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Fresh Ideas for Minnesota Tours

In Minnesota, living off the land looks different, depending on where you stand. Rural life might lead to mining for minerals, growing grains for bottled spirits or raising alpaca for cozy mittens.

Here are five great sites around the state where groups can experience Minnesota’s proud agricultural heritage.

Fossum Family Farm


The Fossum Family Farm’s future as an alpaca farm was sealed with a kiss —  well, actually, two kisses.

Vicki Fossum had gone to buy alpaca stock for the farm near Northfield where her husband, Keith, grew up and where they now live. Her daughter, who is autistic and uses a wheelchair, went with her.

When Fossum looked up and saw two alpacas, one on each side of her daughter’s wheelchair, “giving her kisses on each side of her cheek,” she knew she had to buy those animals. “Maybe it was not the best business decision — you usually pick your stock by fiber quality and bloodlines,” Fossum said, but she never regretted her spontaneous purchase.

What drew her to the gentle creatures is what draws people to the Fossum’s southern Minnesota farm for tours. “Not every farm has alpacas, and the same thing that attracted us attracts other people,” Fossum said. “They are cute and very docile, and their size makes them easy for people to handle.”

On tours, Vickie and Keith Fossum, who both work full-time jobs in addition to farming, talk about their herd of over 50 alpacas and explain how fiber is gathered and processed. They will also demonstrate aspects of the process by request. “When I first got into this, I decided if I was going to raise fiber, I was going to learn the process, from start to finish,” said Fossum, who now knits, crochets and felts, and teaches others how to turn fiber into yarn.

A tour takes about an hour, and visitors are welcome to shop the farm’s store, which stocks raw fiber and yarn and finished products like alpaca hats, scarves and mittens. Not all the yarn sold there is from the Fossums’ herd, but yarn that is includes a label with the name and picture of the alpaca from which it was sheared.

Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park


Here’s how James Pointer, lead mine interpreter at Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park, sums up the importance of Minnesota’s first iron ore mine.

“Two world wars were fought during the time the Soudan mine was in operation. The miners were exempt from the draft because the mine played such a role in the wars,” he said.

In operation for 80 years, the northeast Minnesota mine and the iron ore mined there were essential in making steel for everything from railroads to skyscrapers. A tour that dives deep into the now-inactive mine is a good way to understand its impact. After an introductory video, visitors don hardhats and descend into the mine in the “cage.” About a dozen people go down at a time.

“The thing people remember the most is the cage ride,” said Pointer. “It’s like an elevator ride but more exciting. It is not a nice, smooth ride — it shakes a bit. If you are used to going straight up and down with Muzak, well, you don’t get that here.”

The cage descends at an angle and covers nearly half a mile in three minutes. At the bottom, visitors climb into open cars behind a small electric locomotive and ride just under a mile to stairs or an elevator (the trip is ADA accessible and can take one wheelchair per tour) to the area of the mine where men worked. There, they get a lesson that blends geology, history and technology.

The miners who worked there campaigned to have the mine preserved. Better than many, they understood its relevance and impact, said Pointer.

“Eighty-five percent of the iron ore mined in the U.S. is from Minnesota,” said Pointer. “This was the first mine in Minnesota and the deepest and the richest iron ore in the state. It has a huge place in Minnesota history.”

Oliver Kelley Farm

Elk River

Oliver Kelley didn’t know a thing about farming when he came to rural Minnesota from Boston in the 1860s, but that didn’t stop him from having a national impact on agriculture. Kelley founded the first national agriculture organization, the Grange.

Today, the Oliver Kelley Farm near Elk River in central Minnesota is a National Historic Landmark operated by the Minnesota Historical Society. Its mission? “We are telling the story of Minnesota agriculture from 1850 to today,” said Ann Bercher, program manager.

