BLACKDUCK -- The Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom Program is in the middle of its 2018 Teacher Tours, trips that allow educators to get a first-hand look into the world of agriculture. On July 12, the tour came to Blackduck.

Local farmer Rachel Gray was born and raised on a dairy farm north of Blackduck. She graduated from Blackduck High School and eventually taught school at Blackduck Elementary.  After 15 years of teaching, she made the decision to farm full time and has completed the transition to ownership of her parents’ cow/calf Black Angus operation. In 2017, she became a Regional Curriculum Specialist for Minnesota Ag in the Classroom. She works closely with teachers to promote ag literacy in schools in northern Minnesota. Gray’s Blackduck farm, Little Timber Farms, hosted the tour on July 12.

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The tour included the North Central Ag Research Center, the USDA Cold Hardy Facilities and Little Timber Farms itself. Educators and interested parties had the opportunity to receive resources and participate in hands-on activities and learn interactive ideas for integrating agriculture into their curriculums at any level or subject area of learning.

The state program works to incorporate the many elements that make up agriculture: Food cultivation and technology, the supply chain, processing, chemistry, forestry, history, producers, consumers, ranches, economics, biology, jobs, fruits, grains, vegetable, flowers, soil, family farming, biotech, stem jobs, gardens, careers, crops, social studies, fibers, fabric production, distribution and sustainability, the environment, geography, culture, agribusiness and nutrition, according to officials.

“MAITC is a unique public-private partnership that has state legislative support and meets both Minnesota and federal standards in K-12 education,” Gray said.

The program aims to improve student achievement by applying authentic, agricultural-based content as the context to teach core curriculum concepts in science, social studies, language arts and nutrition.

The guest speaker for the Northern Tour at Little Timber Farms was Amy Mastin from Laporte Public Schools, who received the MAITC’s 2018 Outstanding Teacher Award.

Andrea Vaubel, assistant Minnesota Agricultural Commissioner, said “Mastin is the kind of teacher that exudes excitement about the food, fiber, and fuel systems of agriculture, which helps students get excited about it too.”

Mastin has been teaching in Laporte since 2001. After learning her students had not tried a variety of fruits and vegetables because of the lack of availability, Mastin started a monthly taste test to encourage students to try something new while also teaching the value of fresh foods as part of a healthy lifestyle.

In 2015, Mastin teamed up with colleagues to start Laporte’s first-ever school garden, which consisted of 40 straw bales and donated seeds. Produce was grown and harvested by students and even served at school lunches. The excitement about the school garden quickly spread beyond Laporte Elementary, as community members raised $6,000 to purchase lumber for area high schoolers to design and build raised beds. A multigenerational School Garden Club was also formed, consisting of students, teachers, and community members.

The Northern Minnesota Tour day culminated in a dinner at Little Timber Farms, where the winners of the Minnesota Science of Agriculture Challenge were also recognized.

A teacher’s takeaway

Minnesota teachers are attending the MAITC tours where they can earn continuing education clock hours needed for relicensing or even for college graduate credit. Many teachers have attended the tour stop sessions throughout the state and the northern Minnesota tour was no exception.

Jesse Carey, an English teacher and the robotics coach at Blackduck High School found the tour-day facilities and speakers enlightening.

“It’s gratifying to see that there is so much work being done concerning sustainability. Part of having a healthy community is teaching kids the importance of understanding healthy food sources,” he said.

Carey attended the MAITC program and tour for the continuing education, but also because of his longtime interest in the production of sustainable food and energy. Hearing Mastin’s story and taking time to visit with her, Carey is slowly unveiling his own vision of the future for sustainability in the Blackduck community and surrounding area. For the last two years, Carey has been growing fresh, leafy greens year-round with minimal outside energy sources such as electricity. His hope is to share this process with students and community members by starting an aquaponics growing system facility.

The dream may not be quickly realized, but Carey’s plans have a solid base in research, personal application of the process that has been successful, and the expression of local interest from the few people who are aware of his dream to build a sustainable indoor food production source in Blackduck, and suitable for northern Minnesota that will use very little of traditional power sources. Instead, power sources will be passive solar and geothermal power.

“There’s a lot of set up, but it will be worth it, and there’s a great deal of interest already,” Carey said.

It is also a fairly expensive start up, but to that end, Carey met with Blandin representatives on Tuesday of this week to participate in and apply to the Blandin Community Leadership Fund, which will provide $5,000 for start-up costs to get the project off the ground.

An aquaponics growing system is powered by fish. They create bio-product useful to plant growth. Through the management of the system, the correct level of bacteria colonies created will promote a multi-level sustainable system where the fish fertilize the plants and the plants clean the water for the fish -- and for humans, that means the ability to grow healthy, leafy greens year-round in an environment using sustainable energy, including the fish themselves.

“A lot of research has already been done into food growth and how to sustain healthy food growth in all environments long term,” Carey said. “What I’m talking about would do that -- create a sustainable healthy food source in our community.”

Carey’s vision is an off-campus facility site that will still benefit the school, but also the entire community, where he and others can teach people how to hydroponically grow their own healthy food, but also includes a community garden facility and teaching people about the installation and use of sustainable energy sources as well. There is no time frame currently committed to for the project, but with the support of Blandin and community interest, it is hopeful that there will soon be an aquaponics facility and education center in Blackduck. A variation on, but as equally healthy and exciting an endeavor as Mastin’s community gardens in Laporte. Carey and Mastin are now neighbors and Mastin is transferring to take a teaching position in Kelliher.