NASGA Summer Bus Tour 2017

  Hort Snacks - September 2017
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 Introduction | Day 1 - Stop #1 - U of M HRC | Day 1 - Stop #2 - Untiedt's Vegetable Farm | Day 1 - Stop #3 - The Berry Patch | Day 1 - Stop #4 - Pine Tree Apple Orchard | Day 2 - Stop #1 - Govin's Meats and Berries | Day 2 - Stop #2 - Red Cedar Valley Farms | Day 2 - Stop #3 - Afton's Apple Orchard | Day 2 - Stop #4 - Gertens Greenhouse


Each year, the North American Strawberry Growers Association (NASGA) organizes a summer bus tour somewhere in the USA or Canada, typically in the temperate growing regions. Over two days, participants visit a number of operations that have a component of their operation dedicated to strawberries, as well as other fruits and vegetables. Operations also include those that are connected in some way (e.g. basket makers, packing plants, nurseries, etc.). There are great opportunities to network and pick the brains of fellow producers from across the USA and Canada (and occasionally other places).

In 2017, NASGA visited the Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota area, visiting long-time NASGA members around central Minnesota, and some other growers over into western Wisconsin (jokingly referred to as “Eastern Minnesota”).

The following are some of the things that were observed, learned, heard or picked up during the tour.

Day 1 - Stop #1: University of Minnesota’s Horticulture Research Centre – Chaska, Minnesota

The University of Minnesota Horticulture Research Centre was established in 1908 to research, breed and select plants that can survive the “frigid” winters. Over the years, they have released a number of notable crops, including the Honeycrisp apple.

The focus of this stop highlighted their work with breeding hardy grapes, alongside work to create a Minnesota wine industry. They showed a sort of vertical approach to producing wine, with the breeding, selecting and agronomic side of the program completely connected to the wine-making side.

At the site, they work mainly with three Vitis species, along with a couple of others. They take cross pollinations between quality varieties and hardy stock, generating about 10,000 seeds per years, of which 7,000-8,000 are germinated in the greenhouse, with 4,000-5,000 being planted out into the fields. They screen for disease resistance as a primary criterion, as well as other indicators, such as vine growth, etc. They are now using Marker Assisted Selection technology to increase their efficacy. They evaluate selections for 2-3 years in the field and then move into a lab setting.

Over the past years, they have released Frontenac (1996), Edelweiss, Swenson Red, La Crescent (2002), a sport mutation called Frontenac Gris, Marquette (2006) and Itasca (2017). The process can take years. Itasca took 14 years to reach release.

On the production side, they tolerate broadleaf weeds, as grapes are very sensitive to 2,4-D herbicides. They have minimal pressure from Spotted Winged Drosophila (SWD), largely due to the thick skinned nature of the grapes. They do have issues with hail, birds and Japanese Beetles. Flea beetles are also a major issue, as they attack the developing buds. For weeds, they do a lot of spot spraying with glyphosate or contact herbicides, going slowly and carefully.

In the wine lab, they go from clusters of grapes through to a finished wine. The key with wine is to keep things CLEAN, COOL and FULL. They weigh fruit, take pictures and do visual evaluations prior to pressing the fruit in a couple of ways (depends on the type of fruit). Samples are kept for further evaluation at a later date. The juice is filtered and then the wine is made in small bottles to reduce the impact of any spoilage or testing. An acre of grapes will produce approximately 2-5 tons of fruit, producing about 750-780 bottles. A grower might get US$1500-2000/ton of fruit.

Red and white grapes on vine
Viticulture program managers
Enology (wine making) equipment and winemaker
Photos by Robert Spencer

Day 1 - Stop #2: Untiedt’s Vegetable Farm – Waverly, Minnesota

The farm was started in 1971, and is run entirely as a family farm, with 2 daughters and sons-in-law involved in the operation, with the next generation on the brink of taking a role. They sell most of their produce direct to the public, using wholesale sales for the flexible parts of the harvest. They grow a bit in size each year. They have the original farm site, as well as some additional expansion farms.

They grow a very wide range of fruit and vegetable crops (50+), mostly to satisfy the needs of their large Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program (1300 subscriptions). The bulk of the produce that was observed was grown under high tunnels. They have about 40 acres of high tunnels, growing multiple crops per season under them, as well as having other field crops (e.g. sweet corn, pumpkins, etc.). They have extended their season dramatically, using crop types and 3 or 4-season tunnels (4-season tunnels are heated using propane heaters). They have about 20 stands, as well as selling at a range of Farmers’ Markets.

