edible human culture within the rapidly urbanizing America. This was a chaotic, wasteful, and powerfully transformative period, with rural populations shifting into cities as the primary engine for economic activities turned from agrarianism to industrialization. The rapid growth of industrial cities forced an emerging ‘municipal responsibility’ for the various inputs and outputs of urban life. Public and private city planners in the late 19th century began to reflect upon and intervene into this laissez faire urbanization, including how to procure ample food of adequate quality and cost to citizens. In short, it became quite apparent that leaving the issue of food to the market was wholly inadequate to the demands of society from any number of perspectives.

These histories of civic engagement with our food system by city governments, business organizations and citizen groups represent a fascinating window into our past just as they help us think about our challenges and barriers for creating more desirable food systems for contemporary society. While there were general issues that characterized the food challenges of early 20th century industrial cities, many communities faced unique problems. The challenges faced by Duluth fall primarily into the latter category, and form the basis for a closer study that illuminates a number of contemporary issues.

Early 20th century Duluth found itself in a food systems quandary. Situated on the western tip of Lake Superior amid vast and thick northern forests, the city was growing rapidly amid the immense wealth accumulation of the region associated with exploiting its then abundant natural capital. Timber from surrounding forests was being clear cut and hacked into lumber to build the cities southward; the very rich and easy accessible iron ore of the Range was being gouged out and railroaded to Lake Superior docks in Duluth and elsewhere, filling ships and bank accounts; and grain from the newly ploughed Midwestern prairies and plains was being brought to port for shipping eastward, leveraging the ship canal and ever improving harbor facilities for this zenith point in North America for ocean going vessels. New steel plants were being built, and countless spin-off and allied manufacturing, supply, and production companies were proliferating in an urban-industrial frenzy. Nearly tripling in population across two decades, Duluth’s phenomenal rate of population growth was greater than New York or Chicago in 1910, and local boosters fantasized that Duluth would become the North American hub as infrastructure developed. As a result of this abundant combination of raw material, labor, and natural amenities, Duluth hosted more millionaires per capita at this point than any other city in the U.S.

Although the city was rapidly growing, the 80+ thousand Duluthians lived for the most part on the narrow 24 mile strip of land hugging the western Lake Superior shore. The surrounding region was very sparsely populated save for the booming and bustling mining and timber towns spread across the hinterlands. Duluth State Normal School Geographer Eugene Van Cleef worried in an article published in the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society in 1912 that the ‘permanence’ of Duluth was threatened by the lack of an agrarian base, warning that “mineral resources alone do not invite a large population; they must be accompanied by food to support the people who market them.” More to the point, business leaders of Duluth were worried about attracting the important middlemen and women to run the businesses that were proliferating: poor food was feared to hinder their importation. And they were worried as well about the prices of food, which around the U.S. were reaching all time peaks, often taking between 40-60% of an average family’s income. Riots were sparked by this situation in New York and elsewhere, and the strong Duluth Labor community was seen by industry captains as a potential environment for fomenting local protest around food prices. Given the lack of any local food supply, availability and price of food in Duluth was indeed problematic.

The Duluth Commercial Club was at this point a powerful civic and political organ that assembled and channeled the business interests of Duluth, and its members began to consider the necessity of proactively building a local food supply. At the turn of the century, some of the wealthy members of the Club had purchased clear cut land for their summer homes and they began to dabble in agriculture and animal husbandry. As these ‘city fathers’ carried out their projects, they realized both the potential of agriculture in the region but also the difficulties, including removing the stumps of clear cut trees and the new secondary growth that quickly sprouted up and the rising prices of arable land in the area. Taking all of these issues into account, Duluth Commercial Club members sketched out a plan to jump start a food system from scratch, including production and distribution components, to supply fresh produce to area restaurants, grocers and households.

One of their first actions was to hire Mr. A. B. Hostetter, a lifelong farmer and long term teacher of farmers in the agricultural institutes of Illinois. Hostetter was turned loose with his considerable experience and sufficient Club resources to pull together the educational, public relations and networking elements to spark a local food system. After sizing up the situation, Hostetter approached the Duluth Public Schools to embrace agricultural education, but they demurred. Undaunted, Hostetter approached the YMCA, which began offering classes in poultry production in 1910; by 1911 the ‘Y’ added gardening classes, integrating a teacher for each of the 20 public schools in the city. Hostetter also worked with the Duluth Homecroft Association (DHA), a local arm of the national Homecroft movement designed to encourage local self sufficiency and healthy living. As a ‘model city’ in this movement, Duluth boasted the founding in 1909 of Homecroft Park, which sold one acre lots to area residents for a back to the land urban lifestyle. Hostetter harnessed the energy of this movement by partnering with the DHA, which began to offer courses in cooking local produce, preserving foods, and the vagaries of managing such enterprises. Various churches, fairs and community gatherings were encouraged to hold friendly competitions over the fruits and vegetables of these labors to generate greater interest. And the prized specimens were also brought to State Fairs in St. Paul, New York City, and other places to boost the image of agriculture in the region.

