The plan to help the college feed itself began in 1906 when officials bought 22 acres of land for $1,800. On this land, which is now the area between Thorson Hall and the Administration building, they built a barn to store the one Holstein cow called Ranchey Beauty, which the college bought in 1908 for $150. Some people complained of the extravagance of buying such an expensive cow (a good cow could be had for $35) but the college was planning on breeding a good herd that would last for a long time.
The investment must have been a success, because by 1915 St. Olaf College owned one of the leading Holstein-Friesin herds in the Northfield community. Old headlines of the Manitou Messenger note things like: Dean Heilo, a purebred Holstein of the St. Olaf farm herd, just completed giving record amounts of butter and milk, and St. Olaf Prize Cow is Honored by Special Award. By the time the enterprise was abandoned in the late 1960s due to rising costs and inefficiency in the now-outmoded equipment, the college had a dairy herd of over 100 cows and a firm place in the Holstein-Friesin Associations record books for high levels of production of milk and butterfat.
Not only did St. Olaf save money by making milk for its students, but the herd was soon of such high quality that stud fees for St. Olaf steer helped to pay for the colleges land. Ole, the colleges most famous steer, got first prize at the Rice County fair in 1910, which helped to increase the prestige of the herd.
Students enjoyed the benefits of having home-grown milk as well: the second floor of the college power plant was turned into an ice cream factory. Mr. Edmonds, who ran the farm nearest to campus, had a competitive and curious streak that drove him to experiment with the ice cream. He wanted to see if he could equal or exceed the variety of normal ice cream shops.
Whether he succeeded or not, St. Olaf students enjoyed 42 different flavors of ice cream while he was caretaker.
The college didnt just own dairy farms. As the population expanded, more land was acquired on which to raise Black Angus beef cattle, leghorn chickens, and pigs. The only things Olaf had to buy were flour, fruit, and vegetables. At one time, St. Olaf owned over 100 farms, mostly in North Dakota. When a change in North Dakota law prohibited outside corporations from owning land in the state, the college sold the land and used the proceeds to build Thorson Hall. The farm nearest to Northfield was Springbrook, where the dairy cows were kept. During World War II a housing shortage forced 50 male students into makeshift dorms on Springbrook farm.
In the 1950s, St. Olaf farms all over Minnesota sent 30 to 45 1 gallon cans of milk to the cafeteria every day and froze 75 gallons of ice cream each day. Students took pride in their partially self-supplying campus. While St. Olaf no longer raises its own meat and poultry, the cafeteria continues to contribute to the Northfield areas agriculture by buying local foodstuffs whenever possible.