Their Day neutral strawberries (only Albion) are mostly sold through retail stands, with a little wholesale. They like the flavor and texture of Albion. They pick the fruit and send it directly from the field to market, without refrigeration. They have about 7.5 acres of high tunnel strawberries, as well as about 15 acres of June bearing strawberries (several varieties). SWD has been an issue for the last couple of years. They break their production into 3 parts, harvesting, then spraying and waiting 3 days to repeat it. The other 2 parts allow a cycle and an uninterrupted flow of fruit. They try to overwinter their DN in the high tunnels, but have had some issues with white grubs in some areas, resulting in some areas being replanted. They’ve also been working on some hydroponic strawberries, but have had some uniformity issues. For their crops, they do a weekly sap analysis. This allows them to see “where the plant is going” rather than the historic data that is provided by tissue analysis (“where has it been”).

Tomatoes are sold to local retail, with more going to wholesale. All of their tomatoes are grown under high tunnels and yield much higher (60-65 ton/acre) than the state average (5 ton/acre) for field tomatoes. Tomatoes are grown in the soil, not bags or pots. All of their tomatoes are grafted, to improve height and disease resistance. They purchase them grafted now, as they found it complicated and challenging to get 100% take on the grafts. They’ve had issues with Clavibacter in the tomatoes, so they flag those that have it and work it last in the day.

Their high tunnels are generally all 3-season Haygrove tunnels. Because of the heavy snowfalls, they can’t leave the tunnels covered in winter. They use backpack sprayers in the high tunnels, although they have a couple of small boom sprayers. They use biocontrols on the cucumbers in the high tunnel, but have had trouble with them in the strawberries in high tunnels. They also grow muskmelons and primocane and floricane raspberries in the high tunnels. With the volume of high tunnels, it has been challenging to figure out where the water is going to go. They’ve installed drain tile underneath and it has paid for itself very quickly. Their 4-season high tunnels are heated in cold season and a number of them are white-washed to reduce the heating in summer. They follow a program of removing plant material, spading, spreading granular fertilizer, lay mulch and drip by hand. Covering the tunnels in spring can take up to 3 weeks, because of wind. They prioritize the crops that need covered first until it is all done. They also zone the tunnels for fertigation, to allow better control of the stages. They run at a lower crop density in the tunnels to try and get more air movement. They have honeybee colonies of their own on the farm (managed by someone specific from off-farm) and they introduce bee boxes in the flowering crops as well.

They grow a large crop of potted mums, as well as 20+ acres of 11 different varieties of apples. Having many crops under tunnels keeps things interesting. They hand plant most of the crops through the plastic or use transplants.

The majority of their labour are H2A workers. Some are Eastern European, some South African, but the majority are Mexican. They are provided with very nice living quarters. One house had geothermal heating and air conditioning. They’ve run into challenges with overtime limits imposed by Minnesota, resulting in some tough decisions about what gets done. They do lots with innovative equipment to reduce labour or increase efficiency. For example they have built harvest carts for raspberries, allowing them to bring out 20 flats at a time, rather than one at a time.

Ranges of 3 and 4-season (heated) high tunnel structures – mainly tomatoes of various kinds
High tunnel day neutral strawberries (Albion)
High tunnel day neutral strawberries, including pollinator bees introduced in boxes
Hydroponic strawberry high tunnels – still having the kinks worked out
Cucurbit crops (muskmelons, cucumbers, etc.) in high tunnels
Potted plants (foliage plants and Mums) produced for different seasons – they do different colours for fall, Halloween, etc.
Photos by Robert Spencer

Day 1 - Stop #3: The Berry Patch – Forest Lake, Minnesota

This farm first started with strawberries in the early 1970’s, as an investment club (owned by partner families). The current owner started as a hired manager and has been present for 40 years. He is the 50% owner of the farm now. The land was sold during peak land prices and is now rented back on a long-term lease. Raspberries and blueberries and other crops have been added (and removed) over the years. At present, it is running at about 6 acres of strawberries, 2 acres of raspberries and 8 acres of blueberries.

A short time before harvest was supposed to start in 2017, a severe hail storm went through the area, producing major winds and massive hail, stripping the plants and making a mess. They had no crop, but have regrouped. This farm works closely with the University of Minnesota and does things like Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
They are a typical strawberry farm, with 2-3 acres of matted row June bearing strawberries planted each year, cropped for 3 years and then rotated out for 2-4 years. They have 4 main varieties, but are trying new ones. They do have some issues with white cockle. Raspberries are mainly Nova, with some Prelude. They use a high intensity trellis system. Blueberries are a number of different half-high and hardy highbush varieties. They soil test regularly, as they had managed to drop their pH to 3.8 through continuous use of ammonium sulfate fertilizers.

All that they produce is sold on-farm, with most of the strawberries, all of the raspberries and blueberries being u-pick. They track customers by looking at the deposit books and matching zip codes. They are listed on the Minnesota Grown directory and have an e-newsletter, an automated phone line and use other tools.

