27 Degrees

100_6587The weather forecasters predicted 33 degrees for a nighttime low.  They issued a “frost advisory” indicating that there would likely be areas of frost, but not necessarily widespread frost…but AREAS.  So, we prepared as best we could, covering as many rows of flowering strawberries as we had covers for, and as all farmers do, tried to think positively about the night ahead.  I told myself weathermen and women are often wrong.  They can predict rain for days with us seeing nary a drop of the wet stuff in our rain gauge.  So I went to bed, set the alarm for 6 am (peak frost time) and that was that.

And then morning came… bright, sunny and beautiful for most non-farmers in the world… but then I looked down and there it was.  Not a patchy scratching of white on the ground, no… complete white… like a stray snow shower had passed us by while we slept.  Still, I tried to think positive… maybe it looks worse than it is… maybe the strawberries somehow made it through unscathed.  I donned my winter hat and boots and jacket, still keeping my pj’s on, boarded the Kubota, and off I went.  My first stop was the trusty thermometer that lives on the outside of our machine shed.  I stopped.  No.  That couldn’t be right.  27 degrees!  That had to be wrong.  It was an old thermometer after all.  Maybe it had gone haywire in the night.  But, it wasn’t wrong.

The closer I got to the strawberries, the more realization set in.  This was no sketchy areas of frost. This was a hard frost, a 27 degree-weathermen-and-women-didn’t-get-it-right frost.  A thick layer of white lay atop the row covers, flower buds everywhere drooped.  I could no longer tell myself otherwise… there would be serious loss in the strawberries this year.  Oh life would certainly go on, but with not nearly as many strawberries as there was yesterday.

Now it would be a waiting game.  I knew that strawberry flowers were good to 30 degrees and buds (depending on their stage of development) could survive temperatures between 22-27 degrees.  But, if our machine shed thermometer was correct, 27 degrees was right at the edge of that.  We may actually lose much more than just the flowers as I originally thought possible.  Only time would tell.

Of course, I didn’t dare touch the row covers.  After all they were only supposed to give us “several” degrees of additional warmth.  It is entirely possible that even the plants underneath them wouldn’t survive 27 degrees, 5 degrees below freezing.  As the sun warmed the earth and the frost layer dissipated, we would find out what was beneath.  Ironically, this would be the first year we had any covers at all.  You see covers are fairly expensive and often small farmers like ourselves do not have extra funds to purchase covers… but for some reason I took the opportunity last Fall to convince my husband to order as many covers as would fit into our farm budget.  The plan was to build up the supply as we could.  Little did we know they would be needed so soon after their arrival.

With so many thoughts in my head, I boarded the Kubota once again to head back to the house to make breakfast for my family and then it hit me… the grapes.  The grapes were just unfurling their leaves and buds were bursting.  The stage they were in could typically handle temperatures of 27-28 degrees.  We were at 27 degrees! So on my way back to the house I drove slowly through the vineyard, not knowing exactly what I should be looking for.  After all, this is only our sixth year of fruit farming and never before have we faced this hard of a frost in late spring.  Instinct told me to feel the new leaves and buds… everything still felt normal… no brittleness or drooping, so it was still possible to stay positive on the grape front.  Time and sunshine would let us know more, but for now the grapes seemed to be okay.

The moment I got inside, the writer in me knew that I needed to write this morning’s frosty adventures down so that I could more fully process what was happening.  In the grander scheme of things, everything really is fine.  There will be less fruit this season, but my family is still healthy and happy and although farming is my job and income, it is not our family’s only income. When we bought this farm my husband wisely planned for us not to depend on any of our farm income to pay our monthly bills.  He would keep his day job as an engineer and farm income would be used for nonessential items.  He’s a smart guy, that husband of mine.  Growing up on a farm had taught him well.  When it comes to farming, nothing is guaranteed.

The harder part though, as is so often the case in farming, is the realization that all the hard work, time and energy put into the caring for the plants could all be gone in just one night.  Whether it be a terrible rain storm, drought, wind, hail, frost… it’s all the same to farmers, something we cannot control, predict or plan for entirely.  It is what it is.  The strength comes in the way we react to the situations we are given.

