Bob and Bonnie Dehn didn’t plan on being farmers. He was a mailman, she worked in finance, and they just wanted to own some land to build a house and grow flowers to sell at the local farmers market.

When Bob was diagnosed with cancer in 1979 they started Dehn’s Garden, a family farm in Andover where they could grow and harvest vegetables and herbs to support themselves in case he took a turn for the worse. Now they want to retire, but they’re struggling to find buyers who will continue the 105-acre operation. Their two daughters don’t want to do it, and the offers they’ve entertained have fizzled out.

The Dehns’ situation illustrates the strains faced by family farms in the metro area, from the difficulty of finding farmers who can afford to buy and maintain large operations to preserving a rural lifestyle in a sprawling suburban area.

Bob Dehn said the process has been disheartening.

“It does create that loss of control,” he said, looking at a map of his property posted on the wall of a farm storage building. “We always thought we always would be able to control what happens, and we can’t.”

No easy answers

Sellers hoping to secure a future for their farms have some options. They can connect with buyers through websites that list properties including Minnesota Farm Link, created by the state Agriculture Department to bring retiring and new farmers together. Landowners, including the Dehns, aren’t always aware of such matchmaking programs.

Another option the Dehns have considered is a conservation easement. Groups like the Minnesota Land Trust and the Land Stewardship Project may acquire the land to prevent development.

One problem is that land prices often are prohibitive for young farmers. Bonnie Dehn said land in the area has been selling for $20,000 to $30,000 per acre.

Teresa Opheim, who researches farm transfers and edited a book on farm succession in the Midwest, said it’s also difficult for retiring farmers to find buyers who share their values. “It’s a lot like a marriage,” she said. “It just takes a lot of work and back-and-forth to see if that’s a viable succession option.”

The amount of available agricultural land for those looking to buy in Anoka County is shrinking. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture census, the county had 42,575 acres of cropland in 2002, a number that dipped 10 years later to 32,950.

Jan Joannides, executive director of Renewing the Countryside, a nonprofit that works to support rural communities and farmers, said her organization is working with others this fall to create a “farmers access hub” ­— a support network for farmers looking to buy and sell that may include a type of land trust. She said suburban farmers face special challenges, such as insufficient zoning and neighbors who complain about the sounds and smells of a farm.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all,” Joannides said.

Memories will last

After Bob recovered from cancer, the farm operation blossomed and the couple wound up selling their produce to nearly 700 restaurants and grocery stores, shipping it as far as Iceland.

Bonnie Dehn said the offers they received last year didn’t work for the surrounding community. “We have to be fair to ourselves, fair to the community and fair to the family,” she said.

Still, they don’t want to put their property on the market for fear it will be snapped up by someone seeking to develop it — including the Andover city officials who have already approached them. They plan first to give it a year or so to find other buyers and gauge whether a conservation easement might work.

As their college-aged workers and grandkids carried fresh sage to a nearby freezer, the Dehns talked about the toll that the long hours had taken. But they said it was all worth it, recalling years with friends at the farmers market and the time spent raising their family on the farm: the bonfires, the cross-country skiing, the constant laughter.

“The memories will be with us for a long time,” Bonnie Dehn said. “When we retire, those don’t.”


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