As a flock of geese honked overhead, ReNee Hanson and other historic interpreters gratefully swapped out the petticoats and heavy dresses of their 19th-century costumes for pants and shirts to pick eggplants and cucumbers and unearth enormous carrots on a recent breezy fall-like morning.
The past and urgent needs of the present have collided rather usefully this summer at the Oliver Kelley Farm in Elk River, a National Historic Landmark and part of the Minnesota Historical Society. Most years, about 40,000 visitors troop through the farm, getting a glimpse of agriculture in the 1860s. But when COVID-19 hit, the Historical Society closed its 26 sites, then retooled the Kelley Farm's vegetable plots into a working pandemic victory garden.
Since June, the farm has harvested nearly 7,000 pounds of food, all donated to a local food shelf to feed a growing number of Minnesotans struggling to afford groceries.
Pre-pandemic, the Kelley Farm cultivated root vegetables typically harvested in the 1800s, such as parsnips. Much of the food was then fed to cows and other farm animals. Last year, site leaders discussed donating the food to a nonprofit instead. Once the pandemic hit, the crew replaced the historic crops with vegetables more appealing to modern diners — from tomatoes, lettuce and kale to beans and zucchini.
Six miles away, Heather Kliewer expected the Kelley Farm to drop off a small shipment, not 1,000 pounds a week in produce. Her food shelf, Community Aid of Elk River (CAER), sets it all out in a farmers market for families to pick up along with a box of nonperishable items.
"They have had a bumper crop," Kliewer said.
The farm's 2-acre gardens provide more than half of the fresh produce the food shelf distributes each week to 150 families, many turning to a food shelf for the first time.
"We're just so grateful that we have the opportunity to give families fresh stuff, not just [from the] grocery store with the stickers on, it's this fresh farm-grown really good stuff," she said. "That's what families want."
More than 150 years ago, the farm was the home of Oliver Hudson Kelley, the founder of the Grange, the first national farming organization. The site has been part of the Minnesota Historical Society since 1961.
For the dozen employees at the farm, the gardens are a way to give back and also pivot their work after closing to visitors in March. Anders Mayland, the site manager, said he hopes the partnership with the food shelf will continue, even post-pandemic.
"At many points in history, people have come together to support one another in times of hardship," he said. "We're just doing the best we can to do something that's helpful for our local community."
The farm has reopened to the public as a historic site on a few Saturdays instead of the usual five days a week. It will be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sept. 19, Oct. 10 and Oct. 24. It's among seven sites the Historical Society has reopened, with the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul and the retail store at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum in Onamia opening next, on Oct. 1.
Shutting down its sites and shifting content online during the pandemic has cost the nonprofit Historical Society about $3 million since March, forcing layoffs of more than 200 employees — more than a third of its staff. About 19% of the nonprofit's revenue comes from admission fees, program fees and other services that have been sidelined. State funding totals 61% of its $65 million budget.
Being open on limited days means the Kelley Farm will draw just a sliver of the visitors it would attract in a normal year. But the first day it was open, 400 people visited — about 75% more than on a pre-pandemic day. Mayland said that may be because it's among the few places families can visit during the pandemic.
"There was a lot of pent-up up interest in getting outdoors, and families are really looking for something to do," Mayland said. "This is a tremendously different year."
The pandemic has spurred a revival in victory gardens, mimicking efforts that sprouted during World War I and World War II.
"There are probably a lot of new COVID gardeners," said Hanson, the interpreter, as she picked heirloom tomatoes popular in the 19th century, which are smaller than varieties sold now in most grocery stores. "People have never seen a tomato like this."
Once the season wanes in October, the 189-acre farm will close to visitors for the winter, as it does each year. CAER, like other food shelves, will purchase vegetables from food banks and "rescue" produce from grocery stores that would otherwise be discarded. Kliewer said it's just not the same as the freshly grown local food they've enjoyed this summer.
"The history of gardening is the history of Minnesota," added Mary Challman, the program specialist at the farm. "To be part of that legacy is such a special thing — and using that legacy to support our community today, it was really a no-brainer."