Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Even a homesteader needs to get out of the woods sometimes

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Having lived as a backwoods homesteader for the past 32 years, I figured there wasn’t much I didn’t already know about the lifestyle. But there’s always something new to learn, and that was part of the reason my wife Jodi and I headed to Orr last Saturday to check out the Homesteading and Sustainable Living Expo at the new ORR Center.

Homesteaders know there’s a reward every time you plant a seed, and the event certainly planted a few in my mind. And apparently I’m not alone, since the turnout was amazing. Hundreds of people from across the state paid the $15 gate admission ($10 in advance) to enter and learn a few new ideas and find a little inspiration. When we pulled in a little before noon on Saturday, the school parking lot was full and cars were lined up for blocks along Hwy. 23 in downtown Orr. This was a relatively new concept for such an event, at least in Minnesota, and the turnout demonstrated the high level of interest in the subject.

For me, the most inspiring part was my interview with Wendy Purdy, who has been the driver behind everything that’s been happening at the ORR Center. We’ve previously described their plans and goals as ambitious, but that’s an understatement. If all goes as planned, over the next few years, Purdy and her small army of volunteers are going to convert the former school building into something totally unique, not only in Minnesota, but probably in the country. Their plans aren’t just ambitious, they’re audacious!

By the summer of 2018, they plan to be operating the first-ever youth camp focused on sustainable living concepts. Sure, they’ll offer the usual fun recreational activities of most youth camps, but with a real educational component, including learning about local food production systems, one of my favorite topics.

I was most intrigued by the center’s plans to establish aquaponics in the center basement. It’s a form of food production that’s thousands of years old, but it’s just now coming back into vogue as people are increasingly exploring ways to grow large amounts of food on little land and with minimal use of resources. In a world that is increasingly overrun with humans, where climate change and the destruction of our oceans threatens our very survival, systems like aquaponics offer a potential alternative to our current carbon-intensive and environmentally-harmful forms of industrial agriculture.

I’m certainly no expert on the subject, but the concept is simple to understand. Aquaponics includes the raising of fish and fruits and vegetables, using the fish waste to fertilize the plants. It all happens in a series of tanks, one for the fish, one that filters the nutrient-rich water than drains from the fish tanks, and another that grows produce as the cleaned, but still nutrient-laden water is slowly pumped through a growing medium. There are many different systems out there, and the average handy do-it-yourselfer can easily set up their own system, in the backyard, in a greenhouse, or in the basement.

Wendy said they’ll start small at the ORR Center, with a single small unit, or “pod” and expand as they learn more about the technique. It takes a bit of experience to make sure everything balances out, but once you get the hang of it, the potential is nearly limitless. With several pods, you could easily harvest a continual, year-round supply of fresh fish (tilapia is the most common, but many species, including yellow perch, work just fine) as well as veggies, ranging from lettuce and other greens, to tomatoes, green beans, or even potatoes and other root crops.

Because it can easily be done indoors, it’s a food production system that can work well even here in the North Country.

Wendy’s group isn’t the only one locally that’s interested in aquaponics. A group in Ely has also touted the system as a possible repurposing for a portion of the community center there.

After talking to Wendy, I came home and got online, where it seems there’s an endless supply of information and videos on the subject.

I had heard about aquaponics before talking to Wendy, but her explanation of it made me take a second look, and now I’m excited about the possibilities as well. The seed, once planted, starts to take root.

But what’s most exciting is that the ORR Center will be bringing hundreds of young people to the facility every year, where they’ll be able to learn about such sustainable systems themselves. We’re leaving our next generation a world that is, quite frankly, a mess, and they’re going to need concepts like aquaponics to sustain themselves for the long run.

It’s not just food production, of course. It’s also about economic development as well. There are good jobs in local food production, after all.

And don’t think such systems are pie in the sky. The University of Minnesota-Duluth has operated a 9,000-square-foot aquaponics system for a number of years. It’s known as Victus Farm and you can check it out online for more information, including a useful Youtube video tour of the place.

The success has prompted Mesabi and Rainy River community colleges to work towards incorporating aquaponics technology into their curriculum. Now that’s a class I’d like to take!

I guess it goes to show that sometimes even us homesteaders need to get out of the backwoods and learn something new. When you plant the seed, you never know what’s going to grow.

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