Dodge Nature Opens Shepard Farm to Classes and Activities

by | May 2024

Girls Explore Science summer camp at Shepard Farm.

Girls Explore Science summer camp at Shepard Farm. Photos: Andy Berndt

Dodge Nature Center opens its doors to a 100-year-old farm.

When Dodge Nature Center opened in 1967, the vision was clear—to create a natural resource for those seeking respite, connection and education. The Main Property (110 acres) and the Marie Property (40 acres), both located in West St. Paul, have developed endless offerings, including a working farm, raptor mews and an on-site, nature-based preschool. While the Lilly Property (170 acres) in Mendota Heights has no buildings on site, the location focuses on the equally important task of habitat stewardship and restoration.

Woodbury resident Crystal Adney has been a strong believer of nature programming for years, as all three of her children attended the Dodge Nature Center preschool in West St. Paul. When reflecting on what makes the nature center stand out, Adney says, “It’s their philosophy of letting kids learn organically through play and the outdoors.”

Dodge Nature Center was entrusted with a 100-year old farm in Cottage Grove—an honor bestowed in 2013 by the Wilder Foundation. Now officially opening its doors 10 years later, Shepard Farm welcomes nature explorers and enthusiasts to the East Metro.

Environmental education director Peter Cleary explains the deliberate timeline between acquisition and grand opening, crediting the organization with slow and thoughtful decision-making. “We first addressed parking, fencing and public restrooms,” Cleary says. “So the farm was ready to open the trails in 2020 although [COVID-19] pushed back the timeline to 2022.” Major renovations inside the buildings required meticulous planning with a heavy focus on keeping as much of the original structure intact as possible. Built in 1919, the six-bedroom main house has ample room for classrooms but lacked ADA accessibility. The renovations created two classrooms and a teaching kitchen, as well as a new outdoor pavilion, resulting in a well-rounded venue of indoor and outdoor teaching spaces.

With all the added benefits, Shepard Farm (140 acres) has since partnered with its closest neighborhood school, South Washington County Schools’ (SoWashCo) Crestview Elementary, to gauge its educational needs and build a symbiotic relationship. “We ask them what we can do to match their curriculum,” Cleary says, “What kinds of things can we do for your students, either supplemental or additive.” Since starting these conversations, Shepard Farm has supported kindergarten, first and fourth grade classrooms, with sights set on more ages and schools within SoWashCo.

In addition to school programming, Shepard Farm also boasts a wide range of engaging activities. The blacksmithing forge is available for blacksmithing class, where visitors learn to make charcoal from buckthorn on site. Animal admirers can take on chicken keeping or just visit with the cows. Beekeeping classes buzz with excitement for novices, or for more experienced beekeepers, a rental space for hives is available, too.

Adults are welcome to try their hand at beekeeping—located on the Shephard Farm property.

Adults are welcome to try their hand at beekeeping—located on the Shephard Farm property.

The community garden provides space for green thumbs to cultivate their own garden without space requirement at home. For gardeners involved with the community garden, a welcome class and organic gardening basics are offered and encouraged to maximize the experience.

The teaching kitchen hosts cooking classes with an emphasis on farm-to-table recipes, given visitors can visualize the connections between community garden, beekeeping or chicken keeping, to cooking and eating farm fresh. Lastly, summer camps welcome kids for outdoor experiences unlike any other with themes like Forts and Fires, Down on the Farm and Nature Explorers.

Dodge Nature Center’s Shepard Farm covers 140 acres and is located in Cottage Grove.

Dodge Nature Center’s Shepard Farm covers 140 acres and is located in Cottage Grove.

For those seeking an escape from the bustle of life, the 100-acre woods provides solace in what feels like a world away from the cities. Cleary is quite familiar with the grounds and often takes advantage of the scenery. His favorite parts? “Getting into the woods and listening to the owls and seeing the moon at night,” Cleary says. “Or during the day, noticing a bald eagle or a deer grazing. It’s transformative.” He even knows a secret clearing surrounded by maple trees that whisper and dance in the wind.

Adney credits Dodge Nature Center for the kids’ growing appreciation for being outdoors and for their sense of adventure. “They love all the seasons we have to offer here in Minnesota,” Adney says. “I truly attribute that to being exposed and taught how to have fun in all environments.”

Although Shepard Farm will focus more on adult programming than preschool, there is no denying the impact nature has on anyone regardless of age. “We feel strongly that we need to connect our children to nature, so they learn how to appreciate it, take care of it and fight for it in the future,” Adney says. “We need nature, and nature needs us!”

Dodge Nature Center
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