And here is where I shall leave the story for now… The time is just 7:13 am.  Frost still covers the fields and my family is starting to rise from their slumber.   I feel frustrated and sad and overwhelmed by the challenge of the weather.  And yet this is where I find the most beautiful moment of the morning.  My eight year old is the first to wake.  He has been helping the last several days with row covering and uncovering and he knows what white on the ground at this time of the year means.  He lives this farmer life even at the age of 8, and he is on the payroll.  So I wonder how he will react.

He looks thoughtfully out the window and then he asks, “Mom, how much do row covers cost?”    …. “About $65-70 a piece,” I say.

100_3497And after just a moment’s thought he says, “I think I will use some of my money to buy some more row covers, Mom, because I like strawberries a lot and I want to help.”    And that was it.  All the mornings challenges in that one moment meant absolutely nothing.  When push comes to shove, my eight year old knew that we stick together to solve a problem…. and that my friends, is success way beyond what three acres of strawberries can ever produce.

2016… a look ahead

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…a tribute to the late Lowell Sterling, who taught us so much more than how to prune grapes We’re missing you this spring… (Photo taken in March 2011)

    Spring has sprung! Life at Firefly Berries has been busy since the middle of March, so we thought it was time to update our customers on all that is going on out at the farm and how the season ahead is shaping up.

     Our winter break ended in mid-March when we began the season by pruning our grapevines… 600+ vines in just four days of power pruning! In the past six years the quickest we have been done was 12 days… but with our two oldest boys able to prune without supervision this year, things went much faster! After pruning, we tied the fruiting vines that we kept… also a big job… 640 vines x 4-8 ties per vine = a lot of square knots. Again, this went much quicker this year with our 13, 11 and 8 year old boys helping. Only our four year old hasn’t learned the square not yet… maybe next year!

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Dean making sure the strawberry rows are planted the correct distance apart.

     Since grapevine pruning & tying we’ve continued to be busy outside whenever the weather was hospitable enough to do so. Other jobs completed in the past six weeks include grapevine pick up and hauling, planting 3000+ new baby strawberry plants, weeding raspberries, complete overhaul of our walk-in cooler, weeding of asparagus, pruning of blackberries, black raspberries & fruiting trees, removal & storing of irrigation hoses from our old raspberry field, raking straw off the strawberries, and making lots and lots of jam, jelly and popsicles to sell in the upcoming season. Needless to say when a rainy day arrives, we are usually ready for that rain to arrive so we can stay indoors for a much needed rest day!

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Hauling pruned canes & vines is always a lot of work. Here our 11 year old joins in with his trusty pitchfork.

     Looking ahead we are feeling positive about the 2016 season to come. May will bring the arrival of new blackberry canes and honeyberry bushes for us to plant, as well as the first strawberry blossoms and weeds, lots of weeds that will need to be pulled. May also is the beginning of our Knit in Nature nights (May 12 & 26 from 6-9 pm at the farm). This summer our outreach program (Firefly Hats for Hope Initiative-MN) will be focusing on three projects: purple hats for the Click for Babies campaign, mittens for the United Way Winter Clothing Drive and knitted knockers, an outreach program for women who have battled breast cancer. You can learn more about all these projects and how you can get involved with Firefly Hats for Hope Initiative-MN by clicking on the links above.

     June will bring fresh strawberries (right now expected to be “on schedule,” starting around June 15), as well as opportunities for tours and educational experiences out at the farm. This year we will be offering several Farm to Table classes for children ages 4-10. Check out our Educational Opportunities pages to learn more about all that we have to offer.

P6170069     Finally, though we may not be open for you pick raspberries this summer, we do plan to continue to sell at the Rochester Downtown Farmer’s Market, which begins already this coming Saturday, May 7 from 7:30 am – 12 noon. We plan to be at the market most weekends throughout the summer and early fall selling jams, jellies, honey, and fresh produce whenever it is available. May will feature rhubarb as our fresh produce, and possibly asparagus, depending on the crop and how much our family consumes!  And of course, June will bring the strawberries!

     As always we thank you for your continued support of our farm and our fruit. You can follow us online at our Facebook page, or through our website at www.fireflyberries.com. Or, you are always welcome to give us a call at 507-252-1309. We look forward to seeing you and sharing our love of yummy fruit with you in the coming weeks.

 

 

 

 

 

2015 Season Wrap Up

Here we are, the end of another year! Where has the time gone? First off, we send a big thank you to each and every one of you for your support, encouragement and patronage in 2015. We

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are continually humbled by your love of our farm and fruit.

