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Cold Spring vegetable producers say growing season about a week to two weeks behind

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 07/08/2013 2:40 PM

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COLD SPRING, Minn. —Russ and Trese Willenbring have experienced all types of growing conditions over the 30 years they've raised vegetables and berries at their Produce Acres farm near Cold Spring. This year, the late spring has delayed their produce by a week to two weeks.

They raise asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, sweet corn and pumpkins on about 25 acres. Normally, they start harvesting asparagus a week before Mother's Day, Russ said. This year, it was about May 18. Harvest is expected to end on time, around July 1.

Their strawberries, a later variety, also are running a couple weeks behind usual, he said.

The later season hasn't delayed the farmers market schedule. The markets where they sell their produce — Cold Spring, St. Joseph and the Minneapolis Farmers Market —each started around mid-May.

The two have a high tunnel where the annuals are planted until soil conditions are right for transplanting.

They purchased the farm in 1981 and planted commodity crops for two years.

"We didn't make any real money with that," Russ said. "We were looking at other ways to raise something on our land. Then, we talked to someone who said we should plant asparagus and berries. And we did."

Making the switch from commodity crops to produce was an adjustment, he said.

"When we were raising crops, I was working off the farm and everything was custom done," Russ said. "It was an idea to raise vegetables where you had to change your mindset and do more weeding. It wasn't just to plant it. It took more management, a higher intense management to do the weeding and to keep the weeds under control."

The Willenbrings have raised their produce pesticide free for several years and are entering their second year as certified organic growers. Maintaining healthy soil helps plants ward off pest pressures. They use a biological slow release fertilizer and add calcium sulfate and micro-nutrients.

"We don't have a problem with bugs because of our fertilizer program," Russ aid. "And we try to keep the plants away from the trees so birds can't swoop down on them."

The strawberries are pick-your-own. Although the plants didn't run as much as they should have last year, the plants look good this spring, he said. The season runs from just after Father's Day until around July 10.

"It will probably be a short season this year," he said. "It depends on if it warms up."

Once the strawberries are finished, they will renovate the patch in mid July and cover the plants with straw in late October or early November.

"Hopefully, it will get them through the winter," he said. "If the ground temperature gets below 18 degrees, it will kill the buds for the next year. We may have a nice spring but will have no buds if the winter is open and cold."

There was enough snow cover to blanket the plants and late April snow kept plants protected.

While their production season starts in the spring with asparagus, it ends in late fall with pumpkins. Some of the pumpkins are sold at the farmers markets while others are sold wholesale to stores.

Each of their nine children have helped, they said. Their youngest daughter, Jeanne, is a teenager who helps harvest produce for the markets. As their family workforce has left the farm for careers and to start their own families, they have cut back on their production.

They once had 10 acres of asparagus and now have five, Russ said. Their strawberry and raspberry acreages have each gone from six acres to one. And they now have around two acres of sweet corn instead of the five acres they once raised.

There is a growing interest in local foods, but they also find that people aren't buying as much as they once did.

They are committed to raising good, fresh vegetables for the public.

"Our mission," Russ said, "is to meet your expectations and eventually, to earn your trust."