Written by Jonathan Eisenthal
Over the past twenty years, a half million visitors have toured the living museum of Minnesota’s farming past at the Oliver Kelley Farm in Elk River. Thanks to its newly opened visitor center, those who visit will now also learn about Minnesota’s agricultural present and future.
The new facility, which officially opened for the 2017 season in early May, includes indoor exhibits, versatile spaces that can be converted into classrooms or community meeting rooms, and a learning kitchen. Construction officially began in 2015.
Steve Elliott, director and CEO of the Minnesota Historical Society, which owns the Kelley Farm, said the new visitor center will increase school visitation by 50 percent over the next five years.
With the expansion, the Kelley Farm can now accommodate as many as 400 students. Elliott also believes the farm’s proximity to the Twin Cities will bring more people interested in learning about modern farming and agriculture.
“This expansion is only possible because of the broad support we have had to do this work,” Ellitott said.
Making the expansion possible was a $10.5 million appropriation from the state and more than $4 million in gifts from private donors and organizations like the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA).
“This is absolutely a natural fit for MCGA,” says Jean Knakmuhs, who serves on the MCGA board. “Public outreach is one of our main priorities, and we felt that this is a great vehicle for bringing information and the experiences of farming to the Twin Cities area.”
One of the new educational displays in the visitors center includes a bright red simulator booth, shaped like today’s enclosed tractors, giving kids (and adults, too) the experience of driving a modern combine.
“We’ve got a number of generations now that are removed from farming and agriculture. They don’t have the context to compare things to,” says Adam Birr, executive director of MCGA. “It’s critical to the mission of the Oliver Kelley Farm, to bring visitors a hands-on experience of agriculture present and future, and this new facility does that.”
Ownership of the Oliver Kelley Farm was transferred to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1961, with it becoming an official historic site in 1981. Since that time the 1860s farmhouse, barn and outbuildings have operated as a farm, producing livestock and crops every year of its existence in the same manner farmers did more than 150 years ago. It is one of only a few dozen places in Minnesota that have been designated a National Historic Landmark.