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The Growers Series: David Abazs on Building Viable Food Systems and Farming with Clean Energy in the Arrowhead

Feb 27, 2024 09:53AM ● By Content Editor
All photos provided.

Kimberly J. Soenen for Boreal Community Media - February 27, 2024

Editor's note on The Growers Series: This is an ongoing series of interviews and stories with Cook County farmers, growers, and food producers. Find the first interview in the series with Sadie Sigford, owner of Cut Face Cuttings here.

KS: What is your role with the University of Minnesota and what initiatives and grant opportunities are you overseeing now that will help growers in the Arrowhead region?

DA: For the last five years, I have been working for the University of Minnesota as the Executive Director of the Northeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (RSDP). Our mission is to bring together communities around University knowledge and resources to drive sustainability in four focus areas: agriculture and food systems, clean energy, natural resources, and resilient communities.

We support local projects through regional boards made up of community members and University faculty and staff. We also support multi-region food systems work across Greater Minnesota, and provide energy programming through Clean Energy Resource Teams.

KS: What is it like in Finland, Minnesota and why do you choose to live and farm there?

DA: Finland is a small, rural town, just inland from Lake Superior. It was established by Finnish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, on land that the Dakota, then the Chippewa people lived in and still live in today. Most of those early European descent residents came from the mines in northern Michigan with dreams of owning their own farm and home.

Through the United States government's “Homestead Act,” they were deeded the land if they cleared half of the acres and established a farm, built a house, and permanently settled on the land. In those days the farming community was established with over 100 farms. Back then, Finland farmers found themselves exporting cream, growing food for themselves, and developing side income. 

Eventually, the iron ore mines came in, and schools and businesses were opening up. The economy shifted to where there were plenty of remnant homesteads still on the landscape, but little farming was present.

On the homestead we have settled on, the original inhabitants supplemented their income by catching and selling wolves and bears to zoos, or so the story goes.

KS: Where are your roots and what is your path to farming here?

DA: Originally, I was from New York and my partner, Lise, was from Minnesota. At an early age, neither of us lived in farming families, but we both wanted to farm as adults. Before and after we were married, we worked on farms around the world, including Switzerland, The Netherlands, India, and Sri Lanka. Then, during our six-month-long honeymoon, we lived at a high desert seed and research farm at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. This was our final stop before we settled in Maine, where there was a well-established small farm movement and we had arranged to caretake an abandoned homestead.

KS: What brought you back to Minnesota after all of that international self-education?

DA: Lise eventually began feeling pangs of homesickness for the Midwest. Though it completely changed our plans, we moved to Finland where the land, water, and climate are very similar to Maine. We began homesteading our 40 acres in 1988 and named our farm “Round River” to emphasize the circular nature of sustainable systems. We have tried to live true to this by how we get our energy–from the sun and wind–and how we use our waste–as compost and greywater.


KS: How large is the farm now?

DA: Over the years, hard labor and many helping hands created this homestead and growing farm, which covers 135 acres. We designed our farm based on the natural systems we observed, creating a circular system using the resources provided by our northern environment: sun, wind, water, wood, and stone. We intensively managed about one acre of tilled crops, including four high tunnels. Several more acres are in fruit and nut orchards, along with pasture for our livestock and summer forage for our honeybees and free-range chickens. 

KS: What type of growing and Health Literacy work do you do with Tribal Leaders and Grand Portage growers?

DA: Over the years I have worked to some degree with the agriculture staff at Grand Portage and Fond du Lac on various agricultural and food projects. More recently we have started to work with the Fond du Lac forester through our new “climate-smart” tree seedling Farm and Forest Growers Cooperative, which my role in the Northeast RSDP has helped to develop. 28 farmers will be planting seedlings this spring for The Nature Conservancy, Soil Water Conservation Districts (SWCD), and some for Fond du Lac. Additional conversations have been happening between myself and the Grand Portage forestry staff on them possibly growing seedlings as well.

KS: Where can Cook County, Lake County, and visitors to the North Shore find more information about the work you do and efforts to strengthen the circular economy and local food systems here?

DA: Visit our team at the Northeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (RSDP) or you can always catch me around the county and in Finland!

Additional Resources for Growers and New Farmers in the Region

The North Shore Farmers listserv is for local farmers to contact each other about ideas, opportunities, events, and questions. If you would like to be added to this community list contact Sarah Waddle [email protected]

Sustag listserv: Statewide listserv from the Minnesota Institute of Sustainable Agriculture that includes announcements, job postings, and grower information.

Mill City Farmers Market grants provide money to farmers statewide for equipment and upgrades. Applications are due March 1, 2024.

The Head to the Kitchen Workshop is for people interested in starting or growing a food business including cottage foods, value-added products, products of the farm, and wholesale food.

Farmers can become seedling growers for assisted forest migration. Contact David at [email protected] or call/text (218) 940-2196 to learn more.

Sustainable Farming Community Leadership

Ryan Clark

Minnesota Ag Water Quality Certification Program

[email protected]

Emily Derke

Grand Portage Community Garden Agricultural Coordinator

Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa


Shaun Hainey

Northspan Consultant and Northland Connection Program Manger

Duluth, Minnesota

Phone (218) 481-7737 Extension 18

[email protected]


Cindy Hale

University of Minnesota Extension Food Safety

[email protected]


Jenny Heck

Minnesota Department of Agriculture grant programs for beginning farmers

 [email protected]

Sarah Waddle

Cook County Extension Educator and Community Center Director

University of Minnesota Extension

Grand Marais, Minnesota

Phone (218) 387-3015  

[email protected] 

Nick Wharton

Northwoods Food Project

Grand Marais, Minnesota

[email protected] 


About the writer:

Kimberly J. Soenen writes from Grand Marais, Minnesota and Chicago. She specializes in the health humanities, healthcare and Public Health.

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