Pine River Learning Hub Begins to Reimagine Landscape

Could the Pine River watershed produce food in a way that doesn’t cause pollutants to run off into the lakes? Could farmers find a way to make a living and have a sustainable work-life balance? Would lakefront homeowners support locally produced grassfed beef? These and more questions came up June 3 at the Visions for Pine River event.

Molisa McCoy (bottom left), Chris Glassman (top left), Jim Brandt (top right), and Anna Cates (bottom right) take notes on what they would add to the Pine River’s “Story of Now.”

Grassland 2.0’s newest Learning Hub is located in the lakes region of central Minnesota. Learning Hubs are places where folks come together to envision the future of their own communities and discuss pathways for reaching their shared goals. There are four Learning Hubs active in the upper Midwest, with more coming online. This initial Pine River Learning Hub meeting marked the community’s first step towards Collaborative Landscape Design.

Who was in the room? Farmers, local politicians, business owners, lake association members, non-profit leaders, and more. The conversation was sparked by the results of interviews conducted in the Pine River area over the past few months by John Strauser, research scientist with Grassland 2.0, and Jim Chamberlin, conservation technician at Happy Dancing Turtle, a local nonprofit.

In the interviews, a geographical division became apparent: Highway 371, which runs north to south through the center of the watershed. Chamberlin, a local community organizer for more than a decade, described the east side of the highway as a robust lakes region with a “pretty affluent community,” and the west, along the south fork of Pine River, as farm country with a “somewhat depressed economic picture.”

The Pine River’s “Story of Now” consists of the distilled themes from a few dozen interviews conducted in the area. After discussion in a small group, Dan Brennan reports which themes his group resonated with.

On this sunny Saturday at the Pine River American Legion, participants of the Pine River Learning Hub from both sides of the highway came together to find common ground. Participants agreed that there is a need to understand each other better, especially when planning changes in land use that affect the whole community.  Some participants shared their struggle with consumers not knowing where their food comes from or understanding the demands on farmers. Others acknowledged that lakefront homeowners help boost the local economy and keep small towns alive.

“It’s so much easier to point a finger when you don’t understand what someone is doing,” says Crow Wing County Commissioner Jon Lubke.

Participants arrived at a shared desire for more local gathering places, a need for large animal veterinarians, and a dream of farmers having more time to engage with their community, among other topics.

Development of local markets emerged as a ripe opportunity. Abe Hollister with Hollister Family Farm said he needs a secure market for his beef in order to earn a steady income from the farm. Tyler Seeman, lead butcher at The Pine River Family Market, said he sees demand for local ground beef and wants to add it to his meat case.

Chamberlin sees the health of the Pine River region tied to the natural bodies of water that shape it. Replacing corn and soybean cropping systems with more managed grazing is one way of mitigating water quality concerns.

“What’s unique about this region is that we still have good water quality,” says Chamberlin. “A lot of the other rural areas don’t have that. Water quality declines tend to happen over a long period of time, and you don’t really notice it until it’s too late or very expensive to fix.”

Some participants were surprised to learn that lakes elsewhere have become so polluted that they are not swimmable during much of the summer. The people of the Pine River Learning Hub are preparing to take steps to ensure that is not their community’s fate.

People of the Pine River Learning Hub enjoy dinner and a farm tour at Brakstad Natural Farm.

Visions for Pine River wasn’t all work. Lance and Robyn Bragstad of Brakstad Natural Farm hosted a cookout and farm tour over the weekend. Some participants also enjoyed visiting We Are Water MN, a project that engages Minnesotans with the state’s water through personal stories, historical content, and scientific information.

“I revel in the fact that we brought all of these different people together…and it’s working,” says Chris Glassmann, Campus Chef with Happy Dancing Turtle. “We are all on the same side. We all want the same things.”

The conversations of the Pine River Learning Hub could mark a pivotal moment in the community converging on a shared vision. Chamberlin’s hope is that the process of envisioning at the Pine River Learning Hub will raise awareness among consumers and water quality advocates that grass-based livestock production and a supportive local supply chain could make a difference.

Bonnie Buchanan and Lexi Schank (left to right), who help develop Grassland 2.0’s modeling tools, enjoy the natural beauty of the Pine River area.

The next steps for the Pine River Learning Hub are to continue the community dialogue and to build out a supply chain to support local producers and businesses. Strauser will speak at the Harvest Dinner August 25, hosted by the Cass County Farm Bureau in partnership with the Whitefish Area Property Owners Association. The next Pine River Learning Hub meeting will be held this fall with the aim of debuting Grassland 2.0’s modeling tools, built specifically for the Pine River watershed. The modeling tools will allow participants to look at a range of land use alternatives and their ecological and economic outcomes.

“We need to start somewhere; coming together is a good start. We have to keep coming together to create community,” says livestock producer Moe McCoy.

The invitation to join is broad! Anyone with an interest in the future of the Pine River watershed is welcome to join us for the next Pine River Learning Hub gathering.

For more information, contact John Strauser at