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Sustain Us Scholarship encourages students to pursue ecological farming

Organic beef and lamb farm in Minnesota, Wabasha County. (Submitted photo)

Minnesota is quickly reaching the top of the list for student debt. Sitting at fifth in the nation, students graduate college with an average debt load of around $30,000, with the national average at about $24,000.

In hopes of helping combat this issue, Dag Knudsen and Deirdre Flesche recently introduced their sustainable agriculture and forestry scholarship, a fund out of Rochester aimed towards helping college students and non-traditional students.

This summer, the first two recipients of the scholarship were awarded for their achievements, amounting to a total of $5,750 supplemented from anonymous donors. Allison Harvey from Lake City won $5,000 and Vera Swanson from Rochester won $750. By building a community of people who understand the importance of protecting resources, Knudsen noted, the scholarship will soon hope to make a significant impact and continue to grow over time.

The Rochester Area Foundation houses and administers the scholarship. Knudsen and Flesche started the foundation with an anonymous donation and continue to receive donations from various sources. A few donors include conventional dairy and beef farmers, organic dairy and beef farmers, banks, bankers, city dwellers, farm raised city dwellers and professionals. The current year's funding was supplemented by an anonymous donor.

Knudsen and Flesche are determined to help students further their learning, but they also work towards sending a message. By allocating funds to students pursuing fields that focus on healthy soils, clean, safe water, healthy forests, clean air and pollinators, they hope the program will highlight risk factors and encourage a healthier environment.

The vision and mission for the scholarship outline how the fund will encourage those committed to complete sustainability. It is important to Knudsen and Flesche to clarify on what exactly that means.

Wild flowers bloomed on Dag Knudsen and Deirdre Flesche's farm. (submitted photo)

Complete sustainability

"It is environmentally healthy, better soil, it considers social justice issues, farm labor being paid living wages, not being imported from overseas." said Knudsen.

Defined by Knudsen, being completely sustainable means agricultural and forestry products meet the following criteria:

• Protect and improve natural environment.

• Enhance social and economic conditions of farmers and related operations, employees and local communities.

• Safeguard health and welfare of all farmed and natural species.

Often times, Knudsen stated, people focus too heavily on economic sustainability. The scholarship will bring to light all aspects of sustainability, including social and economic conditions of labor.

With organic and non GMO farming slowly gaining popularity, Knudsen feels it is something we should be more acquainted with, in regards to using less pesticides. From chemicals killing pollinators, polluting water and negatively affecting food supply, the program hopes to help bring an end to this.

"There's an alternative movement that ought to be mainstream, and our goal with the scholarship is to help that alternative movement to spread the word that this isn't right. Let's do something different."

Dag Knudsen and Deirdre Flesche standing together on their farm. (Submitted photo)

Moving forward

Knudsen and Flesche have high hopes for the scholarship as it slowly begins to grow.

"Our short term goal is $100,00, our medium term goal is $250,000. We need contributors to help us reach there. For every $100,000 we can give out a $5,000 scholarship and keep it sustainable."

The couple sends out a quarterly newsletter titled "Sustain Us," which informs readers of the two winners of the scholarship as well as professionals who helped pick out the winners and supplemental information on how to protect our resources.

"We want to contribute to the movement, that's why we focus so much on education." Knudsen said. "We're seeing that people that got rid of chemicals are doing very well."

As a new fund, the couple asks for anyone interested in helping contribute or to sign up for the yearly newsletter to contact them directly at dag//protectourresources.org/. Donations can also be sent to Rochester Area Foundation, 12 Elton Hills Drive NW, Rochester, MN 55901.

Kit Murray

Kit Murray joined Red Wing Republican Eagle in Aug. 2016, covering government, transportation and public safety. She is a graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead with a degree in photojournalism and philosophy. 

(651) 301-7874
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