OAKDALE, Minn. (AP) — 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
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 recently told them that 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 told the St. Paul Pioneer
Press. “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
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
“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
There has been a steady decline in the number of farms in
the U.S. 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 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
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
The biggest threat to farmland in Minnesota is urban
development, King said.
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.
A growing number of grass-roots farming operations in
Minnesota are working to buck the trend of large-scale, corporate farms. They
are driven by increasing demand for locally 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,
said Nick Olson, a farmer in Litchfield, 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
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 they would reach their goal to reduce
taxes, Rose Jacobsen said, “We don’t want to sell, but we want to be able to
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
“They overcame a big hurdle going from residential to any
kind of ag classification,” she 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.”
Rose and Harvey Jacobsen bought their property, which they
call Hidden Willow Farm, about 40 years ago to board and train race horses.
It once was 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 one acre, which provided weekly shares for 11
families in their Community Supported Agriculture 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 two acres of the property is wetland, which the
family intends to protect. The goal is to continue to grow their small cash
crops — such as garlic, basil, squash — and to bring in more goats to graze down
“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.”
She 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, 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 always has 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.”
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