With one year ending and another beginning, we thought it appropriate to share a small update on where the farm is and where we hope to be going! To make things a bit easier, let me break things down in order of fruit…

Strawberries — 2015 was a great year for fruit production and flavor. Our plan for the future is to continue to grow a similar amount of strawberries (2-3 acres), to have both you pick & we pick options, and to sell at the mid-week and Saturday Farmer’s Markets whenever possible. Our greatest challenge with strawberries is a blight/fungus that often affects the leaves towards the end of the season (especially in a wet year). Although this blight has been mild overall in our experience, it does greatly affect our Jewel variety, causing the season to end sooner than it should. With this challenge in mind, it is our plan to experiment next year by applying a homemade, nonchemical fungicide to our plants BEFORE flowers and fruit even set. This will hopefully give the plants a stronger defense against the wet spring. And as always, we will continue to use sustainable and earth-friendly methods to care for the soil and the fruit.

Rhubarb – Last year we transplanted a large volume of rhubarb in a new area. We are hopeful that we will have more to sell both at the farm and the Farmer’s Market. So… those of you who love your strawberry rhubarb pies or jams can now get all your produce in the same place!

Asparagus – Several years ago we planted 25 asparagus plants and we are excited to finally be able to harvest from them in 2016. Depending on how much our family consumes, we do plan to have at least some to sell both at the farm and the Farmer’s Market. If this is something you would like us to continue to sell/grow. Please let us know… for if the demand is there, we will plant more!

Raspberries – Having a significant field of you pick raspberries has been our greatest challenge in recent years. Our first rock to step over was a blight that arrived with the really wet spring we had several years ago. To fix this we prepared a new, healthy field in 2014 and planted 400 new raspberry canes in that field in 2015. These new canes are looking great! However… the challenges didn’t stop there.Three years ago a new fruit pest, spotted wing drosophilia, found its way into MN. We have worked hard to fight the pest with natural means. We’ve used cider vinegar traps to catch pests before they can reproduce. We’ve pruned & weeded more vigorously, allowing for more circulation within the rows & less hiding places for the bugs. And we’ve clean harvested… which is going back over the plants and picking all the “bad” fruit and disposing of them where they cannot reproduce and harm our fruit. Needless to say, all of these techniques are extremely time-consuming and costly. And since massive weekly or biweekly spraying with chemicals is not a part of our belief system, we have decided to no longer offer you pick raspberries, effective in 2016.

We have completely gotten rid of our older raspberry field (the one picked on in 2015) and now just have our 400 new plants (200 of summer variety & 200 of fall variety). Although we will no longer have you pick raspberries, we do still hope to have prepicked raspberries available as much as we can physically keep up with. We will send notes and post on facebook & our web page when those are available…. and we understand that many of you will likely be disappointed in this change, but we believe that right now in our farm & family life, it is the best decision.

Blackberries – These late fruiting favorites have caught the eye of many of our customers. And though we will likely never have a you pick patch (for many of the same reasons we mentioned in the raspberry notes), we are planning to expand in this variety, planting 100 new plants in 2016. It may be a couple of years until we have larger quantities, but we will keep you posted.

Concord grapes – After the damage from the 2013-2014 cold winter, we were pleased to see fruit production bounce back nicely on these in 2015. Unfortunately, the warm fall temperatures were extremely hard on all that fruit. We saw way more asian beetles and hornets feasting in our vineyard than we want to see. We could’ve sprayed the plants with an insecticide, but again… it’s not our philosophy. When you spray insecticides you not only kill the bad bugs, but the good ones as well, throwing the balance off even further. We are hopeful that 2016 will continue to see more regrowth in the vines and another great year of grapes… with more seasonal temperatures!

Honeyberries and other misc. fruit – Our oldest son has been excited for us to try some of the more unusual berries. And now that we have another field prepared with healthy soil, we will begin adding and experimenting with small amounts of new fruit varieties over the next several years. Our first fruit to add in 2016 will be honeyberries, which are supposed to be very sweet and ripen BEFORE strawberries! Other possibilities in our future include lignon berries, gogi berries, elderberries and black currants. Please let us know if you have a strong opinion on something new you’d like us to try.

Giving Thanks

With the Thanksgiving Holiday fast approaching, I thought it appropriate that I should write one last post from the 2014 season.  We have had so many adventures in recent weeks, and so much to be thankful for.

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Ian (age 9) and Eliot (age 7) pruning raspberries.

