At a glance, it’s hard to spot Charlie Fischbach’s corn stand from the road. And for the last several months, it’s been even harder to get there.
A curb now separates Fischbach from his sweet-corn fields in the northwest corner of Brooklyn Park — a 6-inch irritation he’s been hopping over in his truck.
Hemmed in by highways and a new road, his slice of land is the last farmer-owned parcel in town. And the curb, he says, is just the latest challenge that he and his family have faced from encroaching developments and road projects over the years.
“The city has just been crunching us from all sides,” Fischbach said. “We’re landlocked now.”
For farmers in the suburbs, deciding how long to hold on is a common struggle. A sizable chunk of the metro remains agricultural, but if history is any guide, these islands of farmland will shrink in the coming decades. About 30 percent of the seven-county metro was still farmed in 2010, according to the Metropolitan Council. In Hennepin County, that number was closer to 12 percent, and is projected to dwindle to just under 6 percent by 2030.
As suburban farming becomes scarcer, so too do the local resources and suppliers farmers once relied on, said Brian DeVore, of the Land Stewardship Project, a sustainable agriculture nonprofit. Daily challenges range from neighbors unhappy with the smells and noises of farm work to trouble navigating tractors on roads now serving suburban traffic.
For more than two decades, Fischbach has grown sweet corn on land once farmed by his father and grandfather. But piece by piece, what was once about an 80-acre spread has gradually been whittled down to about 6.5 acres.
Crews demolished the family farmhouse and barns in 2013 to make room for an interchange at 93rd Avenue (County Road 30) and Hwy. 169. City officials say the project remedied a dangerous intersection that once ranked in the state’s top 10 for crashes, with 65 crashes recorded from 2007 to 2009, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
“It was addressing a huge safety issue for the city,” City Manager Jay Stroebel said.
But losing the farmhouse to eminent domain was a tough blow, Fischbach said, especially for his mother, Nellie Fischbach, who lived there for more than 60 years. At the time of her forced relocation, Nellie Fischbach was a blind, 92-year-old double amputee. She died in March 2015.
The city paid about $1.8 million, plus interest, for the 4.28-acre parcel with the homestead and barns. But the two parties went to court over Nellie’s replacement house, where a judge decided earlier this year that the city doesn’t owe more than it has already paid for her housing, other than about $5,000 in incidental fees. The family is appealing.
Ongoing disputes between the city and the Fischbach family also include relocation expenses for Charlie Fischbach’s corn business, which shifted from the east side of Hwy. 169 to his remaining 6.5 acres on the west side.
Since the move, the business has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in income, said Juli Fischbach, Charlie’s wife.
City officials say they’re trying to be fair to the family while also being judicious with taxpayer money.
“The city believes that we’ve been fair to the Fischbachs,” Stroebel said.
But the family says it has endured indignities along the way, including current barriers to their land. This summer, Fischbach sold his corn at Osseo Meat Market & Deli after customers had trouble getting their cars through a dirt road to his stand, he said.
Then, the completion of Decatur Drive this fall brought with it a curb without a driveway for Fischbach’s vehicles. A curb cut may not arrive until next spring or early summer, depending on what development goes in nearby, said City Engineer Jesse Struve.
Eventually, that developer will be on the hook to make sure there’s access to the Fischbach’s parcel, officials said.
Meanwhile, the family has another beef.
“We’re being taxed out of our property,” Juli Fischbach said.
The Fischbachs’ acreage used to qualify for the state’s Green Acres program, which gives tax breaks for agricultural land. But the city says the size of the current parcel doesn’t meet the program’s minimum 10-acre threshold. It’s a stance Juli Fischbach said they’re willing to fight in court.
Green Acres aside, the property’s valuation also been set “higher than it should have been” due to factors like it being landlocked, said Marvin Anderson, the city assessor. That valuation is under review by the city.
Like many suburban farms, the Fischbach land has been tangled up in road development for decades.
The state acquired a chunk of land from the family more than 40 years ago for a highway project and moved the farmhouse about 500 feet to do so. That was when Brooklyn Park, which has largely developed from south to north, still boasted sprawling potato fields.
The family of nine initially had to climb a ladder to get into the relocated house, which sat 10 feet in the air on concrete blocks. Nellie Fischbach, who was pregnant at the time, told the local newspaper, “It’s not exactly a picnic.”
Then, Nellie Fischbach sold another parcel about 20 years ago because she couldn’t afford the assessment when the city water and sewer came through. Authorities acquired more Fischbach acreage for work related to Hwy. 610 before the most recent project involving the interchange at Hwy. 169 and 93rd Avenue.
“We knew it was coming,” Juli Fischbach said of the various land acquisitions. “We weren’t fighting that part of it. We’re not trying to get rich. We just want to recoup what’s been lost in the process.”
For Charlie Fischbach, dwindling profits from the move and the financial drain of seemingly endless litigation with the city have made the future uncertain. He’s been leasing additional acres to grow sweet corn for the last several years, most recently from a nearby state-owned parcel. It takes about 15 acres total to run the stand, he said.
Now, that land might also be redeveloped, with the city currently negotiating its purchase.
Charlie Fischbach, 54, said he knows his family’s century-old farm won’t be around forever. He wants to retire eventually, and his kids aren’t interested in farming. In the meantime, he said, he’ll hold out as long as he can.
“Keep farming — that’s my main goal,” Fischbach said. “I would love to farm the rest of my life.”