Big changes afoot at Shepard farm in Cottage Grove

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Community gardens, beehives and trails will be available at the historic Shepard farm as early as this spring.

The Dodge Nature Center plans to celebrate its 50th anniversary by expanding operations and opportunities at its Cottage Grove site.

The Shepard farm on 70th Street — known by locals as "green acres" — will undergo some big changes over the next few years, but will manage to keep much of the same appearance.

The Dodge Nature Center has been operating in West St. Paul and Mendota Heights for 50 years, and acquired the Cottage Grove land in 2013. They have been developing ways to provide environmental education at this location since then, and will be bringing some of their ideas to fruition this spring.

"We've definitely got some things in mind," executive director Jason Sanders said. "We also don't want to do everything the same (as our other sites)."

Chad Dayton, who is contracting with Dodge Nature Center as they develop this site, said they initially will concentrate on the southern end of the property. Community gardens just off 70th Street will be their first endeavor at the Shepard farm.

"We're introducing Cottage Grove to Dodge Nature Center, and that's (through) the community gardens," Sanders said.

Dayton said beehives for rent could also be available this summer, and that they also want to finish some of the trail loops in the wooded area this summer.

"We're going to work on those woods trails, open them up," Sanders said.

They don't plan much cutting among the trees beyond some invasive species and buckthorn removal.

One of the only construction projects they expect to complete on the grounds will be installing a driveway, parking lot and bathrooms, which Sanders said will be key to moving forward. Once those improvements are complete, they will be able to offer more environmental education opportunities, including school groups on field trips.

They're shooting for mid- to late-summer to complete those improvements.

The rest of their plans are a little more undefined, and they plan to hold open houses and speak with the community garden users to get feedback from residents.

Shepard's land

Roger and Katherine Shepard bought 140 acres of rural Cottage Grove property in 1920 and commissioned architect Thomas Gannett Holyoke to design the farm house and other farm buildings for the St. Paul natives to use as a summer estate.

Their daughter Constance Shepard-Otis later inherited the property, and wanted to keep her parents' vision for the estate alive. She entered it into a conservation easement with the Minnesota Land Trust that places certain conditions on the property, such as limited construction, demolition and woodland clearing.

Shepard-Otis also gifted the property to the Wilder Foundation in the late-1990s, around the same time the estate was placed on Cottage Grove's historic register. In 2012, they found they had no use for the land and reached out to Dodge Nature Center to take it over.

"We're not coming in here and knocking it down — we can't and we won't — because that's not what we're about," Sanders said. "With surrounding farms being developed, this will be a permanent footprint."

Four years after acquiring the land, Dodge Nature Center applied for a permit that would allow indoor and outdoor education, beekeeping, community gardens, livestock and farm animals, cropland, public trails or environmental education pre-school.

"When all's said and done ... we want a full working model farm," Sanders said. "Hopefully someday you'll see horse running around out here, some sheep and some goats."

They plan to leave the exteriors of the farm buildings intact, but greatly renovating their interiors to allow for public restrooms, preschool classrooms or environmental education centers.

"We're going to respect this historical feature here," Sanders said.

Sanders said it will be a unique experience for many suburban kids.

"(The site has) 100 year old plus trees ... and the animals they don't see every day," he said.

Their proposal is expected at the city council meeting April 19.