Several weekends ago, with chilly temps arriving and forecasts of our first big winter snowstorm approaching, Dean and I set to work to cover the 2 1/2 or so acres of strawberries with their winter blanket of straw.  Typically we are able to get the strawberries covered before such a storm is impending, but this year was extremely unusual.  Since it is best to cover the berries after about a week of 32 degrees or lower temps in the overnight hours, the opportunity honestly didn’t arrive until right before our big weekend straw spreading date.  So here we were caught between a warm October and an early snowstorm rushing frantically to get the last of our field work completed before those wintery flakes arrived.  Our older boys worked hard in the raspberry fields pruning as much as they could, while Dean and I worked on the straw.  They didn’t complete everything, but they made a good dent in the field… and continue to do so.  Still, this morning with snow falling and temps of 20 degrees, they were outside pruning with Dean and I.  Each day we are thankful for their smiles and their willingness to help out, each in their own way.

Back to the straw story…   Sometimes people ask us how a process like this works, and though we do lots of things by hand on our farm… this is not one of them.  I cannot imagine spreading 460 bales of straw by hand!  When we purchased the farm four years ago we also purchased various pieces of farm equipment… the straw machine was one of them.

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All loaded up and ready to go!

Upon brief inspection the straw machine looks much like a wagon with some sort of weird contraption up front, which is 100% true.  The wagon holds 50-60 or so small bales of straw (depending on how tricky we are at stacking it) and then up front there is a bale-shaped opening where one person (usually Dean) loads a bale down into.  As the straw goes in, the blades in the bottom part of the contraption cut the string (Dean pulls that part out) and then continues to cut and spread the straw over the strawberries.  Attached to the back of our slow-moving tractor, the machine moves at a snail’s pace and the process (although not done by hand) still takes quite awhile.

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Dean trying to “unclog” the straw machine.

Now all this seems rather simple… one would think.  And theoretically, it is.  But the difference between theoretical and practical can become quite gargantuan when working with machines and weather.  On this particular weekend things went as planned initially.  We were able to cover one field on Saturday without much difficulty.  But when Sunday arrived, the machine seemed to be going through its teenage rebellious years.  Several times per row I would be startled from my concentrated-straight-but-not-too-slow tractor driving by Dean’s frantic yells of “STOP.”  And even though I KNOW that Dean is very careful when the blades are moving, I always, for a brief second, have a panic attack when I hear that yell… thinking that he got his hand or sweatshirt caught in the machine and hurt himself.  I think it is a fear more than one farmer has felt over the years.

Throughout our 8 1/2 hours in the field that Sunday we saw various forms of precipitation and many times I wondered if we really would have to put straw on by hand… because after all, they were forecasting BIG snow… we wouldn’t be able to get the tractor in the field again it seemed.  Finally, after many starts and stops and several getting-under-the-machine-unclogging repairs, we finished putting the straw on.  The rain/snow had begun to fall, the sun was setting, the tractor lights were on and Dean still had to cultivate between the rows (to prevent weeds in the spring) and I had to load and drive all the raspberry canes to the burn pile, but in the end we completed everything and ended our evening thankful and exhausted.

As each of you settle in for the arrival of a Midwest winter, we hope that wherever you are and whatever your circumstances in life, you can find peace, hope and something to be thankful for.   For truly, there are always things to be thankful for… even on the worst of days.

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One of our smallest gifts!

 

2014 Concord Grape Update

100_4189It’s that time of year again… the temperatures are getting cooler, leaves are changing color and grapes are getting ripe.  It is this time of the year that we should be seeing many of you out here picking your own Concord grapes!  Unfortunately, we won’t be seeing that this year.

Back in late spring we did see a significant amount of damage on our fruiting buds in our vineyard.  Buds that should’ve burst forth producing beautiful green leaves and grape blossoms did nothing.  We watched as the days passed by… and still very few buds began to grow, and still fewer flowers were to be seen.  At that time we knew the grape crop would be small this year, but it was not until today that we realized just how small.  This afternoon I spent some time walking the rows of our vineyard, taking notes as to the health of our plants, as well as where there are grapes to be picked, and I am sad to say that I have bad news to report. We knew the crop would be small, but it is indeed much smaller than anticipated. Previously we estimated a loss of 80-85%, but after my walk today our loss is very close to 100%. With the bud damage, as well as the birds who have already found what we do have out there, we estimate only having about 10-15 flats of good grapes in the entire vineyard. On top of that, our weakened vines have succumbed to a mystery illness, which we are currently looking into.

