Prairie Oaks Institute

cultivating the earth, rejuvenating the spirit

History

Prairie Oaks Institute at Robert Creek and the land on which it sits have a rich history.

In 1905, Herman and Christina Schmidt acquired a 240-acre farm and moved their seven children into the farmhouse that still stands in Belle Plaine, Minnesota.   Edward, their youngest son, and his wife Alvina (Nagel)  eventually took over the farm.  During his time, Edward was known for his outstanding water and soil conservation efforts, receiving recognition from the Scott County Water and Soil Conservation Commission in 1948.  Around 1960 Marilyn (Schmidt) and her husband Roger Devine moved onto the land, continuing the family’s land conservation and preservation efforts.  In 2005, the farm was recognized as a Century Farm by the State of Minnesota, honoring 100 years of family farming.

In 1999, the Devine family gathered around them a small advisory board to re-imagine the purpose of this precious acreage while continuing the legacy of sustainability begun by Edward Schmidt and advanced by Roger Devine.  Encroaching development was threatening to destroy the serenity and bio-diversity of the land.  Much of the farm consists of the last remnants of sand-hill prairie in the region.  Robert Creek flows to the Minnesota River through pristine landscapes that transitioning from oak savannah to sand-hill prairie.

Roger & Marilyn’s daughter, Tammy Devine, had a vision of developing retreat hermitages to provide a space free of distraction where people could come to find solitude and balance.  Devine Valley Ministries was incorporated in Minnesota in 2002 to advance this mission.  The untimely deaths of Roger (2003) and Marilyn (2004) shifted the vision of the board from hermitages to the idea of utilizing Roger and Marilyn’s house as a retreat facility, christened Harvest House. 

In 2008, Prairie Oaks Institute at Robert Creek was selected as the new name and 501(c)3 tax exempt status was secured. A generous gift from surviving family members, gifted the non-profit with 20 acres of land, including the two houses, barns and outbuildings in 2010. Remodeling of Harvest House which included making the space ADA-compliant was completed shortly thereafter and a conditional use permit granted by the city.  Two years later, a project at the Farmhouse added two bathrooms and a sitting area, making the house suitable for larger groups wishing to stay overnight.

As Prairie Oaks Institute has grown into its mission, programs and projects have centered around our three circles: ecology & sustainability, education & leadership development and retreat and renewal.  The 5 organic acres that are part of the 20-acre farm campus have been put to use to support Community Supported Agriculture and for several years a part of the garden was used to raise food for Open Farms – a program of Open Arms of Minnesota a program which provides meals to people with chronic illnesses.  Each summer and fall, Steve Neil’s grass-fed cattle roam the pastures.  In 2013 we were excited by the opening of a new CSA business A Place at the Table, operated by Sonya Ewert and the introduction of bee hives on the adjoining Devine farm managed by John Emery of Spotted Duck Apiary.

Bi-monthly community potlucks are a source of good food and conversation, bringing together like-minded people, fostering connections and highlighting the complimentary work of local individuals.  Book discussions and featured speakers have included Michael Schut on “Food, Faith and Ecology” as well noted landscape architect Herb Baldwin on “Landscapes that Nourish Soul, Soil and Community”

Prairie Oaks Institute now offers signature Courage and Renewal retreats co-facilitated by board member Chris Johnson, as well as serving as a host for retreats offered by academic groups, faculty teams, non-profits and other organizations. Our first day camp with the Farmers Union was held in 2013 with over 40 youngsters enjoying a day on the land learning about pollinators, farm animals and community supported agriculture.

To learn more about the different spaces at our location and our program offerings, check out our Programs & Facilities page.