Feeling blue: Stillwater couple fulfilling dream with u-pick berry farm | Crain's Twin Cities

Feeling blue: Stillwater couple fulfilling dream with u-pick berry farm

While raising her three children in Kentucky and Ohio, Bev O’Connor got a kick out of taking them blueberry picking at local farms.

Somewhere along the way an idea struck her: Why couldn’t she and her husband Mike start a U-pick berry orchard? Her dream became a reality in 2001 after the family was able to move back to Minnesota and buy 20 acres in Stillwater with which to begin.

Several painstaking years followed while the couple researched species and techniques, planted and nurtured bushes and waited for them to mature enough to bear substantial fruit. Blueberry Acres of Stillwater opened for business in 2008 and has since grown to encompass two acres, 1,900 bushes and seven different varieties of fruit. The mature bushes are capable of producing three to 10 pounds of berries annually.

“I wanted to have a farm where multi-generations could come and have a refreshing time in nature and go home with a great supply of fresh berries,” remembered the 58-year-old Bev, a former nurse.

Blueberries are notoriously slow to grow and require a significant upfront investment, which is why many farmers are hesitant to take them on. But Bev said the couple understood that from the start, and consider their business growth successful. Demand for blueberries in Minnesota still exceeds supply, she noted, in spite of several other berry farms statewide.

"The farm is even more beautiful than I expected. Seeing the bushes covered with white blossoms in early spring, then juicy berries in the summer, and finally gorgeous red leaves in the fall is spectacular. And it is very satisfying to observe our guests enjoying themselves as they pick berries," she said.

Long-term investment

One of the O’Connors’ first challenges was identifying  berry species that would produce but still withstand Minnesota’s harsh winters. Fortunately, the University of Minnesota had already worked to develop a hybrid bush.

The university began blueberry breeding in 1967, and between 1983 and 2013 produced most of the varieties optimized in the state today, according to James Luby. The U of M horticulture professor is co-author of the consumer publication "Blueberries for Home Landscapes." 
 
“Production was (initially) limited by the cold winters that caused extensive damage to highbush varieties used in other production areas,” he explained.  “The university varieties were derived by initially crossing highbush varieties from the eastern U.S. with the native lowbush blueberry, then further crossing among the offspring.”
 
Though blueberry production remains minimal in Minnesota compared to many other states, Luby noted, the university's efforts have led to success among several small producers such as Blueberry Fields that focus on direct-to-consumer marketing.

To get started, Bev—who grew up on a dairy farm near St.Cloud—took horticulture classes and conducted her own research on growing the berries. Sixty-four-year-old Mike, who recently retired as an actuary, learned to operate and maintain the farm equipment and serves as business manager. 

Their first season was spent preparing the soil to be acidic enough to support the young plants. By 2006, the first 650 were planted and in 2007, an additional 700 were established. The family was forced to protect its crop by installing an expensive deer fence as well as a machine that produces raccoon noises to ward off birds. 

The farm had a setback in 2008 when, for unknown reasons, no bees pollinated their blossoms – meaning no berries were produced. After that, the O’Connors made a point of planting adjacent bee-attracting wildflowers and arranging for two different beekeepers to keep hives and houses on the property. These days, additional bumblebees are also purchased from Michigan each year. Bev said the past few years they've had good pollination.

Work on the farm can be fairly grueling during every season except summer. Springtime tasks involve removing row covers, pruning and fertilizing bushes and constantly weeding. In early summer, nets must be placed over bushes to protect the fruit from birds. And the picking season, which involves continually monitoring ripening fruit so the flow of u-pick customers can be controlled, lasts from early July to early August. After that, the fields are weeded and mulched to keep roots cool, discourage weeds and add organic matter. Fertilization and composting takes place once more before winter to maintain the acidity preferred by the bushes, then they’re covered before the first snowfall as a protective measure.

All that work is regularly conducted with the help of just a few part-time employees over the busiest months.

Berry sunny future

The O’Connors have no plans to expand or to pass on their business to their children, who have other careers. But the revenues are coming in handy since Mike has retired. And Bev said the farm, and seeing families enjoy themselves on picking excursions, is its own reward. She likes to think of her orchards as a peaceful place where people can make memories.

“There have been many surprises along the way, and each year there has been a new challenge which requires problem solving,” she explained. “I am always doing something new.”

May 10, 2017 - 12:30pm