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St. Croix County plans land sale

St. Croix County will see the end of the county farm era when 552 acres of former county farm land is sold at auction Feb. 23.

The auction will begin at 11 a.m. at Gibby's Lanes, 546 North Shore Drive in New Richmond. The sale will be conducted by Hager Auction Services with the land selling in six parcels.

St. Croix County Administrator Pat Thompson said the decision comes at the right time for the right reasons. Farmland is selling well as farmers who have benefitted from high commodity prices and excellent yields find themselves with excess cash to spend on land.

It is also the right time for St. Croix County, he said. The fast-paced growth the county experienced in the 1990s and early 2000s raised the county's population to more than 84,000 creating greater demand for basic services such as emergency 911, economic support and public health, he noted.

However, the economic downturn in recent years and the county board's strong position against raising taxes or taking on public debt has made the county take a hard look at alternative funding sources to address the increasing urgencies in infrastructure needs, Thompson said. Selling farmland to raise funds became a realistic alternative to fund those needs, he added.

Thompson explained that the county has studied the existing building and departmental needs for several years, but there has not been sufficient funding to move forward on the identified recommendations and needs until the option of selling the excess land was explored. The county has determined it needs to retain approximately 30 acres to meet future needs.

After evaluating options, the St. Croix County Board of Supervisors voted 10 to 8 to sell 552 acres of the county's 583 acres of land. The proceeds from the land sale will be used to expand the county's emergency communications center and 911 services, move the Health and Human Services Department's 125 employees out of their outdated and inefficient building and demolish existing structures at the Health Center complex that no longer serve a useful purpose.

The possibility of selling county land for development has been discussed several times by the County Board of Supervisors, but usually did not work out. The county, as a public agency, is not in a position to plan a development, nor does it have the resources to operate well in the private sector. Selling the land for farmland was not considered a financially attractive option until recently, Thompson said.

Development activity in the county is at a 30-year low resulting in low demand for development land. However, farming is experiencing record corn and soybean prices and farmland is at an all-time high, Thompson said. Another factor is the recent decision at the federal level to move forward with the new St. Croix River Crossing.

These two factors combined to make the time to sell optimal, Thompson explained. The county farmland is located on the Highway 64 expressway on the west side of New Richmond, about 14 miles from the new river crossing and 35 miles from downtown St. Paul. Of the county's 583 acres, 121 acres are annexed into the City of New Richmond and are zoned a combination of light industrial and highway commercial. The remaining land in the Town of Star Prairie is zoned for agriculture. The 552 acres for sale has 463 acres tillable and is available as large fields. The whole site has future development potential especially the land along Highway 64.

"The land is zoned for development, future road connections are planned and it is along a major expressway, so someday there will be development opportunities, but until then it is good farmland," Thompson said.

In the 116-year history of the county facility there have been numerous changes in buildings, services and operations.

In 1897 the county built the St. Croix County Chronic Insane Hospital. Later that year, the barns, and residence for the county poor farm were also constructed. St. Croix County's first poor farm was located in the Town of Kinnickinnic, but in 1897 the St. Croix County Board voted to construct a new county poor farm and home in New Richmond on the same site where the new county insane asylum was being built, according to an article in the Nov. 15, 1897 Milwaukee Journal.

The farm was originally 667 acres. From the beginning the much of the work on the farm, both indoors and out, was performed by the asylum patients and poor farm residents. With a significant number of workers and 13 paid supervisors, the farm "produced more vegetables and grain than the inmates and stock can consume and 5410 pounds of butter in 1899."

The farm raised dairy, beef, and swine also. According to the New Richmond Cyclone Souvenir edition of 1900, the workers on the farm "are under the natural delusion that they own the place and hence exert all their energies to make it successful."

In 1917 the under the direction of Superintendent R.W. Poston, a registered Holstein herd was started to improve the farm's dairy herd and increase revenues. The farm purchased high quality bulls from national sales and established a recognizable bloodline for their cows.

The St. Croix county registered herd improved significantly and eventually became one of the well-known breeding establishments in the country, selling high quality cows and bulls at registered cattle sales. The herd won 33 National Holstein Association Progressive Breeder Registry awards.

The poor farm residence closed in 1958. The farm operation started to change after that. During the next three decades, several buildings were torn down and a 34-acre parcel was sold to the State Department of Corrections for the Early Release Center.

In 1971 new state regulations prevented county hospital residents from working on the county farm. By the 1980s the farm operation's connection to the county health facilities had become much less.

The St. Croix County Board voted 26-3 in August of 1989 to sell the county farm's dairy herd. The March 6, 1990 auction was well attended by about 1,200 farmers, according to a March 6, 1990 Milwaukee Journal article. In that same article, John Spanton, the farm's herdsman, described the 146 head herd as one of the best known herds in the country.

"This is one of the top herds in the United States," Spanton said. "People would like to have an animal out of the St. Croix County herd if possible."

At first the empty barns and land were rented out, then the barns, silos and other farm buildings were torn down and finally, only the farmland remained.