Fruit of Newbie Fields

When you start a pick-your-own raspberry farm, people say, “You must eat a lot of berries.” The answer is no and yes.

No, because to me our beautiful fruit tastes faintly of stress and anxiety. Farming is a like skydiving: You leap out of a plane wearing a parachute made of all your spring labors and investments — and it will deploy only if conditions are perfect.

Otherwise, you’ll face a financial splat. That’s the very real danger we faced when my husband Jason and I decided to diversify our chicken farm in Wrenshall by starting Farm LoLa, the pick-you-own berry wing of Locally Laid Egg Company.

And this year the stakes feel higher. We’ve invested in an expanded irrigation system; set posts and wire trellis, hired a larger crew and pruned and weeded (and weeded some more). In a lot of ways, the work has paid off.

Though only our second season, we have eight times the berries of last year. Over three acres that equates to some 15,000 lbs. as estimated by our expert, Dr. Thaddeus McCamant. He believes it has something to do with our sandy soil, organic amendments (like “Liquid Squid”) and fruit-friendly climate provided by Lake Superior.

This all leads to what my mother-in-law would call “a good problem to have.” We are now tasked with getting as many of these berries off the field before they go to waste or attract pests or are demolished by a weather event. All of which is real and could happen at any moment. The other day, a big storm was rolling in over the field and I said angrily, “You’d better not hail on this crop!” And it struck me that I’ve become a woman who yells at clouds.

And yes, I do eat a lot of berries because when I’m picking for the co-ops, small stores or the farmers market I’ll pop overripe ones into my mouth like a nervous tick. It’s my personal effort to “not let them go to waste.” This leads to my standing in the sun with a belly full of slightly fermented fruit. While I do not recommend this practice, I somehow can’t seem to stop.

But the majority of our berries are picked by the general public. From my limited experience, pickers come in a few categories. Some are families looking to give their kids a farm experience and we show them the chickens, the tractors, the rain catchment system. Some are couples (usually with a woeful husband dragged along) looking to add some fresh sweetness to their morning smoothies or muffins. But there’s another group, a distinguished one I respectfully call The Jam Brigade.

A brigade member is generally a woman who checks the 50+ age demographic box, knows how to pick (low and slow, lift and look) and will scoff at the “berry tourist.” His “high and fly formation” above the bushes causes him to miss some 60 percent of the fruit. Our veteran picker drops fruit into a bucket attached to her person with a rope or through a belt loop, and she takes to her task with laser intention. There’s a goal, a mission: To make jam for everyone she knows. She is, in effect, Christmas shopping in our fields. And we love her for it.

To reach the Brigade and all our other constituencies, we modern farmers are constantly updating our website, the Facebook page with posts and live videos, then Instagram and emails and, of course, the outgoing phone message.

Sensibly, people want to know the first day we’ll be open, the day we close and all our set hours in between. We have been trained by the global food system that fruit comes on a neat and tidy schedule. For small-time folks like us, it just doesn’t work that way.

Pick times are determined the evening before, based on the percentage of fruit that has ripened that day and if we’ve had to use an organic pesticide on the base of the bushes, which pushes back harvest time. Also, we must factor the number of people who have recently made the drive out to the country to, as my friend Gretchen says, “play migrant worker for a day.” This is often temperature and concert-schedule related.

So, like most weather-based operations, it’s fair to say this form of agritourism is complicated. My biggest takeaway is that a pick-your-own farm is like running a business based on the whims of Magic 8 Ball. “Will it have been worth it this year?” Magic 8 says, “Hazy Try Again Later.”

latestcoverLucie Amundsen owns half the debt of Locally Laid Egg Company and Farm LoLa. Her narrative nonfiction book on life as an egg proprietress was released in 2016 by Penguin/Random House.

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