It is the $10.5 million question now facing the 19th-century Oliver H. Kelley Farm: How now, 21st-century cow?
The Kelley farm in Elk River, long maintained as a living history site by the Minnesota Historical Society, will receive $10.5 million to increase the size of its visitor center, adding a teaching kitchen, more classroom space and workshops, said Bob Quist, the site manager. But to truly understand the future of this working farm that dates to the 1860s, you have to look to the animals that have grazed on it, sustained it and continue to mesmerize every visitor — even the occasional reporter who is asked to pitch manure while two four-week-old lambs rub against his ankles and a cow looks up, apparently in approval.
Yes, it’s the cows that hold the answer.
“We could have a modern dairy cow with all her amazing genetics and production capabilities juxtaposed with our 19th-century version of a cow,” Quist said.
“In the 1860s, any cow was a dairy cow,” Quist continued. “Now we have animals that are amazing in their genetics and reproduction. If you look at, say, a tractor, your mind tells you there’s a lot of engineering in that. It’s the same thing with animals. Farmers have been working with animals to meet the needs of consumers.”
It’s one of many lessons that Quist hopes the revitalized facilities at the Kelley farm will teach.
Farming up to the 1880s was “catch as catch can,” Quist said. By the 1920s, the genetic revolution and major advances in technology pushed farming into new playing fields.
As farming changes, so does the audience that visits the Kelley farm. And that has necessitated changes in the farm’s interpretive programs for visitors.
“Our interpretive program keeps evolving because our audience keeps changing,” Quist said. “People have less and less experience with farm animals and crops.
“It’s hard to talk about milk production and cattle and management if our audience doesn’t have the basic understanding that to produce milk, a cow has to get pregnant.
“That was a given 20 years ago — that people knew that. But as more and more people are further removed from any kind of farm, there’s less connection to it.”
The current visitors center includes an exhibit created 30 years ago. But to better understand and appreciate history, the farm’s exhibits need to be brought up to date, Quist said.
The recently granted funding should enhance a workspace that currently provides limited office and storage space for staff members. Classroom and lunchroom spaces also have been cramped. Long restroom lines have cut into teachers’ time.
The funding is expected to allow the exhibition and public program space to possibly triple in size. The Kelley farm plans call for a teaching kitchen, community meeting room, museum store, engaging classrooms and modern restrooms.
This isn’t just kid stuff, Quist said. Workshops will be held in the teaching kitchen.
“We can do one on canning,” he said. “Bring beans from your garden and we’ll teach you how to can them. We’ve got the pressure cooker system. You don’t have to buy one for $170 that you’ll use once a year. You can come to a workshop here.
“While you cook down your tomatoes for making sauce, you can go for a tour of the farm.”
Quist foresees activities such as making breakfast for your child or grandchild.
“You’re demystifying healthy eating, healthy cooking and adding a great bonding experience,” he said.
“In a classroom, we might do something with carrots. The class could make carrot cake, carrot muffins or carrot slaw. It’s the story of agriculture. We do grow carrots in Minnesota and now all of the sudden, kids are trying carrot slaw for the first time — and liking it.”
Updated technology — including Internet access and video conference sessions — will bring the farm’s programs to schools across Minnesota. The lessons of farm-to-table can be delivered instantly from Thief River Falls to Zumbro Falls in a click.
“We’re bringing the great unknown,” Quist said. “When you’re closer to these experiences and you look and see a cow or go visit a farm, the chances of that interaction and awareness will be greater.
“Farmers are amazing. The farmers we have left in this state are some of the best you’ll find anywhere and from any era. These are the best and brightest we’ve had. They’re educated. They know how to market. They’ve mastered technology.
“Minnesotans need to know where their food comes from,” Quist said. “This is where it starts.”