A coalition of utilities that planted a power line through a small organic dairy farm can be forced to buy the whole property, a judge has ruled.

Scott County District Court Judge Caroline Lennon sided with Florence and Dave Minar, who turned to Minnesota's "buy the farm" law when a power line threatened Cedar Summit Farm near New Prague, Minn., billed as the only 100-percent grass-fed organic dairy farm in the region.

State law holds that when utilities want to push through a farm, and would threaten the farm's existence, they must buy the entire tract of land if the farmer wants out.

"It's a way of, to some extent, leveling the playing field," said Paula Maccabee, an attorney for the Minars.

But the companies behind the $2 billion CapX2020 line, which crosses Cedar Summit Farm, argued that the law didn't apply. Their transmission structure would cover less than an acre, they said, and wouldn't have a major impact.

The Minars said otherwise, worrying that a 345,000-volt line would harm their cows and raise questions in customers' minds.

Lennon wrote: "The presence of the [power line] on one portion of the property necessarily affects the entire property which is farmed together for the purpose of producing 100 percent grass-fed organic milk."

The Minars said they're happy Lennon understood their situation.

"People need electricity; we realize this," Florence Minar said. "But it's just a matter of fairness. And if you have to buy a farmer out, give them a fair payment so he can go set up somewhere else without fighting about it, or without telling him he doesn't deserve it."

The CapX2020 firms are currently reviewing the decision and considering next steps, said spokeswoman Lori Buffington. It's not yet clear whether they'll pursue further litigation.

Long process

The Minars, who are both in their 70s, hope the court's decision signals the end of a long fight.

Though they agreed the outcome was worth it, they said the lawsuit was a stressful, labor-intensive process.

"We'd never even gone to court before," Dave Minar said.

They started pushing against the CapX2020 line in the mid-2000s, testifying in favor of an alternate route — one that wouldn't cut across their land. The trouble was, Dave Minar said, no one else wanted it on their land, either.

Julie Schwartz, who owns a dairy farm near Arlington, Minn., with her husband, Dale, also testified against the power line.

"We wish they would've moved it, but they refused to," she said. "So we're stuck in a situation where we don't feel we can stay here."

She said they've been looking for a place to relocate for more than four years. They recently got an offer from the utilities company, but it's not what they were hoping for.

"What they offered us doesn't even come close to rebuilding somewhere," she said.

If the Minars now decide to sell the land, which has an estimated price tag of $1.4 million, the utilities can then resell it to whoever is interested in buying — as with any farm purchased under the law. "That's really up to the market to decide," Maccabee said.

Though the court's decision is a David-and-Goliath win for small farmers, the outcome it offers is bittersweet.

" 'Buy the farm' will continue to be a last resort," Maccabee said. "But this decision is very important because it vindicates the ability of family farmers to use the protections that the Legislature put into the law."

Thom Petersen, director of government relations for the Minnesota Farmers Union, said the decision is good news for other small farmers currently dealing with utilities building on their land. Relocating a farm — especially with livestock — is tough, he said, but "this at least makes it a little more palatable."

The Minars said their plan had always been to hand the farm down to their children. "It's very sad, but there's always change," Florence Minar said. "The world is constantly changing, so we have to adjust to that."

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509