A $12.3 million surprise gift from a South Dakota farmer and businesswoman is the largest to the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences, U officials announced Thursday.

The gift from the estate of Millicent Atkins also is unrestricted, meaning the college can spend it on anything. Allen Levine, dean of the college, said the money will help fund undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships.

“It’s going to help a lot of people out,” said Katy Nordhagen, a junior studying food systems in urban environments.

Nordhagen, 20, knelt on the ground Thursday at the U’s Cornercopia Student Organic Farm, pulling weeds and spreading wood chips around raspberry plants to prevent weeds.

She is spending the summer interning at the farm 25 hours a week to help pay for school.

“My family has just changed a lot as far as finances go, so college is getting harder for me to pay for,” Nordhagen said as she pushed a wheelbarrow full of wood chips. “And it would mean a lot to get more support from my university.”

Training young professionals is one of the best ways to honor Atkins’ legacy, said Levine, who also announced Thursday that he will step down as dean at the end of August and return to the faculty.

‘A very private person’

Atkins didn’t keep in touch with the school, so the gift came as a “tremendous surprise,” Levine said.

“You work so hard and diligently in raising money for gifts for the university and for your students and your college, and this one we really didn’t do much work to get there.”

Atkins lived most of her life close to Columbia, S.D., a small town northeast of Aberdeen and was an only child who never married and had no children. She died last year at the age of 93.

From 1937 to 1938, Atkins attended — but didn’t graduate from — the U’s School of Agriculture, which at the time was a high school associated with the university. She went on to receive a teaching degree at Northern State University in South Dakota before following her father’s footsteps as a land owner and farm manager.

Stanley Carlson, a friend of Atkins, called her “a very private person” who spent little money on herself. Atkins eventually owned more than 4,100 acres of prime farmland in Brown County, S.D.

“[Farming is] about all she knew,” Carlson said. “Her dad had accumulated a little bit of land, and then Millicent was just that way. She’d get so much money ahead and she’d just buy [more] land.”

One of three beneficiaries

Because it’s unrestricted, the gift could be used for something different in the future. The university is one of three beneficiaries that will receive shares of the trust when it terminates in 2022. Until then each will receive one-third of the trust’s annual income from the land. The other beneficiaries are Northern State University in Aberdeen and the Congregational Church in Columbia.

Caleb Simon, a senior studying horticulture, is also working 25 hours a week at the Cornercopia Student Organic Farm this summer to help pay for school. “Anything helps,” said Simon, 24.

He said Atkins’ gift will give people the opportunity to be more educated and informed about local food and sustainable agriculture.

“I think it says that she believes in what we’re doing here and the research,” he said.