Development is nipping at the borders of Ray Loftus’ hobby farm, one of Savage’s last remnants of country living.
And soon it will swallow the land whole: Loftus and his siblings are preparing to sell the final piece of property that has been in his family for 158 years, since just before the Civil War.
“It’s getting too expensive to hang on to,” Loftus, 63, said of the farm, on which he pays about $20,000 in annual property taxes. “It’ll be painful, but I think it’s time.”
The homestead, located at the intersection of County Road 42 and Dakota Avenue, once spanned 600 acres but has slowly dwindled as family members sold off parcels. What’s left is 15 acres of green space and wetlands and a weathered 1950s-era barn and farmhouse. The Loftus family members plan to list it for roughly $2.2 million.
For suburban farmers, deciding how long to hold out in the face of encroaching development is a common dilemma. Though 15 percent of the seven-county metro area remains agricultural, pockets of farmland are shrinking and will continue to do so in the coming decades.
About 22 percent of Scott County was still farmed in 2016, according to the Metropolitan Council. In Savage, that number was pegged closer to 1.5 percent — and is projected to disappear by 2030. Today, just 130 acres of agricultural land remain in town.
Suburban farmers often reach a tipping point when local resources and suppliers they depend on become scarce, said Brian DeVore, of the Land Stewardship Project, a Minneapolis-based sustainable agriculture nonprofit. Daily challenges range from neighbors unhappy with the sounds and smells of farm work to zoning disputes and increased taxes.
Over time, the quiet road outside the Loftus’ farm stopped being so quiet. As the family sold off parts of the land, wheat fields gave way to townhouses and commercial districts. Now Ray and his wife, Julie, worry about their eight remaining cattle getting loose on the busy highway.
“Before, we never had to put up with honking horns and ambulances zipping by us all day long,” Julie Loftus said. “If you want to keep that kind of lifestyle, you’re going to have to move.”
Loftus’ great-grandfather, Thomas, an illiterate Irish immigrant, resettled his family in modern-day Savage on 160 acres he acquired from a War of 1812 widow. The original paper deed, dated 1860 and signed by President James Buchanan, was passed down four generations along with the land.
Ray Loftus, then a recent University of Minnesota graduate, took over the dairy farm operations in 1983 after a stint as a nutritionist for Land O’Lakes. “This sort of work just gets in your blood,” he said.
But trouble was on the horizon for the Loftus farm, which found itself piling on debt.
Savage officials struck a deal in 1980 to buy 3 acres of the farm to build a water tower, which Loftus said resulted in a special assessment on the property in addition to real estate taxes. The sale prompted a zoning change from rural to urban, which opened the door to higher land valuations and therefore higher taxes.
The Loftus family was then hit with the assessment — $500,000, which came with an annual interest rate of 8 percent. By 1987, Loftus said, his parents owed upward of $1 million.
One at a time, relatives sold off plots of land to keep up with the increased tax burden, and commercial development began encircling the farm. “The debt was kind of overwhelming,” he said. “Selling out is your only option.”
By 1996, without enough pasture to maintain dairy production, Loftus said he was forced to get rid of the cows. Today, a Hy-Vee has replaced the wheat field where Loftus had carved out a baseball diamond for his three kids. A Life Time fitness center, Kwik Trip gas station and Goodwill outlet all sit on former Loftus land.
But the Loftus family has also faced challenges in marketing their property. When Abdallah Candies wanted to build a chocolate factory on the farm’s remaining acreage, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources halted the lucrative sale to protect adjacent wetlands.
DNR officials told Loftus, who co-owns the property with his five siblings, that one of the ponds couldn’t be touched because its water flows into the Mississippi River, so the candy-maker moved to Apple Valley instead. City officials say they’d consider selling back some of the property it acquired from the family during the water tower deal to make it easier to build around the wetland.
Further complicating matters, the triangular-shaped parcel lacks a city water and sewer hookup, said former City Administrator Barry Stock. “So it’s not an easy site to develop, but it’s such a strategic location that it is going to sell,” he said. “Many people are surprised it’s still a farm.”
Still, it will be tough for the Loftuses to part with the land. Sometimes they find notes outside their door thanking them for preserving the farm — proof, Julie Loftus said, that others in the city of 30,000 are saddened at the possibility of losing part of the community’s history.
Over the years, admirers have dropped off tokens like a cow cookie jar and a framed painting of the homestead. Passersby regularly stop with children to snap photos of the Hereford calves.
“People like seeing the cattle there,” said Savage Mayor Janet Williams, who was raised on a nearby farm. “It’s just nostalgic to drive by and see [the livestock] in the midst of all the development.”
A group of residents has petitioned to turn the Loftus property into a city-owned “living farm,” but Williams said that wouldn’t be economically viable. And Loftus is reluctant to pour cash into the dilapidated dairy barn and his childhood home because he knows they will likely be razed.
The couple plan to retire to a family lake home near Milltown, Wis., which has 10 acres of open land to putter around on. Julie Loftus is urging her husband to move the cattle and his heavy equipment there.
“I’m hoping to re-create that farm life for him,” she said. “The Irishman in him just doesn’t want to let it go. ... The money doesn’t replace the memories.”