The fifth generation to keep the O'Neill family farming
Dennis and Bridget O'Neill and their son, Pat, are the current owners of the O'Neill family farm.
ROCHESTER, Minn. — The O'Neill family has operated the same small farm near Rochester since 1880 when America was a nation of farmers.
Pat O'Neill is the son of Dennis and Bridget O'Neill, and the three of them are the current farmers of the O'Neill family farm.
Dennis and Bridget O'Neill rented the land for decades before they purchased it in 2018 from the estate of Dennis's uncle Ed O'Neill.
The timeline of ownership of the land begins with William and Catherine O'Neill, then to their son, John and Mame O'Neill, then to Edward & Frances O'Neill, then to Dennis and Bridget and their son, Pat O'Neill, who are the current owners.
Pat O'Neill said when he was growing up, his dream was to work in heavy equipment construction, but when forced by his employer as a teenager to either pick his job or his family, he picked his family.
"It came to a point where ideally, I wanted my roots back, and I wanted to be back at the farm, and that's what I wanted my future to be," he said of the time was he was in his late teens. "So I kind of circled back to the farm, and hunkered down, and been in it ever since."
O'Neill said it was a difficult decision in 2018 for his parents to purchase the land so close to Rochester, even though it held such significance to their family.
"Difficult decision in means of just our proximity to Rochester, how close we are to housing developments, and that inflates land price," said O'Neill. "So that kind of makes it a tough decision to buy for farming, if you can cash flow it and make it work. So it's basically sticking your neck out and praying and hoping that it works out."
So far it has worked out for the family, he said, because five years after purchasing the land, he and his parents are also actively farming 600-plus acres in the area around the original farm acreage. On the original farm, O'Neill said they've made changes that bring it closer to what it used to be.
"We've brought back animals, including pigs, and have goats now, and chickens we brought back to the farm," he said as chickens wandered by his feet on their farm on April 3. "And we still have quite a bit of cattle on the farm."
O'Neill has also utilized the buildings that were used by his ancestors.
"The building behind us was just an old granary; we flipped that into a chicken coop," he said. "There's another granary down along the driveway, that we turned into a goat building. We're slowly reverting or recycling old buildings into usable ones for what we're wanting to do now."
He said their intent on the original farm is to get back to how it started.
"We raise most of our own food here with the garden, and then meat with all the animals," said O'Neill. "But getting back to kind of how the farm started really 100-and-some years ago."
O'Neill has memories of the old days come back to him while on the farm today.
"Some of the memories were my Great Uncle Ed coming out when we were renting the farm, when I was just a kid — him coming out and just overseeing things and telling stories," he said. "On the farm or in this field, this happened and your grandpa did this, and it was just kind of a look back into history, how they used to do things."
At a young age, O'Neill envisioned he'd be in charge of the farm one day.
"When I was 5 years old, and would come run around the farm when dad was doing fieldwork, my dream was to have the farm, to buy the farm, and to get the farm and work on it," he said. "That was my goal from a young age, and I have the work ethic so it was just a matter of making it happen."
O'Neill said some of his greatest joys in life came when working with his dad on the farm. Now he has the opportunity to do that with his kids.
"I do take pride in my girlfriend's kids being here, and my kids being here," he said. "It's just fun to have the kids take part and see what it takes."
O'Neill said that property taxes for the farm are "going through the roof."
"This weekend, we just got our tax statements, which were high last year, and this year, they're worse," he said. "They've gone up well over 110% on the farm here, so it's quite sickening to see what we're paying for taxes right now just to farm."
As for the increase, he said there is more to it than just maintaining the country road the farm is on.
"As far as taxes, where it's going, I can't answer that," said O'Neill. "I did sit down with the county assessor last year and asked him why, and it's just our proximity to houses."
He said the tax pressure due to the farm's proximity to Rochester is getting to be overwhelming.
"It kind of feels like we're getting taxed out of where we're at right now," said O'Neill.
Compounding that pressure are rising prices for every input, said O'Neill.
"Whether it's your seed, your fertilizer, your crop insurance — everything is going up," he said. "There's going to come a point where there's going to be a line that it just doesn't work."
What doesn't work already is for O'Neill to support his family solely off the farm's income. He works full-time off the farm for Rochester Public Utilities as a water operator.
"I work 10-hour shifts, and work nights, weekends and whatever," he said. "I got a rotating shift, so you go work for 10 hours like I did today, and then you come home and work for another eight, nine, maybe 10, depends on what the night has in store with calving."
Another potential threat to the original farm is the planned work for the construction that will occur in 2024 and 2025 at the I-90/Hwy 52 interchange, southeast of Rochester.
O'Neill said it would be on the southeast corner of their farm, and they have a meeting with Minnesota Department of Transportation scheduled for the near future.
"We're going to go over what their plan looks like and how much land they're taking, but they do already have stakes out for their proposal in our pasture," O'Neill said.
This isn't the first time the O'Neill family has dealt with road construction impeding their land.
"We've dealt with this when (Highway) 52, the four lane that went through was new, because there's an old existing Highway 52 to the north, and then when Interstate 90 went through, they cut the farm up quite a bit," said O'Neill. "It's not our first time dealing with eminent domain or dealing with the state putting highways through the farm."
But the family has no plans to leave the farm, said O'Neill, and the future looks bright.
"My oldest boy is in eighth grade, and he already wants to quit school to farm, and I told him that's not an option," said O'Neill.
Instead, he said they're talking about his son going through the farm business management program through Riverland Community College, which O'Neill said was a "great help" to him.
"He still needs to get his high school diploma and move on and get a farm business management degree, at least, if he wants to continue farming," said O'Neill. "But still, look at options off the farm because the farm thing alone won't pay the bills."