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Family picks berry farm

New owners carry on farm traditions

A chilly wind raced across the strawberry fields Monday evening as the Lambert family and four young teenagers meticulously planted rows of strawberries.

Together, they were a picture that could have been taken any time in the past 100 years. Slowly, the tractor rolled across the field: Amanda driving with two younger kids inside the cab, protected from the wind, and three or four older kids behind the tractor. Two teenagers sat with their backs to the tractor, taking turns feeding a planter wheel that grabs the plants and places them in the ground. One or two others walked behind the tractor and rescued any plants that needed extra care. Across the field, another boy drove a four-wheeler pulling a roller to flatten the furrows around the plants.

Carlton County's oldest strawberry farm was entering the new season with new owners at the helm and a new name: The Berry Field. Joe and Amanda Lambert bought the farm at 2332 County Road 4, Carlton, from Spectrum Farms' Steve Schulstrom and Rita Vavrosky this past winter. Schulstrom and Vavrosky bought the fields from Doug and Diane Finke in 2018, after 20 years of bringing their kids there to pick. And the Finkes started the you-pick strawberry farm in 1986.

So the cycle continues.

When the Finkes decided to sell after 32 years, they taught Schulstrom the ropes. This spring, Schulstrom met with Joe every week. He also created his own strawberry field manual for the Lamberts. And Doug Finke also has been popping over to talk almost daily, sharing decades of knowledge to an appreciative audience, Joe said.

Schulstrom said they considered themselves a "place holder" for the next owners. They knew the Lamberts, whose kids had attended Rita's little farm preschool for a time, and Amanda had been a whiz at social media for Spectrum.

"We chose the new folks with the idea that they would be a great fit," he said. "The family business really is how it should work."

He said they will miss the workers and "the happy highly motivated folks that follow the season's progress as we approach opening day.

"The excitement of those days will be remembered by us as the best party that we ever threw," Schulstrom said.

The people who line up to pick the strawberries at the intersection of County Roads 4 and 5 - many local, some from farther afield - will be back, as long as the sweet and tasty red berries are available.

Diane Felde Finke explained why store-bought strawberries can look as good, but rarely match the divine deliciousness of a freshly picked ripe red berry.

"Store bought ones are picked when they're not ripe, so they change color in transit but they don't increase in sweetness, because they don't add any more sugars," she said. "Blueberries, on the other hand, will keep getting sweeter. I learned that from experience."

The new "berry hotline" is 218-830-0846, available for folks to call this summer to find out what time the field will be open, which is weather- and berry-dependent. Historically, strawberries are ripe by the end of June or early July.

Farming family

Although the Lamberts are new to growing strawberries, they are longtime strawberry pickers. And they are not new to farming.

Awarded Carlton County Farm Family of the Year in 2023, Joe and Amanda grew up on farms less than a mile apart in rural Mahtowa. In 2010, the couple bought part of Amanda's family farm as a place to live. In 2015, they bought Joe's grandparents' farmstead and started their own chapter in a long family farming history: Happy Critters Farm.

Until now, Happy Critters was more about raising quality, healthy meat for the local economy. They raised grass-finished beef, meat chickens and pigs, using regenerative farming practices with animals in various pastures to allow for a diverse diet and natural behaviors.

Joe did most of the farming, with chores mostly falling before and after working a full-time job in Superior. A teacher by training, Amanda does the marketing for Happy Critters and also for Spectrum Farm Strawberries.

But they had three kids.

"He was working full-time and would come home and do all the farming. We would get a smidgen of him and then everyone could go to bed," Amanda said. "So, we cut way back on the animals after our youngest was born to have more family time, but we kept up with the beef."

Now, they're growing strawberries together.

A new adventure

The Lamberts started talking to Schulstrom - aka "Strawberry Steve" - last fall. They committed to the purchase over the winter.

"It was a big leap, and not the strawberry farm, necessarily," Joe said. "It was the fact that I had to quit my full-time job to do it. Not having a [regular] income is a big deal."

A stay-at-home mom and substitute teacher in Barnum in recent years, Amanda has picked up some online tutoring and extra birth doula work to help. Her substitute teaching also helped with recruiting workers.

Really, they're just hoping Mother Nature is good to them. Joe admitted to some worries.

"Last year was the worst drought I've seen in my 40 years," he said. "And then this winter not having any snow. I really thought, 'What did I do buying a strawberry farm when the anomalies of weather have gotten so crazy?' So, this has been a pleasant spring to have all this rain. I know other people don't like it, but those of us who need green growing stuff are really happy right now."

He didn't even mind that it was supposed to rain much of Tuesday, meaning they might have to wait to plant again.

"It's been great for everything we planted," he said. "That rain will really set them and make them happy. You can't irrigate nearly as good as Mother Nature can."

Diane Felde Finke said she and Doug took a similar leap of faith.

"We ended the first season with $400 in the bank, no insurance and two kids," she said, noting that they had tried growing many different things that first year. "Then we decided to focus on one thing and do it well."

They chose strawberries (and a few blueberries), she said.

Finke's Berry Farm, then Spectrum Farm Strawberries, and now The Berry Farm by Happy Critters, all committed to growing strawberries without herbicides or pesticides. That means following a three-year field rotation cycle.

The Lambert family started their work this spring by taking the straw off plants that were planted last year, and are now putting in strawberry plants that will be ready to pick next year. Then they will plant last year's fields with some kind of cover crop, probably rye.

"For me, everything is really about the soil," Joe said. "Treat it right, it will reap the benefits."

On Monday, Joe estimated they would get about 6,500 plants into the ground that day, out of a planned 40,000 for this year.

"This size farm will probably end up being a 60,000-to-65,000 plants-per-year type of a farm, which can still produce a lot of strawberries," Joe said.

Find out more at http://www.hcfberry field.com.

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