During the hailed out season, other than making future decisions, they designed and built a harvest or field aid machine, used for picking, deblossoming, derunnering, etc. Workers can work for hours without unnecessary strain. Breaks are recommended every hour or so, to prevent dizziness. Workers lie face down in the U-gap (right side) and put their feet under or on top of the round rail.
Photos by Robert Spencer

Day 1 - Stop #4: Pine Tree Apple Orchard – White Bear Lake, Minnesota

Originally purchased by parents in 1958, the orchard started at 25 acres and is now over 300 acres. At present, it is run by 6 adult children, with each responsible for a different special interest. They grow and market apples and strawberries, as well as pumpkins and corn for the corn maze.

The entire farm is deer fenced. They also invested in an audio deterrent system, which cost about $1500, but paid for itself in 1 year. Everything they grow is sold on the farm in some form, whether fresh or processed in some form.

They have many different types of apples, including some of the special U of Minnesota variety called Tango Fancy, which can only be grown in limited numbers outside Minnesota. They have used different root stock for their trees, but they really like G11, as it is resistant to apple replant disease and performs well. Apples are trained along wires and are drip irrigated.

They use wagons to bring people to the fields, in groups of about 20-25, which makes it easy for a single greeter to manage them. Their wagons are built on school bus frames.

They have a lot of grass to mow, which takes a long time.

Pine Tree Apple Orchards sales building is full of demonstration stuff, bakery, etc.
Beautiful landscaped areas off of the parking lot
Portable/modular fencing – can be assembled to create barriers where required
Audio scare sound system – have a range of sounds, but is VERY effective
Trailers (built on school bus frames) are used to take groups of customers to the fields/orchards
A new strawberry field

Apple in orchards are trained on wires
Minnesotans are very serious about their apples. Those produced at the U of Minnesota, like this one, “Tango Fancy”, have restrictions on growing outside the state. They tend to be high quality and are valuable. E.g. Honeycrisp
Photos by Robert Spencer

Day 2 - Stop #1: Govin’s Meats and Berries – Menomonie, Wisconsin

The Govins started out in dairy and hospitality, but have transformed into a diverse and interesting operation. They are all about the experience on their farm.

They offer both u-pick and pre-picked strawberries and some other veggies, including 3 acres of pumpkins. They have about 6 acres of Jewel PYO strawberries, plus 1.5 acres of sweet corn, which they sell east, due to low prices west. They have a corn maze and other fall activities starting late September. They sell custom lamb and chicken cuts. In recent years they’ve added a highly successful interactive lambing weekend, which consists of a birthing barn, which brings out about 12,000 people. They also have The Weddin’ Barn (old Jersey dairy barn and a 3 bedroom house) that runs on weekends through May to October. They also breed Great Pyrenees dogs for protection of the livestock and for sale.

The wedding barn costs twice as much in time and cost as expected. They supply a sound system to tie into, but don’t do catering and booze.

The corn maze is geared to middle school and college-aged audiences, not younger. It is a very hard 11 acre maze. They have a corn and pumpkin cannon, which sometimes hit the highway. They use the Corn Maze company for their maze.

They’ve discovered that in order to keep the crows and gophers out of the baby pumpkins (not eat the seeds), they dribble 2 rows of field/grain corn on the surface alongside the pumpkin rows.

In their strawberries, they drip irrigate, because the high iron water that they have affects the sugars in the berries if they sprinkle irrigate.

Pumpkin fields at Govin’s
Play areas, including mini-golf, bounce pads, etc.
Corn maze designs from past years
Great Pyrenees dogs are bred and raised for protecting the livestock – expanding into breeding to sell puppies, to help pay for the cost of them
Photos by Robert Spencer

Day 2 - Stop #2: Red Cedar Valley Farms – Menomonie, Wisconsin

The original farm started in 1988, with a second owner coming on in 1992. The current owner has been in place for 4 years, but started working on the farm since 1998. The owner has a couple of brothers that help on the farm.

They do about ¼ of their business as u-pick, with ¾ as ready-pick. They have about 36 acres but run a 4-5 year rotation, with 4-5 years as cover crops. They have about 8-11 acres of strawberries for picking each year, which is down from the past, but they are cutting back to 7-8 acres next year, as they can’t get the pickers to handle more than that. They could sell more fruit than they have, but they can’t get the workers to do it.

Of their ready pick production, 25 percent goes to wholesale, with the rest going to 6 roadside stands that they have set up in several cities within 1 hour of the farm. Picked fruit is not cooled, but is taken straight to the stands within 6 hours of picking. They use suburbans that have shelves in the back, which hold pails, table, signage, etc. They use about 600-5 quart pails per day for 6 roadside stands. Customers can pick up orders at the farm, if they call ahead, but it is a limited quantity.

