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Guests gather and socialize at the Aneta Community Orchards and Gardens on Friday, June 16, 2017 during the annual rhubarb festival. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)

A starring role for rhubarb

ANETA, N.D. — Rhubarb isn't the first crop that comes to mind when people think of Upper Midwest agriculture. Even here in Aneta, wheat, corn, soybeans and some other prominent field crops are the agricultural stars that drive the economy of this northeast North Dakota farm town of about 220.

But Bill Miller, Janice Mills and other stalwart supporters of the Aneta Community Orchard, Gardens and Arboretum hope to develop more appreciation for rhubarb — as well as other fruits and berries, and healthy food options in general.

"It's here, and we want people to make use of it," said Miller, project manager.

Agweek visited Aneta during the community's annual rhubarb tasting, which featured more than 20 different foods containing rhubarb — everything from rhubarb cookies to rhubarb pizza. The tart-tasting and highly nutritious perennial plant most often is associated with rhubarb crisp or rhubarb pie, but, as the June 16 event demonstrated, it has many other potential uses, too.

Three different varieties of rhubarb are grown in the Aneta Community Orchard, Gardens and Arboretum. The 1.3-acre orchard offers more than 50 varieties of fruits and vegetables that guests can pick, sample and bring home when ripe.

The Arboretum, also open to the public, occupies another 1.5 acres. About 150 varieties of trees are planted on it.

The 2.8 acres — on city-owned land that had been in grass for many decades — is enclosed within an 8-foot-high fence that keeps out deer and rabbits. Birds and pocket gophers are troublesome, however.

The site offers generally good soil, though it's short of phosphorus, which is crucial for healthy plant growth. And it often suffered from excess moisture.

But the local elevator supplied phosphorus and an area tiling company installed tile drainage, alleviating those problems, Miller said.

Many individuals and organizations helped and continue to help with the project, he stressed.

Mills, a master gardener and Miller's sister, is one of the most active. Among other things, the self-described "good little weeder" has led seminars, including one on canning, designed to help Aneta-area residents make better use of the fruits and vegetables grown in the orchard and gardens.

People who don't live in Aneta are welcome to pick fruit and vegetables there, too.

"We really want to be a benefit to the community," Mills said.

Gardener haven

The project dates to 2012, when Aneta officials applied for and received a state grant intended to give residents better access to healthy food.

Planting of the sampling orchard began in 2013, said Miller, who works for a local farmer. Miller has a master's degree in horticulture and spent many years as a truck gardener and organic farmer.

The project also offers 20 40-by-20-foot vegetable plots to rent at $20 a year each. The plots provide good soil, access to free water nearby, protection from deer and rabbits, and the camaraderie of working near other gardeners, Miller said.

"It's fun to see people's personalities expressed in their different plots," he said.

But on this pleasant mid-June, attention was focused on rhubarb. The festival — part of Aneta's long-popular annual Turkey Barbeque and Summer Festival — drew an estimated 120 to 150 people, who sampled the many foods containing rhubarb prepared by local residents.

Anez Thompson, a 92-year Aneta resident, was one of the people sampling the food.

"This is such a nice day, and it's so good to come and see all these different kinds of food with rhubarb," she said. "There's a lot of them, that's for sure."

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