For those of you who have been out to pick grapes before, you know 10-15 flats is not very much. In fact, 10-15 flats is about what we normally pick and process as a family on ONE day during our grape season. Because of these small numbers of available grapes, we’ve decided that we will NOT have any grapes available for sale (not even prepicked as we previously thought we would). We will simply harvest and process what we do have ourselves… to be used for grape jelly or juice to sell or for our family.  We will, however, have a limited amount of grape juice from last season (and we should have some from this year) available for purchase. We do not add any sugar to our juice, so you can use it to make your own jelly or for drinking. We sell it out at the farm for $5 per quart (32 oz).

We understand that many of you will be disappointed about this news, and we appreciate your support and love of our grapes. Unfortunately, when you choose to grow something, you also choose to live the unpredictable as far as weather, insects and disease. You never know what you will get. Some years are good, some not so good. We are hopeful that the future of our vineyard will be brighter and we will continue to work to get it that way.

Although our fruit season will not be as long as it usually is, we do still plan on being open for several more weeks (until we receive a hard frost) for raspberry picking. Our hours are Mondays, Thursdays & Saturdays 8 am – 2pm and Tuesdays from 3-7 pm.  Grape juice and various jams and jellies are available (and soon honey) on those days as well.

As always, we thank you for your continued support & encouragement, and look forward to a hopefully warmer winter and “normal” spring.

Mid Season Farm News

When I look at the calendar it is hard to believe that we are already over half way through the month of July.  I say it every year, but where does the summer go?  For us, our days have been spent picking berries, planting, tilling, weeding and helping customers.  It’s amazing how quickly those jobs can fill a day, a week, a month.

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The red currants are ripe and ready to be picked!

Being that we are now nearly half way through our 2014 fruit season, I thought it might be a good time to update everyone on the status of the farm and fruit that is yet to come.  Strawberry season was a big one.  Despite the 9 inches of rain we received throughout the three weeks we were picking, the berries held up exceptionally well.  We were blessed and happy to be able to provide so many of you with wonderful and plentiful strawberries for you to enjoy with your families and put up for the winter.  Thank you to all who came out to pick your own or order prepicked quarts.

Mother nature never lets us slow down though, and just two days after strawberries ended we opened with our first days of the summer red raspberry season.  As is typical, the berries start out thinner and then begin to fill in as the days go by.  This year, however, a polar blast earlier this week slowed the ripening and filling out of our berries immensely.  As one very astute customer mentioned… It’s like the raspberries have been in the refrigerator this week!  So true… so true!

We never know what the weather will throw at us.  Usually we have the opposite problem –with 90-100 degree days during summer raspberry season that cause the berries to ripen too fast and people to stay away from picking because it is too hot.  As is necessary in this business, we roll with the weather changes and try to help our customers do the same.  Growing food is not an exact business.  We control very little, except for how we plan for and react to the weather events that are sent our way.  We do anticipate picking our summer raspberries throughout the month of July, and we are hopeful that with a bit more warmth & sunshine the ripening will continue to pick up once again.   In the meantime, be sure to give us a call before coming out to pick so that we can fill you in on the ever-changing conditions of our raspberry field!

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We are enjoying our time with PreK & school age classes & tours!

Looking ahead to the future we have a few items to share.  First off, in terms of our summer raspberry field…  As many of you who have been with us for awhile may remember, when we first took over this fruit farm there were two summer raspberry fields.  The first year was a good year… average rain, average temperatures, pretty normal spring & summer.  But 2012 brought a horrible drought that weakened our raspberry canes in the west field and over the fall and winter of 2012 we lost the field and immediately turned it into cover crop to return the nutrients to the soil for a future fruit planting of some kind.  2013 brought a huge May snowstorm, followed by large amounts of heavy rain… which detrimentally affected our east field of summer raspberries.  It was in 2013 that we lost around 1/3 of our canes in the east field and we saw our first signs of a blight or fungus in the plants and soil.  At that time we discussed where we might move our raspberries to if we needed to in the near future.

