Thanks to renovation efforts stretching back nearly two decades and investments of more than $14.5 million, the historic Oliver Kelley Farm near Elk River is ready to tell agriculture’s story beginning in the 1850s and continuing through today.
More than 1,800 visitors, plus 250 invited guests, toured the grounds during the farm’s recent grand reopening. Renovations on the northeast corner of the 189-acre site include a spacious new visitors center that houses community and educational rooms, a gleaming stainless-steel teaching kitchen and a retail store. A short walk away are a new four-season shelter to serve as lunch space for school groups and for community rental, and a new guest animal shelter to temporarily house animals brought by area farmers for modern ag education programs. A new maintenance building and new maintenance barn also are located nearby.
The weekend event kicked off with a breakfast reception held in the visitors center. Stephen Elliott, CEO of the Minnesota Historical Society, which owns the farm, thanked the guests for their longtime support and generous contributions.
“This has been a long journey,” he said. “We’ve had many champions along the way … What you see here is nonpartisan work. Everyone recognizes the importance of history in our lives and in our world.”
The Minnesota Legislature approved $10.5 million in 2014 for the project, and more than $4 million came from private donors, farm groups and other stakeholders. Construction began in 2015. The farm remained open to the public during the entire renovation process.
The Kelley farm is a unique experience for visitors as they step back in time and experience 1850s farm life throughout the seasons, complete with participating in chores — plowing with a team of horses, feeding livestock, harvesting garden produce and field crops, stripping sorghum, baking cookies in a wood stove, hand-stitching a quilt on a large wooden frame.
This state historical jewel came close to shutting its doors in 2003 when lawmakers made major cuts in MHS funds, forcing the closure of several state historical sites, including the Kelley farm. Oliver Kelley (1826-1913) is credited with being one of the founders of the National Grange, the first agricultural organization in the United States.
Elliott and other speakers acknowledged the dedication of Kelley farm staff, particularly site manager Bob Quist, program director Ann Bercher, facilities manager Dave Schipper and program staff that have worked there over the years. Kudos also were given to a local citizens group, Friends of the Kelley Farm, which was formed after state cuts were announced. The group worked to raise money to preserve and support the farm’s operation and educational mission.
Given the farm’s location northwest of the Twin Cities, Elliott expects the farm’s attendance to increase by 50% over the next few years. Currently, the farm welcomes more than 30,000-plus visitors per year, half of whom are schoolchildren on field trips.
“We have three overreaching themes here at the Kelley farm,” Elliott said. “One is that consumers need to know where their food comes from. Second, agriculture is more than farming — it’s innovation and advancing technology. And third, that we need more highly qualified and educated people to enter agriculture — from engineers to biochemists to food service professionals.”
Visit the MHS Oliver Kelley Farm website to learn more about the Kelley farm.