A University of Minnesota research farm 45 miles northwest of the Twin Cities may be planting its final set of crops this year after more than four decades of use.

Xcel Energy, which owns the land and has leased it to the U for about $1 a year since 1976, wants to sell the Sand Plain Research Farm near the city of Becker for industrial development.

The plan is opposed by some local farmers and an irrigation association that say the studies done on the 285-acre farm have been valuable, and that the U will be losing an irreplaceable research station if it is forced to relocate.

"To start over in a new location will set some of this research back five years at least," said Alan Peterson, a farmer in the area and president of the Irrigators Association of Minnesota. "It's a shame the university isn't fighting a little harder to keep the farm there."

The farm conducts agricultural and environmental research under both irrigated and nonirrigated systems, and is the only location in the university's system with the type of sandy soil best suited to grow potatoes and other types of crops.

The farm's website lists 20 current researchers who study plant diseases, drought, blueberry breeding, fertilizer management, insect control, nutrient leaching, native prairie restoration and other topics.

University officials have said their goal is to work with Xcel and find a similar amount of land nearby to relocate the farm.

The utility made the decision to try to sell the farm more than a year ago as part of its long-term plans to shutter two of its three coal-fired Sherco power plants in the mid-2020s and replace them with a new natural gas-fired power plant, said Pam Rasmussen, Xcel Energy's senior manager of siting and land rights.

Those changes will reduce the number of Xcel jobs from about 300 to 150, she said, so the utility has been working with the city of Becker and Sherburne County on options for economic development.

"We're going to be looking at selling that land to potential businesses that we hope can bring in and provide capital investment in the area, as well as new jobs for the ­community," Rasmussen said.

There are no interested parties in the land currently, Rasmussen said, but Xcel has identified a different piece of land in the area that it will lease to the U under terms that are still under discussion. The replacement may be larger and may contain some oak savanna landscape, providing opportunities for additional kinds of research, she said.

Xcel owns several thousand acres of land around its trio of Sherco power plants, but the research farm is a prime spot for development, Rasmussen said.

"Due to its proximity to the highway, to railroad services, as well as of course our power plant being right adjacent there, it really is a nice location for people to consider for future growth," she said.

Becker's catalyst

Becker city administrator Greg Pruszinske said the decision to decommission the coal-fired plants has been a catalyst for his city of about 4,700 to think long term about its future. The research farm stands next to Becker's small industrial park, he said, so it makes sense to expand there with existing and new ­businesses.

"We value what the Sand Plain Research Farm has done over the years," Pruszinske said, but the community wants to attract new jobs and tax base. "We'll be able to migrate as a community from a coal-based economy to a more diversified economy."

Malcolm Olson, a farmer in the area, said that moving the research farm is unnecessary, and some projects designed for three- to five-year study periods may need to end prematurely because of the move. Even if the U gets free rent, he said, it will need to spend perhaps millions of dollars to move irrigation equipment, install wells, build fences, and construct pole barns or other structures to house equipment and farm chemicals.

Researchers will also need to get the fields set up and separated for different experiments, Olson said, and establish soil fertility to the levels that they need to conduct research.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's the taxpayer that's going to get hit with this," he said. Since no one has purchased the land yet, he said, maybe Xcel could just donate the farm to the U, or perhaps the university could find the wherewithal to purchase it.

Greg Cuomo, the U's associate dean for research and graduate programs, said he recognizes the economic reasons for closing the Sand Plain farm, and researchers are already beginning preliminary farm work at the replacement site to prepare for moving there over the next year or two.

"Some [research] will be interrupted, but we're working with Xcel to minimize that," he said.

Cuomo said the suggestion that the university purchase the current farm doesn't fit with Xcel's timeline to sell the site fairly soon if possible, or with the U's budget. "We don't have money sitting around to do those things," he said. "We've not really entered into discussion on that."

Xcel has been a good partner for more than 40 years, Cuomo said, and the Sand Plain farm has been critically important because of its soil and the ability to study drought tolerance, water conservation and other issues. The farm also is close enough to the Twin Cities that faculty and graduate students can go back and forth to collect data and still attend classes.

"As long as we can maintain a research site in that general area, on that soil type, that's our goal," he said.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388