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Inventorying, Managing and Preserving Agricultural Historic Landscapes in Minnesota
Prepared by BRW, Inc.
June 1999

Farmhouse near Nerstrand


Table of Contents

  1. Introduction and Project Background

  2. How to Identify, Evaluate and Manage Historic Landscapes

  3. Planning for Historic Agricultural Landscapes

  4. Directions for Further Research and Activity

    Case Studies

    References

    Images

Funding for this project has been approved by the Minnesota Legislature, 1997 Laws, Ch. 216, Sec. 15, Subd. 5 (b) as recommended by the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources from the Minnesota Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund.

1. Introduction and Project Background

Minnesota's history rests, in large measure, on its rural foundations, especially its agricultural heritage. Throughout the state, farm landscapes -- whether the broad open plains of the Red River valley or the more intimate forested valleys of the Minnesota River -- tell a rich, compelling story of hard work, community spirit and fertile production since the mid 1800s. The patterns in these landscapes made by roads, tracks, shelterbelts and woodlots, and the sites of towns and farmsteads, reveal the hard-won achievements of generations of settlers as they adapted to and used a land of lakes and rivers, rolling hills, forests and tallgrass prairies.

The best of these landscapes are vivid historical documents -- mosaics in which all our activities are embedded. They assuage our nostalgia for the past, remind us collectively of where we have been, and help to create a sense of place.

Today there is a growing awareness among Minnesotans that this rural agricultural heritage is worthy of acknowledgment and protection. Yet its landscape is fast disappearing as non-farm land uses, and changes in agricultural technologies and practices, create a new visual record on the landscape.

Already in place for the recognition of important historic resources is the National Register of Historic Places, the nation's official list of properties deemed worthy of preservation. The Register was established by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. It is maintained by the National Park Service in the Department of Interior and is administered by the State Historic Preservation Office in each state. Minnesota has nearly 1,500 properties listed on the Register. Properties that are included on the National Register of Historic Places meet criteria set by the National Park Service. The purpose of the National Register is to recognize the nation's most important cultural resources and encourage their preservation.

The National Register recognizes a variety of historic properties including buildings, sites, objects, structures, and districts. Cultural landscapes are among the types of properties recognized. Properties may be significant to local, state, or national history and may be listed in the Register for their association with significant persons, events, or patterns in history, for their architectural, engineering significance, or because they may yield important information about our prehistory and history.

This report provides an introduction to historic landscapes, specifically agricultural historic landscapes in Minnesota. It provides a basic summary of the state of cultural landscape studies, a method for identifying and inventorying significant historic landscapes throughout the state, and a discussion of the tools and resources that are -- or could be -- available for their protection.

The report is one product of a two-year study of agricultural historic landscapes, undertaken by the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) of the Minnesota Historical in 1998-99. With funding from the Minnesota Legislature as recommended by the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCMR), the SHPO launched a pilot project designed to identify intact agricultural historic landscapes within the Rochester-St. Cloud growth corridor, and to develop strategies to protect them. The region between Rochester and St. Cloud, the fastest-growing in the state, still contains vast expanses of agricultural land, some of which still retain many of their natural and cultural features. During the next few decades, however, this area is likely to experience new development pressures that could alter its rural character forever.

During the first phase of the study, historians Mead and Hunt, of Madison, Wisconsin, identified four geographic areas as potentially historic. These areas included portions of southern Stearns County, northwest Hennepin County, western Carver County and Goodhue County. Of these, the study areas in Carver and Goodhue were selected for further survey and documentation. Only the Nansen area, comprising the southern portion of the Sogn Valley, showed continued historical land use and landscape features that have changed relatively little from its early settlement period. The project's second phase involved historical research and preparation of a draft National Register nomination document for the Nansen district.

The consulting firm BRW, Inc. completed the project's third phase which developed two historic landscapes management plans, one specific plan for the Nansen district and one more general plan for use throughout the state. This work began with an assessment of issues facing landowners in the district today, including development pressures and changes in the agricultural economy. During this phase the consultants also developed strategies that would address some of these issues, with the overarching goal of recognizing and protecting the district's significant historic landscape and cultural features. An accompanying report, entitled Managing a Working Landscape: A Protection Strategy for the Nansen Agricultural Historic District, Goodhue County, MN, summarizes the significant features of this district and outlines protection measures that can be implemented by landowners and local officials. This report is intended for use throughout the state by those who have an interest in identifying, managing, and protecting agricultural historic landscapes.

Concurrent with this study, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) is conducting a study of historic Minnesota farms. The goal of that study is to provide in-depth studies of historic farming in three regions in Minnesota and provide a base of information for the development of guidelines and criteria for the consistent and integrated evaluation of standing, archaeological, and landscape features on rural historic agricultural sites. The study should help to provide a context and structure for future identification of agricultural historic landscapes in Minnesota.

Threats to Agriculture and the Rural Landscape

Rural Minnesota is threatened. An economy that once supported the majority of Minnesotans now houses only a small percentage. Once picturesque and prosperous wheat, dairy and other farm regions are now in serious economic trouble because of development pressure, major changes in farm subsidies, demand and supply from global markets, and consolidation of farms. Subsequent declines in farm-related businesses are causing not only a loss of jobs but migration of the population to metropolitan centers for better, more stable opportunities. Traditional farm and small town landscapes are being abandoned or neglected.

In addition to the land itself, other natural resources, including forests, wetlands, rivers, and lakeshores are being damaged or degraded by inappropriate development and overuse. Poor conservation practices related to animals, soils, stream vegetation, and clearing of fencerows and shelterbelts, are creating a landscape that is lacking in historic landmarks, visually derelict, and biologically unhealthy.

In a workshop of state agency representatives and nonprofit organizations hosted by the SHPO in April, 1999, several conditions affecting historic and modern agricultural landscapes were identified as critical to their continued existence. (Chapter 4 includes a summary of the workshop results.) They included:

  • Changes in agricultural economies and scales
  • Development pressure, especially in farm areas surrounding metropolitan centers
  • Competition for farm markets
  • Lack of significant cash incentives to continue farming,
  • Consolidation of farm ownership
  • Poor understanding of the family farm and its cultural importance to the state.
Farmers, environmentalists and preservationists are now beginning to recognize that the loss of agricultural land means the loss of critical local economies and important natural resources, as well as one of Minnesota's most significant cultural landscapes. Citizens are beginning to understand the need for active protection and management of these areas for the long term.

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