Photo by Steven J. Gaertner/Fotolia
In the twilight, you can’t see the bullet holes in the weather vane atop the old red barn. The rubble that was the silo becomes a shadowy mound. The muddy pit where the farmhouse was pulled apart and burned becomes a singles bar for fireflies.
Katrina and John Hannemann of St. Louis Park can’t get enough of this place, which they’ve dubbed Gatherhaus, an old farm returning to nature outside of Bruno, about 1.5 hours north of the Twin Cities. They had driven by it in their search for a rural family getaway—and kept driving. But then it was foreclosed on. They got it cheap—87 acres for $60,000—and started making plans.
The urge to claim a piece of nature is understandable—no one is making more of it and what’s left is increasingly inaccessible. Minnesota’s newest state park, which opened beside Lake Vermilion in 2010, was the first in more than 30 years. Next door in Wisconsin, the Republican-controlled DNR is selling off public land. In just the last few years, some 12,000 acres of pine forests in northern Minnesota have been churned into potato fields to make McDonald’s French fries.
At the same time, as the average age of farmers nears 65, the countryside is going up for sale. A 2014 U.S. Department of Agriculture survey estimated that more than two million acres of Minnesota farmland will change hands in the next five years.
“It sounds high-falutin’ to say we should all buy our piece of earth,” says Katrina. “But it feels great to actually do it. It’s our way of being conservationists, to walk the talk.”
John, a teacher in Edina, is seeking solitude. He bought a 1940s tractor to mow trails through fields of wildflowers and hopes to canoe the creek burbling through the property to the scenic Kettle River. Katrina, a freelance photographer, envisions yoga, a pizza oven, an orchard, a campground, photo shoots in a stand of birch. Mostly, they want their three kids to learn how not to get lost in the woods.
Ryan and Carrie Kelley of south Minneapolis recently bought 110 acres outside Pine City—land that Ryan’s great-great-grandfather homesteaded. They, too, intend to leave the land alone—especially the nearly 70 acres of woods and wetlands—save for a tree farm, potentially, or leasing a portion for sustainable farming.
“Environmentally, it feels more tangible than taking a shorter shower or other things you can do in the city,” says Ryan, a city planner with the Metropolitan Council. “When you’re on the land, you’re more involved in an intimate way.”
Rural, though, doesn’t always mean bucolic. One of the Hannemanns’ new neighbors is fond of “incendiary devices,” and their occasional explosion—even several miles away—can feel like a gut punch. The former owners of their property, who had shot the place up, moved across the street into a house so decrepit they wrap it in winter with clear plastic—around the outside.
Yet it’s the Hannemanns who are the curiosity. On a recent summer evening, their kids sit around a fire making s’mores while locals cruise slowly past on four-wheelers and tractors. “Citiots,” rural slang for urban outsiders, has come up in conversation, though Katrina believes Bruno is essentially libertarian. “You can do whatever you want,” she says, “once people get to know you.”
The next morning is quiet as the sun rakes across a field of buttercups, daisies, and orange hawkweed. A deer pokes its head out of tall grass. John gets on his tractor and drives into the heart of his property, shrinking into the landscape until at last he is swallowed up.