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Northeast Minnesota family finds success in blueberry farming

“In the initial years, we felt kind of embarrassed that we were the ones to take that leap," said Veronica Gaidelis-Langer, owner of Sweet Land Farm. "I am so proud of how far we’ve come and how much we’ve learned.”

Family in blueberry field.
Nathan Langer talks with a visitor among the blueberry plants on the family’s Cloquet Sweet Land Farm on July 21 with his wife, Veronica Gaidelis-Langer, and children, Frances Langer, 8, and Simon Langer, 11. Not pictured is Isaiah Langer, 13.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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CLOQUET, Minn. — Frances Langer climbs the gate to her family’s blueberry field. The 8-year-old hooks a leg on either side and waits for someone to open it.

“That’s her favorite way to get in,” Veronica Gaidelis-Langer said.

Blueberries.
Blueberries ripen at Sweet Land Farm on July 21.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Sweet Land Farm , a family-run U-pick blueberry farm and product shop, has come a long way. “A neighbor thought when we moved in that it’d get bulldozed,” said Simon Langer, 11.

That was nearly eight years ago.

Today, the family owns a renovated farmhouse, a body care product-making operation and many, many blueberry plants.

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Gaidelis-Langer and Nathan Langer, the driving force behind Sweet Land Farm, said reflecting on what they’ve accomplished is emotional because the odds weren’t necessarily in their favor. The couple knew folks who had more knowledge and agricultural experience, and others also had a better land setup for farming.

Mother and daughter among blueberry plants.
Veronica Gaidelis-Langer and daughter Frances Langer walk among their blueberry plants July 21.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“In the initial years, we felt kind of embarrassed that we were the ones to take that leap,” she recalled. “I am so proud of how far we’ve come and how much we’ve learned.”

Nathan Langer was ready for a change after several years in higher education. The couple had never done small-scale farming, but had grown a few blueberries and kept bees while living in Duluth's Hillside neighborhood.

“It was more Nathan's dream than mine,” said Gaidelis-Langer. “My parents had a farm when I was in high school, and I was a little bit fearful.”

During several intentional conversations, they landed on a name before operation details. Sweet Land Farm is fitting, she said, because blueberries are sweet and honey is sweet. “Our children are sometimes sweet,” Langer added with a smile.

They took a class for new farmers, they spent a few years searching for acreage. They didn’t want to be too far out of town, and their budget called for something in “rough shape.” Then, they found their spot outside Cloquet.

“Even though it was so run down, the land was so pretty, we weren't a mile from the kids’ school, and the soil was amenable for blueberries,” Gaidelis-Langer said.

Family walking on their farm.
Simon Langer, from the left, Veronica Gaidelis-Langer, Isaiah Langer, Nathan Langer, and Frances Langer walk from their farm home to blueberry field July 21.

The farmhouse was neglected, the field was overgrown. They had a 6-month-old, a kindergartner and a preschooler. Oh, and Gaidelis-Langer was in graduate school.

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But, they made it work, living in the basement while they renovated the house and eventually replaced the well, plumbing and insulation.

Making the house livable was a lot of work, Langer said. Learning how to do that and how to farm took a lot of mental capacity.

They cleared brush with a chainsaw and bought a 1964 tractor to help. Langer hadn't driven one since he was a kid. "When we went to look at it, dad was with me, I made him drive because I didn't know how to start it,” he said.

They wanted to hone in on doing one crop well. With the guidance of area farms Northern Harvest and Uffda Organics, Langer prepared the soil with sulfur and other nutrients and started small with fewer blueberry plants.

Man measuring fluid.
Nathan Langer measures ingredients for the all-natural bug and tick repellent Sweet Land Farm sells.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

After critter and crop run-ins, they applied for support through the Department of Natural Resources, which helped the family install a 9.5-foot-tall fence.

In the off-season, Langer taught himself to make lip balm, lotions, bug spray, bug bite relief and soaps, now available at Whole Foods Co-op, Frost River, Great Lakes Gear Exchange and Goat Hill Marketplace, as well as on their website. People are often surprised he’s making the products, Gaidelis-Langer said. He’s breaking down stereotypes in that way.

Bars of soap.
Bars of Sweet Land Farm soap cure in Nathan Langer’s workspace.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

One of Langer’s goals in the farm was to employ their three children, teach them skills and give them opportunities to earn money.

In Langer’s workspace, essential oils, lotions, soap bars and more lined the shelves along with beeswax, coconut oil, hot plates, an immersion blender, soap molds and a bucket warmer.

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Frances lifts a bucket full of Lego figures, which will eventually go into small soap bars. The three Langer children look forward to working with these little toy people.

Bars of soap.
For children Sweet Land Farm sells soap containing Lego figures.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Simon enjoys bottling the products and mowing; Isaiah, 13, likes putting lids on the lip balm tubes; and Frances likes driving the lawn tractor.

Langer described his role as part stay-at-home dad, part blueberry farmer and part product maker. In his time on the farm, he has found that while his capacity, time and energy are limited, he can learn to do anything.

Talking about the farm and the 7-year-old plants feels a bit like talking about the kids, Langer added.

As with most journeys, you rarely reach the destination. “We haven’t reached the goal, but it still feels like we’ve done something. It feels like we’re somewhere. It feels good to be where we are.”

About Sweet Land Farm

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MORE BY MELINDA LAVINE
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“I don’t think anything comes out of sitting in a cell,” said Kathy Lionberger, division director at the Northeast Regional Corrections Center.

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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