Mr. Hostetter and other Duluth Commercial Club members also leveraged their networks and the growing food needs of US Steel and its employees by partnering with the various railroad companies in the region, each of which had excess lands adjacent to their tracks. Together they crafted plans to create farms along the tracks, bunched into groups that would become small towns connected to the nearest train stop, which could serve as portals for produce gathered by the trains for urban destinations. To help grow these small centers for agricultural production, Hostetter created ‘educational trains’ in which agronomic experts in seeds, produce varieties, production methods, management expertise, etc., would travel on appointed days, stopping at each town to dispense their knowledge, praise, encouragement and institutional support. Free seeds were distributed to town children, who were encouraged to compete with each other for growing the best produce, the winners of which would garner prizes that the Club also dispensed.

But problems in boosting a food system also existed because of a lack of access to lands closer to the city that could be agriculturally productive and affordable. Indeed, given the rapid population growth and the craggy landscapes along Lake Superior, land was quite expensive and arable land was scarce. How could you justify farming on land close to the city that was so expensive? To address this problem, several Duluth Commercial Club members founded the Greysolon Farm Company in 1910.

The Greysolon Farm Company (GFC) was a mile square area on Duluth’s northern urban edge; the land was developed as small farms ranging from 1-15 acres for both rental and sale to workers, truck farmers, and existing distant farmers who might be coaxed from elsewhere to relocate. The plan devised long term financial terms amendable for people to both rent and purchase land from which stumps were removed, and they created another, less expensive track for those who were willing to remove such obstacles to farming themselves. And as part of the deal, the GFC would help people learn the skills of “intensive cultivation, market gardening, and dairy farming under the most modern scientific conditions” so they could make profits sufficient to justify purchasing the lands (and fulfill the food supply ends of the Club). The GFC quickly took off, renting and selling agricultural lands for home and market production. Educational courses were held on the GFC lands, organized by Hostetter, helping the farmer aspirants gain the necessary skill sets to produce for nearby markets. The creation of the GFC was also not coincidentally commercially successful, creating profits for investors by adding value to cut-over lands by removing stumps and getting the lands into cultivatable condition.

The University of Minnesota was also interested in inserting itself into the formal development of an agricultural infrastructure in the western Lake Superior region as part of its broader ‘Land Grant’ mission. In 1911, the Minnesota State Legislature authorized the Board of Regents to come to Duluth to seek lands that could support an experimental station akin to others that it was creating around the state. The GFC lands were widely seen as the best farmland in the immediate Duluth area, enriched by the climate and geologic forces at the end of the last glacial period, which rushed topsoils toward Lake Superior from Lake Agassiz some 6000 years ago; reaching the ridge of the ancient volcano, the topsoils swept along by the glacial flows subsided, producing a relatively rich base that would become Duluth’s ‘breadbasket’ in the decades to follow. The University negotiated hard with Greysolon’s owners, the arguments drawing out for over a year, but eventually the University purchased some 240 acres at Greysolon’s asking price and founded the Northeast Demonstration Farm and Experimental Station.

By Spring,1913, Superintendent Mark J. Thompson was hired and the farm quickly developed as a combination dairy, poultry, and truck farm. Although the ‘Great Fire of 1918′ burned this area, it was a temporary setback: the Northeast Experimental Station (which soon became its official name) became an important piece of the agricultural architecture of the region as a site for demonstration, production and education. Thompson remained a main force on the farm for several decades, contributing to the ‘golden years’ of extension services in the region.

Seeding education and production lands were two key aspects of building a food system from scratch that were now set in motion, but distribution was also a problem. To address this problem, the Duluth Commercial Club worked with area farmers to found a Cooperative Produce Warehouse in west Duluth in 1910 to supply goods to city retailers. This experiment soon ran up against stubborn economic realities: there were not enough farmers bringing produce to the warehouse, and the Commercial Club which was underwriting the project soon grew dismayed with the ongoing financial losses, shutting the doors. In the wake of the closure, the Club worked with area farmers to create the Producer’s Cooperative Market Association as a more diffuse organizational means to represent and boost the interests of area farmers in distribution issues. In addition, the City of Duluth founded the Duluth Farmers Market in 1912 to service private households. This first iteration of the Duluth Farmers Market, regulated by the City Council, opened up shop in the Armory, adding two additional satellite markets in other parts of the city. That first year 25 farmers used the market to sell produce, which was all locally harvested, and the Duluth Farmers Market has in one form or another remained a part of the city ever since.

