Minnesota small farms face challenges

Farm Forum

Tucked between clusters of houses and an Oakdale nature preserve, there’s a family with a small farm and big ideas.

Rose and Harvey Jacobsen, with their granddaughter Alissa Jacobsen, have been working tirelessly for the past two years to convert their 15 acres into a working farm.

They’ve come up against a few hurdles — acres consumed by buckthorn, unpredictable weather, the learning curve of setting up a new business — but none was as challenging as trying to get their land classified as an agricultural homestead to cut their property taxes in half.

It’s a change they say they needed to keep growing organic produce.

The family regularly met with a Washington County assessor to go over what was needed to satisfy the agricultural homestead classification.

They weren’t sure if they would hit the mark by the Jan. 2 deadline (for taxes payable in 2015), but the assessor told them on Dec. 12 they’d done it.

“I think the big thing, because now we’ll have a tax break, we’ll really be able to fix things up and make it more of a business,” Rose Jacobsen said. “We’ll probably pump it all back into the farm. We’ll have better crops, better fencing, and it just reassures my family that all this work was worth it.”

And there was a lot of work. The family invested thousands of hours clearing buckthorn, making structural repairs, tilling land and doing whatever the assessor said needed to be done to be considered a true agricultural operation.

There were times they felt frustrated and at the mercy of the assessor.

The process had the family wondering why it’s so difficult to do something that seems so righteous.

But the Jacobsens have allies.

The Land Stewardship Project, a Minnesota nonprofit that promotes sustainable farming, keeps a thumb on the pulse of all things agriculture and aims to influence policies that can help small and beginning farmers like the Jacobsens.

“There is a bias in most of our programs against people trying to earn a living off a small acreage. In some people’s minds, that’s not a farm.

But it is,” said Bobby King, the Land Stewardship Project’s state policy organizer. “Right now at the Legislature there’s just not an interest from enough legislators to seriously grapple with the issue. …The idea of how to help beginning farmers and protect farmland is not being taken seriously, and it should be.”

Slight uptick

There has been a steady decline in the number of farms in the United States since World War II, but the 2007 Census of Agriculture (the most recent data available) showed a slight increase, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The new farms tend to be small or very large, while the number of midsized farms (180 acres to 2,000 acres) declined.

Minnesota farm trends mirror the national ones.

Since 1978, the total amount of farmland in Minnesota has declined by more than 1 million acres.

In Washington County, agricultural land shrank from 80 percent of the county’s landscape in 1970 to less than 50 percent in 2010. At the same time, residential properties increased from 7 percent of land to 20 percent.

The biggest threat to farmland in Minnesota is urban development, according to King.

And the Jacobsen farm, which sits in the center of Oakdale, a fast-growing St. Paul suburb, is a good example of what’s at stake.

“In Minnesota, we really don’t have a state plan on how we’re going to preserve farmland,” King said, noting that other states have created financial incentives to do so.

There are a growing number of grassroots farming operations in Minnesota working to buck the trend of large-scale, corporate farms. They are driven by increasing demand for local and sustainably produced food.

But it’s an uphill battle.

The profit margins remain small for small-scale farmers, who are running their businesses and marketing on top of working the land each day, according to Nick Olson, a farmer in Litchfield, Minn., and program organizer for the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings Program.

Two of the biggest barriers are access to capital and access to land, Olson said.

“Farmland is currently very expensive in Minnesota,” Olson said. “There are just lots of incentives for big farms to continue to get bigger, which squeezes out smaller farmers and makes it more difficult to get land.”

An incentive that could make a big difference for small operators like the Jacobsens is the tax break that comes with certain agriculture classifications and programs.

The taxes on the Jacobsen farm have more than doubled since 2009, when the property was reclassified as residential and removed from the state’s Green Acres program — a program designed to promote agriculture and land preservation with tax breaks.

As she fretted whether or not they would reach their goal to reduce taxes, Rose Jacobsen said, “We don’t want to sell, but we want to be able to afford it.”

Jennifer Wagenius, who heads Washington County’s property tax department, said the assessor who ultimately determined the property’s classification is highly trained and put a lot of time into reviewing the property and working with the family.

She said it was never his, or the county’s, intention to stand in the family’s way.

“What we’re charged with is making sure we apply the laws of the state for everybody, so that taxes are distributed the way the Legislature intended,” Wagenius said. “The benefit they’re receiving (through a tax cut) is absorbed by other taxpayers in the taxing district.”

She called the Jacobsens’ situation — reverting to agricultural land in an urban area — atypical and commended them for their efforts.

“They overcame a big hurdle going from residential to any kind of ag classification,” Wagenius said. “There’s a lot of work to be done, and they’ve really been working on that diligently this year.”

Though frustrating and exhausting, the Jacobsens’ work to reach the agricultural classification was important.

Alissa Jacobsen said the financial piece is a crucial one, no matter how idyllic the organic farm plan may be.

“To be truly sustainable, which is really what we’re talking about, a huge piece that is often overlooked by people who are mission-driven is economics,” she said. “Our margin shrinks to almost nothing after taxes. Really, it’s not an economically viable operation unless we have that agricultural subsidy. But it’s not just about the money. It’s about being recognized and appreciated for doing something that’s good for our community.”

Once 400 acres

Rose and Harvey Jacobsen bought their property, which they call Hidden Willow Farm, about 40 years ago to board and train race horses.

It was once part of a 400-acre farm that dated back to the 1800s. Now it’s surrounded by houses and businesses, except for a swath of Oakdale Park to the north.

At the peak of their operation, the Jacobsens had 40 horses.

They now have two boarding horses, three goats and a chicken. During the last market season, they had 25 laying hens and grew produce and flowers on 1 acre, which provided weekly shares for 11 families in their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

Over the past two summers, the family has logged thousands of hours clearing and tilling the land. Buckthorn had taken over much of the property that wasn’t used for the horse operation, and that unusable land counted against the agriculture classification.

More than 2 acres of the property is wetland, which the family intends to protect.

The goal is to continue to grow their small cash crops, like garlic, basil and squash, and to bring in more goats to graze down the buckthorn.

“And I also want to become more involved in education,” Alissa Jacobsen said. “I want to give kids an idea that potatoes come from the ground and eggs come from hens and to give them that hands-on access.”

Alissa Jacobsen was inspired to convert Hidden Willow to a working farm after working on a similar project at the University of Minnesota-Morris, where she majored in environmental studies.

“I lived a summer in Morris when I had a house and my only job was gardening,” she said. “I thought, ‘It can’t get any better than this. This is how I want to live my life.’ “

After graduating in May 2012, Alissa Jacobsen moved back to Oakdale and lives full time at the farm with her grandparents. She’s also a violinist and moonlights as a music teacher, band member and music store employee.

Rose and Harvey Jacobsen said they never resisted their granddaughter’s vision for the farm.

“It was a great idea. I always wanted to grow more food,” said Rose Jacobsen, who has always gardened. “We needed to use this property.”

Rose Jacobsen called Alissa Jacobsen her “comrade” and said she’s invigorated the farm and the family with her “new energy and new ideas.”

The family remains committed to its vision — despite the challenges they’ve faced or those yet to come.

“We’re passionate about what we’re doing,” Alissa Jacobsen said. “We’ve been here for 40 years; we want to be here for another 40 years.”