It's been quite the blueberry season
The time to pick is now, see local listings
August 18, 2023
A cathedral of pines serves as entry to a path that winds over and through 32 acres of undulating land off Prevost Road, just north of Cloquet. A short walk is enough to slough off any travails of the day. Then there is a gate, the only gap in a fence tall enough to keep deer out. And a vista opens up, rows and rows of blueberry bushes.
This is Sweet Land Farm, one of now a handful of places in Carlton County where one can pick blueberries. And, man, are they ever prevalent here. The berries hang in clumps, covering whole bushes, even this week, as the season is winding down. Nathan Langer and his partner, Veronica Gaidelis-Langer, along with their three children - Frances, Simon and Isaiah - have been busy picking, and directing pickers, in what has been a bonanza year.
Like other blueberry farms with the same problem, the family has had to adjust from a mostly U-pick model to finding ways to get more berries out the door. It means partnering with businesses like Love Creamery in Duluth and other retailers with blueberry needs.
"We usually have more people than blueberries," a bemused Nathan said Tuesday on a balmy night at the farm. There was a large group from Ojibwe language immersion programs on one side of the fields, a handful of other pickers were dotted across the landscape. "This year it switched. It was about two weeks ago when we realized this is very different. We're no longer limiting people."
One look at social media posts from the blueberry providers in the county tells a similar story. Farmers want pickers to get out in what are likely only a few days left of picking. Sweet Land has really upped its efforts on social media and by encouraging word-of-mouth accounts to bring people in. They don't have the freezer space to collect what could be left after the season.
"We've pivoted to other opportunities," Veronica said.
The abundance of berries - Nathan estimates it has tripled over last season - has the team hustling a bit, he admitted, but he prides himself on being at least a little prepared. It's what he's learned on a farm the couple acquired in 2014. The first year of a crop to pick was 2020.
They decided they needed to dig a well, thus the greatly needed irrigation for the plants in yet another dry year in the region. He thinks the heavy snow cover last winter insulated the plants, making them healthier and raring to go early in the season.
It's a lot of work, but manageable in that a blueberry season lasts just a little over a month, starting in late July. "We can put our heads down and hustle" through it, Nathan said.
Pickers who have returned to the patch have been a big help in recruiting others, the couple said. And those businesses helping out have proved that the local food community "cares about our success," Nathan said.
They never thought they'd come off the farm to pitch their berries in public, but there the family was over by Gordy's Hi-Hat doing just that recently.
All if it is a good problem, they said.
To supplement farm income early on, Nathan started offering a line of products, making lotions, balms, bug spray, bug bite relief and soaps for sale in regional stores. He went to work full-time on the farm in 2018. Former coworkers would ask him how he would feel out here on the farm, a "lonely farmer." Today, he laughs about that.
"There's all these people out here. I see thousands of people a season," he said. "I'm not sick of this at all."
The ups and downs are there. In 2020, the farm produced 800 pounds of berries, in 2021 it was just 200 because of a late spring frost. That's farming, Veronica said. "We can only control so much."
The bumper crop this year has the team smiling about the efforts made on what they could control: amending the soil, weeding, watering by hand in the past, erecting that deer-abating fence.
"It's a huge learning curve," Veronica said. The couple not only has to tend to the farm, but make sure they wrangle getting their three children to their activities. Having the healthful outside work of the farm is a help, along with its relative flexibility, Veronica said.
"It's big challenges and big opportunities," Nathan said.
They both paused, not one worry line marking their faces as the pickers picked away and rows and rows of plants remained laden with fruit.
"It's great," Nathan said.
Make a last call on blueberries
There are precious few days left in the blueberry season but there are plenty of berries left to pick. Call ahead to these area providers to learn where their crop is at.
Many are also seeking bulk buyers, people who have freezers or options for use of a lot of berries.
Leaning Barn Farm
176 Thomson Road
3601 Crosby Road Cloquet
852 Cemetery Road Wrenshall
Sweet Land Farm
264 Prevost Road Cloquet
2001 Kiehl Road