In the Fall of 2013 we pruned our summer raspberries a bit more aggressively than we would normally, hoping to eliminate (or at least cut down) on the blight in the field.  We applied large amounts of leaf compost in the healthier rows in the early spring and we were hopeful that our 2014 season would bring drier and more normal temperatures and rain amounts, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be.  This spring has continued to be very wet, further exasperating the blight in the soil of the east field.  The 9 inches of rain received during the month of June simply confirmed our plans that in 2015 we would need to replant the summer raspberries.  We have continued to aggressively rotate the cover crops in our previous west field, preparing the soil for this new planting.  Right now we have a crop of clover and rye grass in and it looks fabulous… very few weeds, very happy soil.

So that is the plan.  We are not certain how the replanting process will all shape up for 2015, but we do know that we are going to completely eliminate a large chunk of our east field at the end of this season.  We will likely keep 10 of the healthiest rows for harvest in 2015, but seeing as Nova raspberries fruit on second year growth, it is obvious that our crop next year will be very small.  We will continue to update you on exciting changes and additions in the summer raspberry fields.

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The 2014 grape harvest looks uncertain.

Many of our customers are aware of our summer raspberry crop, but fewer are aware that we also grow a Fall or Everbearing raspberry variety called Autumn Bliss.  We generally start picking this crop of raspberries in mid August and go until a hard frost of 28 degrees. The drought of 2012 was also extremely hard on this field and we lost 1/3 of our canes and were unable to open for you pick in 2013.  However, the good news on this front is that 2014 is looking better.  There are still large holes of missing plants, but there are also lots of good ones, and we do anticipate opening for you pick of this variety again in August of 2014.  We also plan on replanting some of these berries in Spring 2015, bringing them back up to their previous amounts.

Finally, our last big crop of the season is typically our Concord Grapes, but this year the future of the grapes is very uncertain.  Right now as we walk through our vineyard we are seeing only about 10% of the vines with fruit on them.  And of those vines that have fruit on them, the majority have very little.  Why is this?  Very simply, the extremely cold temperatures this winter caused extreme bud damage. The vines sent all their energy to the center (just as we do when we are cold) to keep the plants alive, but in the meantime the buds that were to become fruiting vines this year did not make it. Only time will tell what sort of grape harvest we will have this year, but the possibility that we will not have grapes available to sell in 2014 is highly likely.  The good news though is that we lost very few actual vines.  In fact, after spreading pot ash (a natural form of potassium) on the vines early this spring, they have put out nice new growth coming out from the center of the vines.  They have a long way to go to get back to their previous state, but they are growing!

I’ve said this before, but there is never a dull moment at Firefly Berries. Not only do we have the antics of our four boys to keep up with, but the ever changing weather patterns and planning of plants and cover crops as well. Today was an exceptionally exciting day at the farm because we had a good size group of campers come out for a tour and raspberry picking. As is customary, I always answer the questions kids have and today one of the students asked me how much money we made in a week. As his teachers were about to reprimand him for being rude, I simply smiled and told him what I tell everyone who ever inquires about starting their own you-pick farm business. We are not in this for the money. There is no real money to be made in the small pick your own farm business. We do this because we love the soil and the land, and we believe in the importance of sharing how real food grows with those who are interested and willing to learn.  Yet despite the lack of fortune and fame, the job of a farmer is one of the most important jobs on the planet, and we try our hardest to do that job the best we possibly can, regardless of the weather or the income.

May 2014 update

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Annapolis strawberries in full bloom

The weather is warmer, the bees are buzzing, and we are busy getting ready for a new fruit season!  We’ve been getting lots of calls from excited customers wondering when strawberry season will begin, and I am happy to report that it won’t be too much longer!  (Around June 21 is our current estimate).

My berry scouts were out hunting for flowers and nearly two weeks ago now they found the first four flowers (which is very convenient since there are four of them!) and since then the fields are a bloom with flowers everywhere. The bees are happily pollinating and our hard working family members and employees are doing fabulous work weeding all the fields (strawberry and raspberry) to get them off to a good start.  We are feeling especially blessed this year to have Mee and Pha back working hard in the fields. Some days it is just the two of them, and other days they bring their daughter or friends, but always the two of them… when we are in need of weeding help, they arrive on time, work hard and always have a smile to share.  As we grow as a farm, we realize that we cannot do all the hand weeding ourselves, so knowing we have others we can count on when we need them has been a tremendous gift.

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Summer raspberries looking great after a good weeding!

