As the warmth of June settles into the valleys around Northfield, the first strawberries at Lorence’s Berry Farm grow heavy on their leafy stems. The Lorences nurture fields of strawberries, asparagus, and fall raspberries just west of Castle Rock, MN. The asparagus has been pushing through the sandy soil since the beginning of May, one of the first harvests to signal that spring is upon us. “The first day we go to the farmer’s market, it is usually me,” reminisces Shawn Lorence, a 5th generation farmer that runs the Lorence Berry Farm with his wife Gayle and parents, David and Susie. “We pick a small amount [of asparagus] and take it up to St. Paul and just to watch how excited everyone is, coming up to your table, to see something green out of the ground, local.”
The Lorence family moved to this farm in the fall of 1977, but farming here has been part of their history since 1878, when David’s grandfather came over from what is now the Czech Republic to start a farm near Bloomington, MN. Planting with horse and plow, the glimmers of the berry farm to come started when he began selling the abundance from his raspberry fields. Berries have been in the blood of the Lorences ever since. The current farm has 22 acres of strawberries, 9 acres of asparagus, and 5 acres of raspberries.
“I enjoy growing them cause it is such a challenge. It drives you nuts,” smiles David. “You never know what to expect, it is never the same. Asparagus, raspberries, strawberries, each year is completely different.” When asked if he loved the challenge, David remarked, “If you wouldn’t, you’d leave.”
“Some people think it is easy to put a plant in and go for it. There are a lot of challenges to this,” says Gayle. Those challenges range from freezing night temperatures through May to invasive insects to the ever-changing weather.
“Well, like this morning it was 25 degrees in the strawberry fields, solid ice. Up here it didn’t even freeze all night long, but back by the woods there was no wind and it froze. Whatever the dew point is, that is the temperature we are going to get at night here,” states David.
“David has been up every night for the last three nights irrigating the field,” notes Susie. This watering helps protect the tender plants from the night’s freezing temperatures.
“We fight the cold in the spring and enjoy the cold in the season,” says David. “That is what helps [in summer]: cold nights. Where it doesn’t get 85 degrees…” All of this work is worth it to get fresh food in the hands of their customers.
“We have a lot of really fun customers that have been coming here for years. It is fun to see them in the spring and ask ‘Hey, how was your winter?’ and to see the excitement on customer’s faces,” says Shawn.
Hoping to extend their strawberry season, the Lorence family is expanding a delicious variety that ripens later in the summer. Many strawberry breeds have been tested here over the years. When it comes to growing berries that thrive on their farm and tastes like a strawberry should, it’s all about experience and trial and error. “What grows well here might not grow well somewhere else because of the type of soil we have,” says Susie.
“Remember ‘The Record’?” Shawn asks, receiving a chorus of knowing laughs. “We had one that was called the Record with great big, monster berries, just fields loaded. And if you were lucky you would grab one and say ‘oh, that tastes good,’ but then you would go through 4 or 5 and they would be horrible. We had several acres of that and we had really heavy rain and we thought, maybe the flavor was off because we had too much water, so we kept it for one more year. When we got rid of it, you went out with a flail mower and mowed off the tops, I have never seen so many strawberries in the field. Real productive, big beautiful berries, but they didn’t taste good,” laughs Shawn. “We are kind of berry snobs once the season starts. We get to sample so many berries.”
“You just can’t have a strawberry that doesn’t taste good!” remarks Susie.
It is this experience and dedication that makes this independent farm such a success. As the strawberries arrive, so does their seasonal help. High school and college students come in for the summer to handpick the berries and retail for customers at the farm. In 1987, Gayle came to the farm for strawberry season as one of these summer helpers and caught the eye of Shawn Lorence. She has been part of the Lorence family ever since.
The farm continues to grow with strong sales from the community. “When we first started asparagus we had one acre and we had a little side by side refrigerator. When we would fill that up we would be like ‘Wow! What are we going to do with all this?’ We walked and picked everything by hand, bending down. Now we have these machines we ride on,” laughed Gayle.
Ferndale Market currently carries their fresh asparagus and will have ripe strawberries come mid June. “Ferndale is picking it up fresh from us. We try to sell same day,” says Gayle.
“If they have to make a special trip out here, they will,” states Susie.
Make sure to pick up sun ripened berries and fresh asparagus at Ferndale Market through out the season. If you would like to visit the Lorence Berry Farm for U-pick berries, call for availability at 507-645-9749 or visit their website at www.lorencesberryfarm.com.
“We pride ourselves in quality and freshness and customer service. A place where people can come that becomes a family tradition,” said Gayle.