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Some people don’t realize that carrots grow underground, perhaps imagining them dangling from bushes or vines. Many people — especially city dwellers — couldn’t identify a soybean plant, Minnesota’s second largest crop.

But visitors will be able to brush up on their food knowledge at a $5.4 million interpretive farm at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. The farm, designed to educate the public about agriculture, is expected to open in September.

The 51-year-old arboretum in Chanhassen, which draws about 500,000 visitors a year, has long featured home garden and herb exhibits, maple syrup operations and other edible products. But most of its 1,200 acres are devoted to ornamental plants and trees.

Now the arboretum will cultivate fields of fruit, vegetables and Minnesota crops, including corn, soybeans and wheat.

The farm, to be paid for with private donations, sits on 40 acres, a quarter of which will open this fall. The fields surround a 100-year-old barn, a bright red building with a stone foundation in a pastoral setting.

Through interpretive exhibits and educational programming, arboretum visitors will come away knowing not just what growing food looks like, but also how it smells, feels and tastes. They’ll learn about farming practices in the past, present and future.

Food produced on the farm will be distributed to nonprofit organizations, said Alan Branhagen, the arboretum’s director of operations.

“We’ll have fields showing how food is produced in a commercial setting,” he said. “We want to show how modern production is done.”

An ‘eye-opening’ experience

Basic farm practices aren’t common knowledge the way they once were, with the average American now at least three generations removed from the farm, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“We all eat [but] we don’t all know where our food comes from,” said Tim Kenny, the arboretum’s education director. “The arboretum farm will showcase the relationship we all have with the land that produces our food, from the homegrown tomato plant to acres of wheat and everything in between.”

Kids who only know food from the plate in front of them are sometimes surprised to learn that carrots are roots, Branhagen said, or that Brussels sprouts belong to the cabbage family and grow on stalks.

Even experienced gardeners may not know much about recently developed high-tech methods designed to make farming more economically efficient and environmentally friendly. Farmers today use drones and robotic systems to target disease or pests at specific spots within fields, rather than treating the whole field at once.

The arboretum farm also will feature agricultural developments on the horizon, such as perennial grain crops that don’t require replanting every year.

“This is a monumental addition to their displays there,” said Jean Knakmuhs, a board member for the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, one of the farm’s sponsors. “I think it’s going to be an eye-opening experience for metro residents.”

If familiarity with basic farming practices is fading, public interest in food sources and handling is on the rise, thanks to farmers markets, farm-to-table restaurants, food-safety concerns and foodie culture.

“This is such an important time, when consumers are very interested in how their food is grown,” said Morgan Kinross-Wright, executive director of the Land O’Lakes Foundation, another sponsor.

“It’s the hottest trend in horticulture right now,” Branhagen said.

Farming practices

The interpretive project at first was to be called the Red Barn Farm. That’s still its informal name but will soon change to avoid confusion with other organizations, including a small farm and food shop in Northfield.

The land has a long history of its own. It was home to the Dakota for thousands of years before Swiss immigrants Theodore and Sophie Bost arrived in 1853 and cleared the land, tended crops and kept bees.

The next resident, Joseph Williams, built the barn around 1917. The land was passed down through generations of Williamses until the University of Minnesota, which operates the arboretum, bought the property in 1967.

The barn is brightly painted and well-tended on the outside, but the interior is a different story. Used for storage in recent years, the barn is undergoing extensive renovation so it can be opened as an exhibition and event center.

The farm will celebrate produce developed at the Horticultural Research Center, another arm of the U located across Hwy. 5 from the arboretum. The center began breeding apples around 1900, back when Minnesota had only one type of apple and people weren’t even sure others would grow here, Branhagen said. U researchers developed nearly 30 varieties, including classics like the Haralson from the 1920s and the more recent Honeycrisp, named the Minnesota State Fruit in 2006.

The center also developed wine and table grapes hardy enough to thrive in a northern climate — the successful Itasca grape now has 100,000 plants around the world, Branhagen said — as well as apricots, tart cherries and dozens of other fruits. The orchard and vineyard, which need a year to get established, will open in 2020.

Exhibits will display farming practices from other cultures, community garden methods and pollinator-friendly plants. The barn is just steps away from the arboretum’s two-year-old Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center, which this year won an award from the American Institute of Architects for sustainable design excellence.

Some aspects of modern farming are controversial, such as its effects on the environment or the consequences of agricultural chemicals and genetic modification on consumer health. Those are among potential topics for exhibits or programming.

“My ambition for this is that everyone that comes through feels welcome to have their own viewpoint and no one feels attacked or criticized,” said Sandy Tanck, director of the arboretum’s interpretive programs. “These are all things that, when you know more about them and understand what the questions are, you can make a more informed opinion.”

Katy Read • 612-673-4583