The other big job on our list the past three weeks has been compost!  Between Dean, myself and our four boys we have managed to load, carry and spread nearly 9 tons of leaf compost in both our summer and fall raspberry fields, as well as our blackberries.  Yes, you read that right, 18,000 lbs of compost!  That’s a lot of shoveling indeed.  Our backs are thankful that we are done with this important job, and I’d like to think the plants are appreciating our hard work as well.

New life is everywhere it seems. The grass is greener and requiring weekly mowing, the plants are springing forth with leaves, and there seem to be new baby birds everywhere we look.  Already we’ve enjoyed watching two different robin families build their nests, care for their eggs, hatch & feed their babies, and teach them to fly. Also, a family of killdeer has decided to nest in our summer raspberry patch, which means about a 10 foot section of the field has not been weeded, but awaits hatching time until we can finish that work.  If Mama killdeer’s recent persistence of staying on the eggs is any indicator, the babies should be born soon.  I love the opportunity nature offers for us to learn so much about the world we live in. It is always hard when the boys tell of a baby bird or creature they have found that fell from a nest or was partially eaten by another creature, but talking about what this means and burying the creature together (usually in our butterfly garden) is so precious and important.  It is our wish that our customers can experience just a little of this life when they come out to pick berries.

Another exciting update from the farm is that we are now offering PreK Farm to Table classes. We currently have scheduled about one class a month with topics about fruit and flowers, all for children ages 3-6. We are also offering educational tours and looking at the possibility of adding classes for older children. If this is something that interests you, please let us know!  You can find the complete class listing and details under the “Education” link on our home page.

For the adults who love coming out to the farm and are interested in helping us with our Firefly Hats for Hope Outreach program, we are now hosting “knit in nature” nights… two Mondays a month from 6-8:30 pm we will meet and work together to create handmade winter items to donate to the homeless and working poor in our area. You do not need to know how to knit or crochet or loom to attend, we are happy to teach you and get you started.  Just show up and we’ll put you to work.  We have yarn and extra needles to get you started! You’ll find more details (including dates we are meeting) under the “Outreach” link on our homepage.

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The little guys helping with the last load of compost!

On the downside of things, our grapevines are not looking as they should. They have taken forever to leaf out and even now, many of the vines have just a couple of buds/leaves out. We are not sure what this means for our season this fall, but we will continue to watch the vineyard closely and update as we know more. Also, we are still planning on putting on a good layer of potash (a natural form of potassium) to help the vines and the soil that feeds them.

All in all, we are hopeful of the season that awaits us. Still, there is so much to do in the fields, and always the job of watching the weather and rainfall. But through it all, one thing remains the same… our love of the land and the importance of the work we are doing. Pulling weed after weed may seem pointless to some, but to us it is our small way that we can responsibly care for the gift of this world that we have been given.

We send spring blessings to all who find our farm a fun place to learn & explore, and we look forward to seeing you all in the weeks and months ahead.

 

Planting Day!

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Dean oils the wheels before we begin planting.

Each spring we watch the weather reports with great interest, noting which days there will be rain, how much, and how many days between rain storms. We check the soil, looking at the surface… and digging into it a bit to see what it feels like. Does it crumble or clump?  Is it wet or just moist? The list of questions and observations go on and on… and sometimes we never get the ideal answers, but we do what we can with the information and weather available.  All of this questioning and planning is done in anticipation of spring planting day — the one day out of the year when we plant anywhere from 3000-4000 bare root strawberry plants.  And for this year, yesterday was THE day!

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The boys planting in 2013.

I’d like to say that “we woke early in anticipation of the big event,” but that would not be true this year.  In fact, we slept in because our toddler alarm clock awoke us a bit later than usual!  But, after having our ceremonial cinnamon roll breakfast (because as our 11 year old says… “It’s a holiday! We have to have cinnamon rolls!) we head out to the machine shed to get things rolling. At this time we do not own our own strawberry planter. Instead we rent one from a fellow berry farmer in our area. The irony of it all is that the planter is not actually a strawberry planter, but rather an old tobacco planter that works great in planting strawberries!  It attaches to the back of our big tractor, allowing for two people to sit and plant as the tractor slowly moves down the field.

The challenge for us this year was that the owner of the machine had it refurbished over the winter months, sharpening the blades, adding new rubber to the pincher that grabs each plant… which one would think is fabulous. However, we quickly learned that the improvements caused the berry plants to be planted much deeper than we were used to.   After many stops & starts, and a few tweaks on the part of the driver & the planters, we finally seemed to figure out how to make it work like we wanted.

