By Jean Ruzicka
Carter’s Red Wagon Farm – the agricultural enterprise that’s enriched diets for decades – has been honored by the University of Minnesota.
Current owners Tony and Linda Carter are among 74 families to be named a Minnesota Farm Family of the Year, chosen for their “demonstrated commitment to enhancing and supporting agriculture” – while adding whimsical fun to the mix each fall.
Their signature pumpkin parties, now in the fourth year at the farm, draw thousands.
Russell and Maxine Carter, who celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary this summer, arrived in Straight River Township just after their honeymoon to serve as rural missionaries.
To augment their income, Russ, who’d grown up on a farm in Michigan, began growing tomatoes in 1955 on the original 200-acre, mostly wooded site.
The first year, Russ sold the tomatoes on a self-serve basis, berry boxes filled with the plump, rosy fruit sitting in a stand alongside the road. A paint pail served as the cash register, the tomatoes selling for 50 cents a quart.
“The wagon entered the picture a few years later,” daughter-in-law Linda said of the antique red carriage that became the family’s trademark.
Russ grew up on the Prayrie Orchards family farm in Michigan, his entrepreneurial spirit inherited from his father, Clinton, who started a produce-hauling business during the Depression.
Clinton and his brothers transported fruits and veggies to Chicago in Model T trucks. Come winter, Clinton headed to Florida, returning north with tropical fruit.
“He took risks,” Linda said. “He saw booms and busts.”
Necessity (and back- breaking labor) proved to be the mother of invention in the Carter family.
The Michigan farmer may have been the first to develop a motor-driven pickle picker, Linda said of employing the chassis of an old vehicle to harvest cucumbers with the pluckers at plant level.
And when Chicago decided to get rid of its trolleys, Clinton bought the streetcar windows to create inverted-V green houses, speeding the growth of tomatoes.
“He was a month ahead of others at getting his tomatoes to market,” Linda said. “He was always looking for ways to get things to market quicker.”
The pioneering Carter family traces their lineage back to the Mayflower, ancestor Priscilla Mullens Alden among the founders of Plymouth Colony.
Mullens Alden is reported to be at the center of the love triangle in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1858 narrative poem “The Courtship of Miles Standish".
“Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” Mullens, by Longfellow’s account, told Alden when he arrived to deliver a marriage proposal on behalf of Standish.
A debate exists as to whether Longfellow’s tale about Mullens - the only single woman of marriageable age at the colony- is fact or fiction. But the venerable work with its mercurial characters adds intrigue to the Pilgrims’ persona.
Off to market
Russ Carter’s greenhouse, constructed in the late 1950s or early ’60s, is thought to be one of the first high-tunnel structures in the county.
Eight high-tunnel greenhouses are now on the farm, aiding in early production of tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries.
With the help of the family’s seven children, the farm grew to include feeder pigs and dairy cattle – “Dad fell in love with Ayrshires” – said son Dwight. The 30-year Peace Corps volunteer now has a farm in Guatemala.
In the late ’60s, Russ and Maxine resigned the ministry, Russ assuming the roles of mail carrier and school bus driver.
“He did everything you could think of, except president of the United States,” Maxine joked of her multi-tasking husband, who, now 90, retired two years ago.
By the late ’60s, the family-run red wagon market had moved to where the Legion Club is located.
With the help of family members, the signature timber-frame barn was constructed in about 1990, its lumber originating from the farm.
When the dairy industry underwent changes, the family decided to scale back. But Russ kept one of his beloved Ayrshires.
The 400-acre site – 180 acres used for farming - is now home to beef cattle with a variety of fruits and veggies harvested each summer.
“It’s a good variety of soil,” Linda said of the sandy and loamy land.
Three generations at the helm
Tony and Linda Carter now own and operate the farm and market.
Linda grew up with gardening, “but not on the Carter scale.” She runs the store.
“Tony is the genius behind the maze,” she said of one of the farm’s fall pumpkin parties’ signature attractions.
“Mysteries of the World” is this autumn’s theme for the 6.5-acre “amaizing” labyrinth. The creation of Stonehenge will be explored. The vanishing seafaring vessel, Mary Celeste, and the disappearance of Roanoke’s early settlers will undergo scrutiny. And Big Foot and bumblebees will be investigated.
Tony’s ideas evolve on graph paper. The corn field is then planted, with a tiller and hoe developing the pattern, Linda explained. By September, the network of paths and passages is ready to befuddle.
“If you get lost, Daddy throws a tomato at you,” Susanna, 9, joked of trial runs in the labyrinthian creation.
Kids of all ages can set sail in the giant pumpkin boats, 300- to 500-pound pumpkins hollowed out and filled with straw. Or hitch a ride on the wagon for a Hobbit sighting. Try your hand at the pumpkin propeller. Compete in the cow milking contest or head down the giant slide.
Performances by illusionists Calvin Gunn and Imaginick and the rockin’, squawking scarecrow band will entertain.
The pumpkin party premiere is Saturday, Sept. 27 with festivities each Saturday in October and Nov. 1 as well as Friday, Oct. 17 (no school). Hours are 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day.