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Local View: Our 'altered planet,' community focus of UMD Farm event Sunday

This is the logo for the UMD Farm Fest scheduled this weekend. It was created by Joellyn Rock.

Over the past two years, I've been collaborating with faculty across the University of Minnesota Duluth campus, exploring how the Anthropocene changes the way we research, teach, and engage our broader community.

The Anthropocene refers to the newly proposed epoch by the International Union of Geological Sciences, recognizing the growing human impact on the Earth. These scientists argue that the human transformation of the natural environment over the past 70 years has altered the planet at fundamentally biological, chemical, and, indeed, geological scales.

The upshot is that we have left the Holocene and its "goldilocks" conditions for humans over the last 12,000 years since the last Ice Age, during which time our species developed agriculture and other aspects of "civilization." We have entered an unpredictable Anthropocene.

We see signs all around us of this altered planet, including the increased frequency of strange and violent weather, seasonal weirdness, broken weather records, invasive species, disappearing wildlife, and climate refugees. We might argue about the details, but the realities of a changing planet are here. And we see worsening conditions for our children and grandchildren.

The Anthropocene concept points to these profound changes to life on Earth. It's also a message that we need to reduce the ecological impact of the human infrastructures that deliver us food, water, energy, transportation, and housing. And we need to adapt these infrastructures to be resilient in an era of rapid social and ecological change.

In a phrase, we need to become more sustainable. Doing so requires technical expertise; but perhaps more so, it requires a bottom-up approach of helping people understand these changes and taking action to respond to them.

As director of the UMD Land Lab, I engage food and agricultural systems, a central concern in the Anthropocene given that this sector produces almost a third of all greenhouse gases.

The UMD Land Lab is a 21st-century landscape-scale classroom for sustainability that asks: How do we engage people and communities in collaboration, debate, and social interaction around reducing the ecological footprint of agriculture, producing healthier food with expanded access, and creating jobs for our region? Addressing such questions requires the full breadth of our creativity in science, humanities and the arts.

At the heart of our work at the UMD Land Lab is our collaboration with UMD Dining Services, providing more than 20 tons of organically grown produce from the farm. Integrating academics and operations, this collaboration serves as a testing ground for how institutional food systems can adapt personnel, equipment, and facilities to support a more sustainable campus. How can we model this for other institutions?

In this classroom, students can eat their homework. Indeed, more than 1,000 students from all parts of campus and beyond annually use the UMD Land Lab, gaining experiential education that supplements their classroom studies of sustainability. We facilitate many collaborations that bring community to campus and visa versa to engage these issues. And we host research projects focused on how food, water, energy, and biodiversity can be sustainably integrated.

We also stage an annual celebration of our campus efforts, and we extend an invitation to our broader community to join us. This event features food harvested from the farm and prepared by UMD Dining Services. Also offered are tours of the organically managed landscape, kids' activities connected to sustainability themes, and a farmers market. And you can learn about a host of topics from campus and community representatives highlighting sustainability activities.

This year, thanks to support from the Institute for Advanced Study, we are featuring artist-in-residence Jim Ouray with the Magic Smelt Puppet Troupe, producing the original community pageant, "What is an Onion?" This 20-minute pageant integrates giant puppetry and crowd-sourced performers and is accompanied by the Boardwalk Brass Band. There's also art-making with art professors and students.

Join us for some serious fun on Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. at the UMD Farm, 3568 Riley Road.

Randel Hanson

Randel Hanson is co-director of the Program in Environment and Sustainability and is director of the University of Minnesota Duluth Land Lab. He also is the 2017-18 endowed chairman in agricultural systems with the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.

If you go

  • What: UMD Farm Fest
  • When: Noon-4 p.m. Sunday
  • Where: 3568 Riley Road, Duluth
  • Activities include: An all-day farmers market, kids' activities all day, a farm buffet from noon to 2 p.m., the Magic Smelt Puppet Theater at 2 p.m., and the Boardwalk Brass Band from 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Tickets: The event is free and open to the public with proceeds supporting the UMD Farm
  • Parking: Free, but biking and carpooling are encouraged
  • Volunteers: Anyone interested can contact Randel Hanson at
  • More online: