A historic site in Elk River that retooled its educational gardens into working pandemic victory gardens ended the season with more than 9,000 pounds of food donated to a food shelf.

The Oliver Kelley Farm, a National Historic Landmark and one of 26 sites run by the Minnesota Historical Society, usually teaches about the history of agriculture. But when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the site to visitors, employees revamped the site's garden into another force for good.

The farm closed for the season at the end of October, wrapping up its first partnership with Community Aid of Elk River (CAER), a food shelf that serves about 150 families a week from Elk River, Otsego and Zimmerman.

"We certainly produced more food than I thought," said Anders Mayland, the site manager.

Mayland said the farm will continue the program next spring, donating food grown on its 2-acre plots and will, for the first time, grow lettuce indoors on carts outfitted with growing lights this winter to donate to CAER.

The historic farm was one of several local farms that increased donations of fresh produce to the food shelf this year as a result of the pandemic. CAER received more than 17,000 pounds of donated vegetables and fruit.

"They knew we were in need," said Heather Kliewer, executive director of CAER, adding that families relished the fresh locally grown cucumbers, tomatoes and squash.

She's seeing an uptick in the number of families visiting the food shelf in recent weeks. Statewide, food shelves are seeing double or triple the number of Minnesotans in need during the pandemic.

"It is growing," Kliewer said, adding that donations of food and other coveted items such as toilet paper are needed.

The farm, which will likely reopen to the public next June, was the home of Oliver Kelley. He was the founder of the Grange, a national farming organization. The site reopened to the public for a few days during the summer and fall, one of the few Historical Society sites that has allowed visitors during the pandemic.

Instead of the usual 40,000 visitors a year, the farm drew about 2,000 for the limited five days it was open, though Mayland said the number of visitors on each day was more than a typical day pre-pandemic.

With the sudden steep drop in admission revenue, the Minnesota Historical Society has lost about $3 million during the pandemic and laid off more than 200 employees, more than a third of its staff.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141