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Hundreds of tiny strawberry plants waiting to go in the ground

This year we planted three different varieties: Jewel, Allstar, and Annapolis, totaling a little more than an acre of plants. Each plant is spaced two feet apart to allow room for growth. The machine does that measuring for us.  However, we also need to plant the rows about 4 1/2 feet apart, so in the beginning we need to stop to take measurements.  If the rows are too far apart we won’t fit in as many plants as we planned for. And, if they are too close we won’t have enough plants, and as the plants fill out they will start to crowd into each other. It is an exact science that isn’t so exact when it comes right down to it.

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Each time the wheel turns, the pincher opens and we place a plant inside.

After four hours sitting behind the tractor and smelling more like diesel than anyone could ever want, we are finished with the machine part of our day. Everyone breaks for lunch and naptime and Dean drives the machine back to the berry farmer we rented it from. Now comes the really tedious part… walking the field, which this year took longer than the machine planting — mostly because we had some young planters in training and we were getting used to the new calibrations of the planting machine.  “Walking the field” means just that… I walk up and down each row looking for the crown of each tiny strawberry plant. If I can’t find one where it is supposed to be, I crouch down and use a shovel (or a large spoon as was the case this year!) to try and locate where the plant is. If it is buried too deep, I pull it up slightly and replant it by hand. If it is nonexistent, as sometimes happens… we are human after all… then I plant a new one of the correct variety in the spot.  Up and down I go, row after row, checking each tiny little plant to make sure it is at the correct depth and in the correct location.  I am guessing that most berry farmers do not go to the trouble of this “walking the field” step, but we have found a bit of extra work on planting day saves frustration and heartache later in the season. You see, it is a highly calculated process, and for every missing or incorrectly planted strawberry plant, we will see oh a hundred weeds trying to take over the space!  And for us, anything we can do to lesson the amount of weeding we will do in the strawberry field is well worth the time spent.

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Always time for a tractor ride!

 

So… that’s it… that is pretty much how our day went yesterday… not too exciting, but exciting enough to keep us on our toes. After finishing walking the fields around 7:30 pm, we even managed to plant in two more pear trees, bringing our total fruit trees to four pear, two plum, two tart cherry, one sweet cherry, and three apricot. Right now we do not have immediate plans to sell these fruits, but rather just supply our family with fruit. However, if we are able to make them grow as we’d like to… and without the use of any chemicals… then we will very likely expand in that area.  But, until that day arrives… one thing will continue to remain the same… We will continue to celebrate spring planting day as a family holiday, complete with cinnamon rolls, dirty hands and lots of hard work!

 

 

Spring at the Farm

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Our nine year old puts in his time too!

The weather is warming up, life-giving rains are falling… spring has finally arrived at Firefly Berries.  It’s still quite some time until we are open for strawberry picking out at the farm, but there has still been a flurry of activity. Spring is a time of preparation for the new season… vines & canes must be pruned and then hauled to the burn pile, compost must be spread, the winter blanket of straw must be removed from atop the strawberries, newly pruned grapevines must be tied to the guide wires, new strawberries must be planted, and any and all improvements or additions we hope to have for the season, must be implemented.

If you were to drive into our driveway on a sunny, spring day you would likely see us outside working. As our boys grow, they too are expected to help with the chores as a part of their daily routine. Even our two year old helped (in his small way) to pick up pruned canes this year!

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Papa helps with hauling pruned raspberry canes.

With the help of extended family, we made great progress over the past three weeks. All of the blackberries & raspberries (both red & black) have been pruned and the canes carried off to the burn pile, all 630+ grapevines have been pruned & tied, and all 2 1/2 acres of strawberries have had their winter straw blankets removed and are awaiting the warmer temps & rain so that they can show their true potential.

Up next on the agenda we will be spreading compost on our summer and fall red raspberries, adding pot ash to help the grapevines, as well as tackling all the downed trees from the blizzard back in February.  We are also looking at the possibility of adding a picnic area to the farm, so that families can enjoy a safe and relaxing area for lunch and/or visiting… as well as a rain garden to help with the drainage of water from our driveway… drainage, that in a very wet year like 2013, can cause serious damage and loss in our summer raspberry fields.  So much yearly maintenance, as well as exciting updates and changes to look forward to!