The start of our first day at the MARL class VIII session in Duluth couldn’t have been more pleasant.  After 3 months without a MARL session, our cohort was busy reconnecting with each other and meeting spouses and children under the beautiful white pine pavilion at the U of M Cloquet Forestry Center.

In the shade of tall red pines the weather was perfect, and a gentle breeze kept us cool while we officially were introduced to our new Executive Director, Olga Reuvekamp.  It was a short and sweet intro – Olga stated that she was interested in getting to know us one-on-one and kept her introduction short.  Many of us remembered her from her work as the SDARL Program Director when we were in Brookings.  As soon as we began our picnic lunch, she was bouncing around talking to the many families and individual MARL members, something she, and later her husband Wilfried would continue though our sessions.

Julie Johnson, from the Duluth Convention and Visitors Bureau, gave us a brief intro to all the great recreational opportunities for MARL families to participate in.  While the rest of us focused on framing issues and learning about the agricultural and economic workings of the Arrowhead and Iron Range, our spouses and kids had plenty to do.  With thunderheads looming, we set out for our first site visit: the diversified specialty crop farm of Doug and Lois Hoffbauer.

‘Farmer Doug’, as many of the locavores in the Duluth area know him, has quite an operation ranging from flowers to Christmas trees, tomatoes to raspberries, and one of very few inspected on-farm chicken processing centers in the state.

At the very beginning of our farm tour, he introduced us to Bob Olen, an Extension specialist in cold climate horticulture. Bob gave us an overview of the ways Extension works with growers in the Arrowhead to grow marketable crops. One emphasis was how growing competition from big companies like Driscolls Berries have not only brought prices lower but have reduced the special ‘once in a season’ excitement that consumers used to have for specialty crops only available for a limited time.  Kale was really popular last year, Bob and Doug noted, but food ‘fads’ are something that specialty crop farmers have to be acutely aware of.

We then moved on to a presentation by Jesse Hoffbauer, Doug and Lois’s son who handles much of the Christmas tree business.  Many of our cohort were unused to an ag operation where the finished product takes 5-8 years to be marketable.  Many were also interested in the different fertilizers, pH abatements and herbicides needed for successful tree operations.

The next three ‘exhibits’ were the Hoffbauers’ determinate and indeterminate tomato hoophouses; these really give the edge on tomato sales at the 5 different farmers’ markets where Farmer Doug sells.  The challenges, including fusarium rot, soil salinity and the sheer cost of propane heat, not to mention the delicate labor of trellising and harvesting the fruit, was a great example of just how much work goes into growing specialty crops in our challenging climate.

Personally, I was most intrigued by Lois’s peonies.  With many perishible flowers in florist’s shops these days being flown in from Columbia and Ecuador as well as Florida and California, Market vendors can often sell flowers at a price less than what is charged for long-stem roses and other traditional bouquets. They can also make a produce stand stand out and attract customers.

Lois is able to harvest her peonies at the ‘marshmallow’ stage (before the bud has blossomed) and keep them in cold storage for over a month!  Then, according to demand, she can then force a bloom on the day of sale, mixing with other flowers that bloom later in the season.

By the time we made it to the last peony field, the rain had set in, sadly taking a little of the excitement out of the tour.  It certainly didn’t dampen the excitement of Lucie Amundsen, the self-proclaimed marketing ‘chick’ from Locally Laid, a Northern Minnesota egg producer using non-GMO, locally sourced feeds and free-range practices.

Lucie was full of excitement as she spoke about community engagement and branding strategies for small agribusiness.  For some of our cohort who deal strictly in commodities, it was merely interesting.  For others who grow or create a product unique to their farm, it was an inspiration.

We high-tailed it to our hotel from Farmer Doug’s as the rain kept coming.  In my opinion, I believe we should have had a mandated waterslide session at the Edgewater Hotel’s water-park.  What better way to learn about leadership?

After a few minutes to dry off from the rain and check in, our cohort separated from our families and spent the next several hours looking at framing issues and conflicts.  Looking at ways to step back and objectively assess the facts, feelings and values connected to a singular problem gave us a tool to add perspective – and to move forward in a well-thought-out manner.

Of particular help were the connections between elements of action in a conflict, like the meaning, mission, power, structure, resources of an organization, and the phrases that helped translate our feelings about a situation into something more concrete.  As usual, there were some very personal and important conflicts shared within our groups (the Emotional Intelligence discussion groups comprised of 4-6 people), all the more helpful to better understand where our cohort members are coming from.

Like usual, our session seemed to end with lots more discussion than we had time for.  Guess it’s better than sitting around in silence.

We set off on our own to have supper; some went to the Fitgers Brewery Complex, others to the New Scenic Cafe (the rumors are true – it was 1/2 price wine bottle night).  Others sampled Indian cuisine unavailable in most of our rural home-towns.

It was a great day to reconnect with our cohort and to build the bonds for our upcoming trip to… oh wait, that’s not my secret to share, is it?

Dutifully noted,

Jesse Davis


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