Stainability, meet UMore Park

The University’s development plans must take precious farmland into account.

by Lois Braun

In a recent Minnesota Daily article, The University of Minnesota Outreach, Research and Education (UMore) Director Larry Laukka is quoted as saying that he gets the most enjoyment out of âÄúturning a faceless piece of land into a unique, utilized community.âÄù And therein lies the difference between his worldview and mine. In my view, there is no such thing as a âÄúfacelessâÄù piece of land. In developing property, one must always consider what is already there and what will be destroyed by its development. UMore is hardly the âÄúblank piece of paperâÄù Laukka calls it. In the article, I was quoted as saying that there isnâÄôt much good agricultural land (left) at Rosemount. That is because of disturbance by Gopher Ordnance Works. Before the army messed up the soil that was eventually deeded to the University after World War II, most of the area was prime farmland. What is tragic about the UMore Park development plans is that they call for mining gravel from the only land that wasnâÄôt tainted by the munitions plant. University Statewide Strategic Resource Development Vice President Charles Muscoplat states that under the plan, 1,000 acres are being set aside for agricultural research. What he doesnâÄôt say is that these 1,000 are in the part of UMore Park with messed-up soils. I used to have plots in some of these soils and can vouch that they arenâÄôt much good for agriculture. The University should develop that land and leave the good soil for feeding future generations. Good soil takes thousands of years to develop. There is no way that gravel can be removed without significantly damaging it, and food-producing farmland will become even more precious in years to come due to the challenges of population growth, climate change and fossil fuel depletion. Farmland on the urban fringe, such as the land at UMore Park, is even more precious because of its proximity to urban markets. This is especially relevant to fresh produce. About a dozen Hmong farm families currently lease land from UMore to produce food that they sell to Twin Cities farmers markets. The University is sending the completely wrong message to the public about the value of farming and fresh food by pushing these farmers further from their markets. If the University condones the destruction of farmland, how can we expect other landowners on the urban periphery not to also sell out? Good soil is a virtually irreplaceable resource. I believe it is a crime against future generations to squander it. They canâÄôt eat gravel. The destruction of prime farmland is completely at odds with the value of âÄúsustainabilityâÄù that the project purports to support. Many elements of the âÄúsustainableâÄù community that Laukka envisions for UMore Park are laudable. ItâÄôs a good project, but in the wrong place. No matter how well designed it might be, UMore Park will still amount to urban sprawl. True sustainability calls for figuring out how to integrate sustainable design into existing urban communities. We canâÄôt afford to build completely new towns; we have to retrofit what weâÄôve already got. And figuring out how to do that will be a far bigger challenge than building on the relatively blank land at UMore Park. If the University and Larry Laukka truly wish to be leaders in sustainable community development, I suggest they take on that bigger challenge. Lois Braun, University Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics