Lutherans in Minnesota, Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Listening to the land

Prairie Oaks Institute offers a chance for reconnections

The Schmidt-Devine family farm, near Belle Plaine, Minnesota, is adapting to the changes in both the farm and non-farm economies. While its third-generation owners have other full-time vocations, they are learning to do justice, provide hospitality, and walk humbly on this plot of land. Reproduction provided by Prairie Oaks Institute

Just west of Belle Plaine, where sprawling metro area development meets rural Minnesota, people are able to experience a 200-acre, century farm that is an island of serenity and sustainability. Much of the land comprises the last stand of native sand-hill prairie in the region, as Robert Creek winds toward the Minnesota River.

Farm co-owners Tammy Devine and Kim Devine-Johnson, along with Kim’s husband Chris Johnson, are committed to preserving the land and sharing its gifts with others. They have donated 20 acres to a nonprofit organization they founded, Prairie Oaks Institute (POI), which is dedicated to “cultivating the earth and rejuvenating the spirit.” POI welcomes groups and individuals for retreat, education, and renewal.

Wheelchair-accessible Harvest House sleeps 10 people. The Farmhouse, currently being remodeled, will sleep up to 15. The Granary is a three-season rustic site for meetings or quiet contemplation. The goal of POI is to be a good neighbor while fostering wellness, imagination, and lifelong learning.

“We’re not alone in this effort,” Devine-Johnson says. “We’re the anchor. We are surrounded by good people who share the vision that keeps Prairie Oaks moving forward.” POI is guided by a 10-member volunteer board, representing Belle Plaine, the Twin Cities, and St. Peter, Minnesota.

Two hundred guests attended a launch event in October 2010. POI has hosted church groups, confirmation students, faculties of several colleges, nonprofit teams engaged in strategic planning, as well as silent individual retreats and families who want to be intentional with their time. Gustavus Adolphus College students built a fire circle, and confirmation youth from Storm Lake, Iowa, built benches for outdoor seating and painted fences, all as service projects.

Called to make a better world

Another significant activity on the acreage is Open Farms, a collaboration between POI and Open Arms of Minnesota, a nonprofit that prepares and delivers free meals to people with life-threatening medical conditions. Open Farms director Ben Penner, St. Peter, oversees the two-acre vegetable garden and is shepherding the three-year process of obtaining certification as an organic farm.

Kim Devine-Johnson, one of the co-founders of Prairie Oaks Institute, juggles a wide variety of responsibilities for this farm and hospitality center, located in Belle Plaine, Minnesota. Photos provided by Prairie Oaks Institute

Guests and visitors to POI are able to enjoy the farm as long as they remain mindful of its primary inhabitants and caretakers, and remember to “leave no trace” of their visit.

“What we’re doing here is very much a calling,” says Chris Johnson. “It comes from deep wells of who we are and also is about making the world a better place.” Johnson does not use the term “calling” casually. As Director for Vocation and Integrative Learning at Gustavus Adolphus College, he has spent the past 10 years helping college students and others to discern their vocations.

“As with many callings, this is a lot of work,” Chris admits. Even when nothing is scheduled at POI, Kim drives to Belle Plaine three times a week from their St. Peter home to tend the space and look after the horses, alpacas, and chickens. A pediatric physical therapist, she is employed at Pediatric Therapy Services, Mankato, Minnesota.

“This is a significant part of our life now,” Kim says of her and Chris’ roles as board members and caretakers. “We’re just getting started. We can see that POI has already evolved and will continue evolving.”

Family farm and community asset

Kim credits her sister Tammy, Wellness Coordinator for the ELCA Board of Pensions, with having the vision to preserve the farm and establish a place of solitude where people can pray, think and wander. “We had many conversations with our parents in the 1990s about Tammy’s dream. We were two women non-farmers who stood to inherit a farm that had been in the family since 1905.”

Tammy and Kim grew up on the Schmidt-Devine farm, as did their mother Marilyn Schmidt Devine and her sister. Before that, their Schmidt grandfather and his six siblings. Sadly, Kim and Tammy’s father Roger Devine and their mother died within 11 months of each other in 2003-04, while still relatively young and before retiring from farming. Fortunately they’d had the important dialog with their children that many families defer.

The family’s youngest generation consists of Chris and Kim’s teenage son Amos and their 12-year-old twins, Mara and Josiah. “They’re growing into being part of a legacy of stewarding the environment and leading lives of service to the world,” Chris says. The Devine-Johnsons are members of First Lutheran Church (ELCA), St. Peter.

Prairie Oaks Institute is home to a wide variety of life — plant, animal, and human.

The 180 acres still belonging to Kim and Tammy are being stewarded in various ways. Ben Penner rents some tillable acres for his own organic farming operation (wheat, alfalfa, and soybeans last season). Some are set aside as “CRP” acres (Conservation Reserve Program). Much of the pasture is rented spring through fall by an area farmer for grazing his grass-fed, open-range beef cattle. All of it is home to abundant wildlife, including deer, coyotes, and wild turkeys. Guests and visitors to POI are able to enjoy the farm as long as they remain mindful of its primary inhabitants and caretakers, and remember to “leave no trace” of their visit.

Upcoming programs at POI will include workshops on sustainable agriculture, labyrinth design and simple living; community book discussions, films and potluck meals; naturalist-guided explorations of the farm, prairie and Robert Creek watershed; and such guest speakers as educator-authors Michael Schut and Parker J. Palmer.

For further information, schedules, and costs, go to the POI Web site: www.prairieoaksinstitute.org. To make contact, e-mail Info@PrairieOaksInstitute.org or call 1-888/472-7110.

Kathryn Christenson is a former contributing writer to Metro Lutheran. She lives in St. Peter, Minnesota, where she attends First Lutheran Church.

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