Protecting a natural legacy

Eden Prairie / Minnetonka, Minnesota
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A bit of Eden amid the asphalt

July 10, 2002 Star Tribune

Just 20 minutes from downtown Minneapolis is a
5-acre pocket of green. It's a 99-year old working farm,
and the owner intends to protect it from development.

by Peg Meier
Star Tribune Staff Writer

Exit the freeway, drive down suburban streets, notice all the modern houses and multicar garages. Then, surprise. Suddenly it's country. Not the beginning of country. Just a speck of country -- farmland, actually -- smack dab in the part of northwestern Eden Prairie that was developed in the 1970s.

It's a sweet little farm that looks pretty much the way it did 99 years ago, when the Frank Picha family settled there. The 1903 house, made of rough-sawn timber, is still there, tilting a bit. A piece of original woods survives. The barn, built a few years after the house, no longer shelters cattle, but it still stands. Back then, Frank used horses to plow but later switched to a tractor, a late '40s model.. It still works fine, most of the time.

The place still smells of country, too -- woodsy here, whiffs of farm fields there. In early summer, four greenhouses have more scents than a perfume counter -- earthy tomato plants, peppery marigolds, piquant thyme. Overall, the farms smells as green as it looks. Terry Picha, Frank's 54-year-old great-grandson, has hung on to 5 of the original 80 acres at 6649 Birch Island Rd. He uses the land to grow flowers and vegetables, much of which he and his family sell at the Minneapolis Farmers Market on weekends. (You can find the Pichas at stands 221 and 223.)

Because he owns the greenhouse business and a landscape contracting company (both run out of the small farm), plus other farms farther from the city, Picha can shake his head no to the big check he could easily get by selling to developers. "Money isn't everything," he said. "This place has sentimental value to the family. We figure, why should we have to sell something we like so much?" He wants not only to hang on to the 5 acres, but also to restore the farm to what it was like in the early 1900s. He said, "So many people living in the metro area have no idea how agriculture was run then, or even today."

Helped save woods

Picha is accomplished at preserving land. He was one of the leaders of an effort by Eden Prairie residents to set aside the 32-acre Birch Island Woods, right next to his farm. It's now an Eden Prairie park. A trail through it follows an 1881 railroad roadbed. Decades of benign neglect allowed the handscrabble sanctuary of trees and wetlands to survive in one of the most rapidly developing parts of Hennepin County. With the transfer to the city, the park no longer faces threats of development.

"We're not against development," Picha said. "But it doesn't have to happen all over." Another hunk of nearby land, the old Glen Lake tuberculosis sanitarium, didn't become the site of new condominiums, as once planned, but is now the Glen Lake Golf Course. All of it together -- Terry Picha's land, a plot that belongs to his uncle, the park, the golf course and a camp for disabled children -- forms a swath of green land in northern Eden Prairie and Minnetonka. "The farm is worth a fortune, but we'd lose our heritage and the chance for a living-history farm in Eden Prairie," Picha said. "Eden Prairie didn't preserve our past as well as a lot of places did."

The metro area already has at least two living history farms: the Oliver H. Kelley Farm near Elk River, owned by the Minnesota Historical Society, and the Gibbs Museum of Pioneer and Dakotah Life in Falcon Heights, owned by the Ramsey County Historical Society.
Picha doesn't envision anything as grand for his place, at least not immediately. He wants to finance and run it privately. He doesn't rule out asking for government funding at some point, but for now, he thinks he can do it himself.

Jeff Strate of Eden Prairie, another leader in the successful fight to save the Birch Island Woods, said he thinks Picha can do it. "Terry is a farmer with the experience and knowledge to keep his farm going as a business," he said. "It's not the major family income, and he makes enough money off that little patch to keep it going. "Many of us feel it's a real community resource. The farm is one of several important historic sites in the Birch Island Woods area. It would be so nice to have a working farm in the neighborhood, letting kids in Eden Prairie and Minnetonka have a connection to nature and to see how food is produced."

Raspberries galore

The Picha family came from Bohemia in 1862. Frank Picha bought the plot in 1903 and raised wheat. His son, George, grew vegetables and raspberries. George was selling produce at the Minneapolis Farmers Market the day it opened in 1938, and the Pichas have sold there ever since.

By the 1950s, George's sons, Harry and Albert, were well known for their raspberries. As many as 75 workers handpicked the berries. Raspberry production in Eden Prairie, Hopkins and Minnetonka began to wane in the early 1960s as suburbia proliferated. (The Hopkins Raspberry Festival, which began in 1934, is still celebrated; it's July 11 to 21 this year.)

Terry Picha grew up in a 1912 farmhouse that stands near the 1903 house. Of the original 80 acres, Harry Picha, Terry's father, sold 75 in 1969. The selling price was $180,000, about what a townhouse sells for now in the neighborhood. Sewers and water were needed for the encroaching suburb, and the resulting property assessments forced the sale, Terry Picha said.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the farm next year, he's planting vintage and heirloom plants to sell the week before Mother's Day. He loves old-fashioned nasturtiums, hollyhocks and roses. He grows 10 varieties of summer squash and 15 kinds of tomatoes.

An 11-year college-level teacher of landscape technology, Picha quit when the little farm needed him full time. He has developed a morning glory hybrid that's a royal purple with a red vein; it is undergoing trials with a seed company in Illinois. Because modern American varieties of raspberries are subject to root rot, he's trying rows of varieties from Canada, England and Italy, plus an old U.S. type. Altogether, he's got almost 5,000 plants on a little more than 2 acres of fields. "I just think kids would like to see this," he said.

send comments to Peg Meier at
pmeier@startribune.com

Copyright 2002, Star Tribune
(Minneapolis, St. Paul)

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