Roadside stand sites are picked based on several factors, including ease of permitting within a city and how well they sell. They prefer to use paid sites rather than free ones, as they get advertising and good partnerships out of them. Sites that sell well (at least 10 pails an hour) are maintained. They pay their sellers by the hour, based on the years with the farm (up to a maximum).

Pickers are paid by the pail, so the amount that they make per hour depends on their picking speed. Generally, most people can make decent money if they are adequate. Their labour is all local. A number of years ago, they had upwards of 150 Mung (Asian culture) workers, but now they run about 40 percent Mung to 60 percent high schoolers. Their ideal number of pickers is 40-60 now. Pickers are supervised in groups of 10-15. Each picker has their own name on their buckets, which helps for quality control. Pickers can walk on, with forms filled out that day. They keep a list of former pickers and call them back each year. In their 3-4 week season, they pay twice, about every 10 days.

Buckets include a $0.50 deposit. U-pickers get a lower cost if they bring their own. Pails are washed as a part of a big fun activity at the end of the season. They provide ice cream and a water fight and pickers come and wash the pails. They continue with the pails because of tradition.

They try different varieties every year, but they mainly grow Jewel, Galletta and Annapolis. They had issues with Anthracnose this year, more so on Jewel. They speculate that it was because they baled straw next to the fields on a really hot, dry windy day, which produced lots of dust.

Distinctive pails are used for picking, either by u-pickers or ready-pickers. Each pail is marked with picker’s name, for quality assurance and payment.
Strawberries fields at Red Cedar Valley Farms
A fleet of suburban are used to deliver pails to roadside stands – each is equipped with racks for fruit
Photos by Robert Spencer

Day 2 - Stop #3: Afton's Apple Orchard – Hastings, Minnesota

The current owners bought the orchard in 1989, with the farm being over 300 acres now, with major expansions and changes. They do almost everything themselves. They grow strawberries, raspberries, pumpkins and 14 varieties of apples. They have about 30 acres of strawberries, 8 acres of fall-bearing raspberries (6 varieties) and lots of apples, most of which are u-pick.

Their on-farm experience features a massive playground, including Straw Mountain, Retread Hill and Johnny Combine. This grew from a single picnic table and tire swing. They recently put in 2 miles of 8 foot high deer fence and have over 5 miles of road on the property, which has allowed them to host various road races. They have a petting zoo with all of their own animals. They have about 12,000-15,000 school kids that visit each year.

Most of their apples are u-pick, with them charging an admission to the orchard, which helps to cover the costs of all of the stuff that is needed. They run 8 hay wagons in a loop.

They recently went to a Raven spray system, which does all of the adjustments for you (speed, rate, volume, etc.) and has definitely paid for itself. They also have lots of custom-made equipment. They have a mobile food stand, in the shape of a red barn. There is a strawberry building near the fields, which serves as a sales building. They spray for Japanese beetle, but don’t spray for SWD until about a week before opening.

Their corn maze is 50 acres, in 3 phases. They do different events and themes. They have a shooting range that is used by local law enforcement for training. It was purchased to ensure they could control access to it. When the corn maze is open, the shooting range isn’t, but they shoot apples at the targets.

All of the equipment have female names, and are jokingly referred to as the owner’s mistresses.

New 8-foot deer fence – 2 miles
Shooting range, including sniper tower
2016’s corn maze design – portion of proceed donated
Comfy seating around store
Fall raspberry fields
Unique playground, including Johnny Combine, Retread Mountain, giant swing and giant chair
Strawberry fields
Mobile “red barn” food shack down by the strawberry fields – sell range of stuff
Photos by Robert Spencer

Day 2 - Stop #4: Gertens Greenhouse – Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota

This multi-faceted greenhouse/garden centre/nursery business has been running for almost 100 years and has changed a great deal. The 4th generation is currently working on the farm. They have approximately 100 acres in greenhouses, garden centre and nursery sales area, commercial landscaping supplies, etc. They grow the majority of the items that they sell. They have several sites and run year round. The different businesses are owned by different family members.

Gertens features a massive indoor sales area, perennial, annual, nursery and other sales areas.
Everything is nicely laid out and tidy.
Production greenhouse range
More production greenhouses
Gertens features a massive indoor sales area, perennial, annual, nursery and other sales areas.
Everything is nicely laid out and tidy.
Flat filling and planting area, off of the production greenhouses
Moving carts from upper production greenhouses requires a safety rail that all carts attach to from managing the steep hill
Photos by Robert Spencer
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This information published to the web on August 31, 2017.