To do that, the historical society uses the historic farmstead, which includes an 1876 home, a barn and outbuildings, and a new visitors center and farm lab. On the historic farm, it’s 1860 all over again. A team of oxen plows the fields; Berkshire hogs snuffle in their pen. Visitors do household chores, muscle the hand pump to collect water and help care for farm animals.

“Our staff raise the same livestock, the same crops, the same vegetables and wear the same type of clothing as he wore,” said Bercher.

Instead of pretending to be Kelley and his family, staff members do third-person interpretation, which encourages interaction with guests. “It allows visitors to ask more questions and talk to interpreters about their own experiences,” Bercher said.

The visitors center, with its learning kitchen, classrooms and farm lab — encompasing a garden, barn and cropland — provides more modern insights. For example, last year’s farm lab garden contrasted a World War I Liberty Garden and a 1968 garden.

By 1968, people had moved to suburbia and hybrid plants were coming into use. “People were putting gardens in smaller spaces, so the plants needed to be more compact,” said Bercher.

The learning kitchen is a busy place, where vegetables grown on the farm are put to use. “We cook up and bake up what is grown,” said Bercher. It also offers classes and workshops on topics like root vegetables and building gingerbread farms.

Far North Spirits


Far North Spirits lives up to its name. The small-batch maker of gin, vodka, rum and whiskey sits on 1,000 fertile acres near Hallock in Minnesota’s northwest corner, making it the northernmost distillery in the lower 48 states.

On the farm where co-founder and distiller Michael Reese was raised, 100 acres of rye and 10 acres of corn are dedicated to products he concocts, according to Cheri Reese, his wife and business partner.

The Reeses opened the distillery five years ago, making it the second distillery in the state. Now there are about 30.

Rewards for the long drive up to the Red River Valley include uncommon cocktails and soothing scenery in Far North’s cocktail room, open Saturday evenings or available for private bookings. The Reeses have developed a menu of 15 different drinks, each made with fresh ingredients. “These are ambitious recipes, not just a rum and Coke,” Cheri Reese said.

The distillery sits amid flat fields, and the cocktail room capitalizes on the wide views. “We situated the cocktail room so you can see in any direction for about three miles,” she said. “We tried to create a space that is quiet and restorative.” They also gave the room local flavor by using pieces of area history as decor, including reclaimed wood from the nearby school Mike attended when he was growing up on the farm.

The Reeses are happy to give tours, and typically, one or both lead a group through the 8,000-square-foot distillery where visitors learn how raw grain becomes products like a popular spiced rum and Roknar whiskey, Far North’s best seller. During tastings afterward, visitors can sip gin made distinctive with grapefruit, lavender and thyme. “People always taste it and say, ‘I didn’t think I liked gin, but I like this,’” said Cheri Reese.

Bruentrup Heritage Farm


A lot of small towns have a community park where townspeople and others gather for fun and festivals. Only 10 miles outside the state capital, Maplewood goes one better with its own community farm, the Bruentrup Heritage Farm.

The bright-red barn, outbuildings and farmhouse date back to 1891 and sit on 22 acres within the city limits; the buildings were moved there from their original site because of development. Mary O’Malley is secretary of the Maplewood Historical Society, which runs the farm and organizes annual events like Johnny Appleseed Day, a Christmas tour, breakfast with Santa and a couple of flea markets.

“No one is paid around here,” she said. Instead, 125 proud volunteers do everything from organizing events and serving as tour guides to painting and landscaping. Because the farm is volunteer run and hours are limited, groups interested in touring must call ahead.

Exhibits cover local history, dairy farming and 3M, the major corporation that moved to Maplewood in the 1950s. The farm’s barn can be used for dinners, concerts or other special events. If a grant comes through, the historical society hopes to put on a play there in the summer about the Andrews Sisters, the three Minnesota siblings who were a singing sensation in the first half of the 20th century.

Mainly, though, the farm is designed to promote an understanding of and an appreciation for agriculture. “We are trying to keep it alive,” said O’Malley. “People come back to the farm to remember what it was like when they were young, and they bring their children.”