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Be berry excited: Weather delays strawberries, but farmers expect big crops

Jim Krahn, of Zumbro Falls, drops strawberries into a basket while picking at Firefly Berries on Saturday, June 22, 2019, near Rochester. Andrew Link / Forum News Service1 / 3
Ken Harper, of Rochester, picks strawberries at Firefly Berries on Saturday, June 22, 2019, near Rochester. Andrew Link / Forum News Service2 / 3
Jan Krahn, left, of Zumbro Falls, fills a basket with strawberries with her grandson, Mason, 6, at Firefly Berries on Saturday, June 22, 2019, near Rochester. Andrew Link / Forum News Service3 / 3

ROCHESTER, Minn. — Weather may have delayed strawberry picking in Minnesota, but it will still be an abundant season for berry farmers.

For Firefly Berries in northeast Rochester, the first morning of picking strawberries was June 20.

Dean Sanner, who owns the farm with his wife, Tonya, said they were about a week behind schedule, usually opening for picking about a week before Father’s Day.

But a late opening doesn’t mean it’s going to be a bad year for the red, juicy berries, said Sanner.

“It’s looking like it’s going to be a pretty good year,” he said. “It’s been steady temperatures, and not very hot or very cold.”

The low-growing bushy plants were bearing lots of flowers, which usually translates into lots of berries.

“Here you can see a ton of berries in just a small area, and they’re a decent size,” said Sanner pointing to a large spot of unripe strawberries. “That’s a good sign.”

The Sanner family took over the operation in 2011. They hire high school students for some temporary work, but otherwise rely on their four boys to help with the farm. But Dean Sanner, who works at IBM, said it’s mostly his wife who works the berries.

People were picking strawberries on three quadrants at Firefly Berries the first morning of picking. About 10 were there for the start of business at 8 a.m.

Weekends are always the busiest, said Sanner.

“On Saturdays, we have more people than berries,” he said.

Berry season generally lasts just three or four weeks in Minnesota, so pickers get out quickly when they hear berries are ready.

Sanner said there are two types of pickers. Those who are doing it for jams and jellies, who tend to be older, and then young families.

“We see a lot of young families who are coming out for the experience and education,” he said.

The Duckett family was there opening morning.

With a drowsy newborn strapped to the front of her, Elizabeth Duckett picked berries while her daughters Abigail, 3, and Scarlett, 5, plopped fruit into their own buckets.

The trio were picking their own rather than purchasing at a stand or store “because they think it’s really fun,” said Duckett, “and then they can see where strawberries grow from, and have something healthy for a snack later.”

Abigail was excited to make strawberry milkshakes with her haul. For Scarlett, it was strawberry shortcake.

Just a few miles from Firefly Berries is Sekapp Orchard where Ron Dickey rents acres to grow strawberries.

On the morning of June 20, Dickie was checking strawberries and finding they weren’t quite ready. A week later, Dickie, who’s 89 years old, said there were lots of berries waiting to be plucked.

“They’re beautiful and ready to go,” he said.

Berry farming, he said, is a lot of work. He should know — he’s been in the berry business for about 50 years, although he’s been at his Sekapp acres on Collegeview Road for only four years.

“I’m out here every day, all day, that I’m able to be working on the soil,” he said. “So if you have another job, it’s impossible, because the weeds will kill you.”

He said weeding for strawberry farmers is a never-ending, strenuous job, especially for those like Dickie and the Sanners who don’t use spray herbicide.

“You have to love it and like it,” said Dickie of raising strawberries. “And I do.”