In sum, an amazing amount of energy and organization was brought to bear on the creation of a local food system for Duluth in the early part of the twentieth century. For an interim period that lasted several decades, this bid to create a local food system worked: locally harvested produce began to flow into area outlets, people were turned into farmers, and other distant farmers relocated here. This local food system grew throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and vegetables like potatoes, brassicas, celery and lettuce became staples that were grown in large fields sufficient to to supply locally and to ship elsewhere. Small fruit production, particularly raspberries, was also robust enough to not only supply the region but also ship refrigerated train-car loads to Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Omaha. Simply put, regional food production thrived.

But as with so many aspects of U.S. society, the advent of World War II signaled a profound change for the Duluth local food system. For one thing, the war effort demanded as many people as possible to work in iron ore and steel related activities; and the wage-oriented consumer society that flourished after the war continued the movement away from agriculture in the region. Small farms developed over the previous several decades were abandoned, and today we see those overgrown places all around the area. By the 1950s, larger scale commercial farming began to edge out small scale producers en masse, and regional and international specialization and development created the basis for the global, industrial food system. Corporate farming became an increasing norm, as agriculture become vertically integrated into global food corporations.

Farming in northern Minnesota ebbed steadily given the ever cheapening cost of industrial food produced by externalizing so many of the trust costs of both production and distribution methods. Suburban sprawl began to creep into the richer agricultural lands north of the city. By the mid 1970s, a regional food infrastructure seemed to many outmoded if not already disappeared, and the Northeast Agricultural Station was closed in 1976, signaling a tardy ceremony for the ending of a local food system. And if this dirge wasn’t heard, the small farm crisis of the 1980s drove nails into the proverbial coffin of smaller scale farming in the region, the state and across the country.

In the wake of this industrial onslaught into farming, nascent organizations designed to support small scale sustainable farming and gardening began to appear across the U.S., inspired by the resilient voices of people like Rachel Carson, Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, Barry Commoner and others. Community based gardening in Duluth began to take shape in the late 1970s, and in 1981 the Duluth Community Garden Program was formally founded. Food cooperatives appeared in the 1970s, including Duluth’s Whole Foods Coop. The Land Stewardship project was created in Minnesota in 1982, and in 1988 the Sustainable Farming Association was created. These local and regional organizations have sought to continue a home garden and small scale agriculture practice amid a fast food and industrial agriculture that has systematically de-educated people of food, farming and gardening skills and knowledge. Now that the health, community and ecological bills of the externalizing system of industrial agriculture are coming due in ways they can no longer be ignored, these community and regional organizations resonate with greater authority and importance as we seek to bring their visions from the margins to the center.

To paraphrase the English scholar and activist Stuart Hall, ‘hegemony is hard work’. The hegemony of the global industrial food system is both powerful and rigid: we partake in its reproduction with an unnerving knowledge of its destructive wake.

How can we use this knowledge to build a healthier food system for individuals, communities and the landscape? Looking back on this largely successful early 20th transformation of the Duluth food system, we see some intriguing pathways. They thought big and systemically, they integrated people and organizations across sectors, and they leveraged powers beyond Duluth that had interests in the city. How can we use their story as we wrestle with smart decline from an industrial paradigm with eyes wide open in optimism for the possibilities of a more sustainable future for ourselves and those who will find themselves on these same soils a hundred years hence? In short, how can we work for the ‘permanence’ of Duluth by laying the foundations for a sustainable food system? Time to put our shoulders to the wheel.

Randel Hanson, Ph.D., is a professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, where he is an expert on food systems planning and foodshed analysis. He is a leader in local foods issues in Duluth, convening the Superior Grown Food Summit and chairing the Zeppa Foundation’s Green Jobs Action Planning Committee on Food Localization.

{This article originally appeared on the UMD “Food Systems” blog, and is reprinted by permission of the author.}

3 Comments to “Shoulders to the Wheel”


  1. Shoulders to the Wheel: Laying the Foundations for Sustainable Local Food Systems http://t.co/xPCN6wG

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  2. Appearing today on CounterPunch as well: http://www.counterpunch.org/hanson02112011.html

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