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Minnesota strawberry farmers see bumper crop

After days in the field, Fred Erickson has come to the conclusion that this year's crop of strawberries could top all others. "If everything goes well, this will be a record year," Erickson said. "This year has just a beautiful crop (of berries)....

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William Poch, an employee at Erickson Orchard near Bayfield, picks strawberries on June 28 while customers pick their own berries in the distance. Some berry farms sell picked strawberries to people unable to pick their own. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

After days in the field, Fred Erickson has come to the conclusion that this year's crop of strawberries could top all others.

"If everything goes well, this will be a record year," Erickson said. "This year has just a beautiful crop (of berries)."

Erickson owns and operates Erickson Orchards in Bayfield, where every summer, young and old alike come to pick their fill of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. This strawberry season is looking particularly good around the region. "There are lots of berries, and moisture has been perfect," said Stuart Lavalier of Lavalier's Berry Patch outside of Grand Rapids. "There's been plenty of sunshine as well."

According to Erickson, hundreds came to Bayfield to pick strawberries over the Fourth of July weekend.

"It almost looked like Apple Fest this weekend," Erickson said, referring to the fall festival held in Bayfield that attracts more than 50,000 visitors annually.

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Finke's Berry Farm in Carlton has seen the same demand for berry picking.

"People have been waiting every day to pick their strawberries," Diane Finke said. "Even over the July Fourth weekend, when people usually have their plans set."

Those customers have raved about the quality of the berries.

"People have compared these to California berries," Erickson said. "They can't believe how deep and red the strawberries are up here."

Erickson attributes the success of this season to the early start of spring.

"We normally don't start until the fourth of July," Erickson said. "We started picking on June 22."

The Finkes have avoided any damage to their crop from frost in the spring and from recent severe thunderstorms.

"In spite of all the weird weather since early spring, the plants are happy," Diane Finke said. "The strawberry fields are doing great."

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According to Erickson, Lake Superior aids the health of his crop.

"We're blessed up here," Erickson said. "Ten miles south, there can be severe frost, and drastic changes in weather. But severe weather skirts us."

Erickson called this year's weather ideal for the growing season.

"We have a bumper crop of strawberries, as well as blueberries, raspberries and apples," Erickson said. "Even my neighbor's cherries are doing well."

Erickson is a third-generation berry farmer whose family started farming in the Bayfield area in 1910. His farming methods differ from those of his father; he uses an integrated pest-management program that monitors bugs and targets sprays.

"You have to change with the times," Erickson said. "It's always a challenge figuring out what to do."

The Finkes have seen changes in the weather, and attribute it to global warming.

"I don't know what causes it or how to stop it, but we've seen it," Doug Finke said. "We keep track of highs and lows; it's changed in last years. It's a changing world."

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However, some things stay the same, year after year.

Last strawberry season, Lavalier had a customer who was 99 years old, who promised him to be back for the next season. Lavalier, in turn, promised her free berries to celebrate her 100 years.

"She came back and picked her own strawberries," Lavalier said. "She's as cheerful as can be, and just happy to get out in the field and pick berries again."

According to Diane Finke, those coming to pick have been happy with what's been going home in their baskets.

"People thank us for being here," she said. "It's really humbling, and it gives us a reason for doing this."

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