Ray Loftus knew he’d be the last person working his family’s land when he took over the dairy farming operation in 1983. Over the past century, 600 acres of farmland in Savage has passed down the Loftus family line, dispersed on the map by swells in the city’s development, and leaving behind the 15 acres that Loftus hobby farms today.
“I think we are the end,” said Loftus, who is actively marketing his land for development. “We are the last ones of the original landowners.”
At the Loftus farm, nestled on the hillside near the intersection of County Road 42 and Dakota Avenue, time has stood still. Around the homestead, the city bustles with the Hy-Vee grocery store to the east (that land sold for development in 1997) and Lifetime Fitness to the west (developed in 2000).
“I’d rather see it the way it was when I was a kid than the way it is now, but I think everyone has that nostalgia for the past,” Loftus said.
The land and original homestead dates back to when Loftus’ great grandfather immigrated from Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century. He received the land from a widow of a War of 1812 soldier under the Homestead Act.
The farm had a little bit of everything.
“Dairy, swine, poultry...everything you grew, you’d eat and if you had extra you sold it,” Loftus said.
The homestead, sold for development in 1973, was located at Vernon Avenue and Connelly Parkway. In 1864, Loftus’ great grandfather left behind his wife and two young sons to fight in the Civil War.
He returned from war and farmed the land with his sons until the turn of the century, dying in 1910 and leaving the farm to his children.
A couple generations down the line, in 1950, Loftus’ father took over his share of the land, building the home where Loftus and his wife, Julie, live today. One of Loftus’ uncles lived in the original homestead. His other uncle lived and farmed where Lifetime Fitness is today.
Loftus’ parents, Mathew and Helen, had seven children and Loftus said his mother was the foundation of life on the farm.
While the barn needs a new roof and there’s other signs of wear and tear on the house, Loftus said he’s been reluctant to spend the money with development of the property always on the horizon.
“My wife says I was born 100 years too late,” he said.
Growing up, Loftus and his siblings shared a close bond with other farming families in the area — names that are familiar today for the roads named after them, such as the McColls and Connellys.
He said that some Savage residents were angry that the roads were named after what they called wealthy landowners.
“I don’t think there was a wealthy landowner that came out of it,” Loftus said. “Everybody was taxed out. The developers made a lot of money but the landowners didn’t.”
Ray said the families often worked together, sharing farm equipment and helping out with odd jobs around the farms.
“Everybody is a lot more transitional now, people coming and going,” Loftus said. “I don’t like that part of it, it was always fun to know your neighbors.”
After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in animal science, Loftus worked as a nutritionist for Land O’ Lakes.
“I was out one day with the farmer doing nutrition work and he said, ‘If you’re so damn smart, why don’t you do it?’” Loftus said. “And I thought, ‘Well, why don’t I.”
In 1983, he took over dairy farming back at his childhood farm. Historically, the oldest son would take over the farm, but Loftus said he was the most passionate about farming, so he — the fifth born out of seven children — took over the work.
In the early years, Loftus and his wife lived in a mobile home on the farm, before moving into the home where they raised their three kids.
“The drawback is the same as when we were kids — you never get to go any place,” Loftus said. “With a dairy farmer, it’s twice a day, 365 days a year… once in a while you get away, but it’s hard to plan trips.”
In 1980, the city purchased three acres to build a water tower, changing the area assessment from rural to urban.
“That put an end to a lot of stuff,” Loftus said, who considers this the turning point in his life on the farm. The assessment of the land came back at $500,000 with 8 percent interest. The family needed to start selling land to developers at a quicker rate, unable to keep up with the increasing tax burden.
The Target, Cub Foods and Fresh Thyme in Savage are all located on land that Loftus rented before it was developed to keep his dairy farm afloat. In 1996, he could no longer keep up with the rapid development and no longer had the land he needed to keep the cows.
“I cried the day I sold the milk cows,” Loftus said. “You get attached to them.”
Today, Loftus hobby farms and his cattle roam the pasture, seemingly unaware of the busy streets and endless stream of cars passing by.
“It’s really just a hobby now with the cattle, but I enjoy them,” Loftus said. He still keeps a few cows around. “My wife wishes I golfed or fished, but that’s my hobby, I grew up with it.”
Bogging down the sale
With taxes at $20,000 a year, Loftus said it’s just not practical to stay. He and his wife purchased a family lake home on Half Moon Lake in Milltown, Wisconsin and Loftus bought some farmland next door.
The property almost sold to Abdallah Chocolates but the sale was halted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources because of the wetland on the property. Water from the property ends up in the Mississippi River and subsequently falls under the control of the DNR and the Army Corps of Engineers. While the highway department can fill in wetlands and change the landscape, landowners cannot, and Abdallah Chocolates was unable to situate their building around the protected wetland.
Loftus, who has spent money on attorney and engineering fees, said he’s working with the city to explore what’s possible and work through the issues before moving forward with a development.
Savage City Planner Bryan Tucker said the south wetland can’t be touched, but the middle and north wetlands have yet to be assessed and could potentially get the OK for development, if they are determined to be manmade or low quality in wetland health.
City Administrator Brad Larson said the city would be open to selling back some of the land that the city purchased to build the water tower if it would help make the parcel’s shape less awkward for building.
Looking back, Loftus wonders if it’s the Irish in him that connected him so strongly to the land of his ancestors.
“Being on the same property and doing the same things they did 150 or 160 years ago,” he said. “That’s been the driving force for staying as long as I have. It was never practical to keep it all.”