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Randolph farmer has 'berry' good idea

RANDOLPH -- Childhood memories can be sweet and Pat Altrichter's certainly were. She recalled wild "June" berries growing abundantly and always ready for the picking. Grabbing a handful right off the bush and popping them into her mouth was a sweet memory indeed, but for some reason it seemed as if the supply had dwindled as time passed.

During a trip to Canada in 2003, Altrichter saw some "you pick" berry patches featuring Saskatoon berries -another name for her beloved "June" berries -- and decided the idea was good enough to try back home in Randolph, Minn.

"We had a lot of wild ones here growing up, but there must be a lot of birds these days," she remarked. After the visit to Saskatoon she and her sister Judy Heiling realized there were no self-serve Saskatoon berry patches around and thought starting one would be a good idea.

The first bushes were planted in spring 2004 and now nearly 3,000 bushes inhabit about 3.5 acres. The sisters will add 600-800 blueberry bushes in the next couple of years. They began producing a little in the first year and now put out roughly eight gallon-size buckets of berries per bush each season.

The berries are a good sustainable crop option. Some bushes have been planted into a windbreak, for example. Since they do not require plowing there is no erosion to worry about either.

"We use very little chemicals," she added, "And it's a good source of income that only takes a little labor once you get it going."

Berries also are a good crop for those looking to slow down a bit. Altrichter said she could cut back on cows and increase berries, which is her plan at this point in life.

Most of the marketing has come through word of mouth. A few open houses, some newspaper articles and a sign by the road are the extent of her marketing plan. Yet customers are always waiting to come in and pick their own berries. They are easily picked and don't squish easily like raspberries or need extra work like strawberries. They are best eaten off the bush she claims, but make fabulous pies as well.

One of the biggest problems growing the berries is birds and Altrichter hasn't decided the best way to deal with them yet. At the start of the year a flock of cedar waxwings cleaned the berries out so she knows she has to do something soon. Deer can also pose problems.

Saskatoons are hardy, holding up well in drought conditions for several years now. She has never watered her bushes and they are healthy. However, Altrichter is planning on trying some drip irrigation next year. The bushes prefer high ground but are versatile.

The dark purple to black fruits are not actually berries, but rather pomes more closely related to apples. They grow on a shrub that is part of the rose family and are similar in size and shape to a lilac bush.

Planting these berries is not only a great 3rd crop option, but it would put a person in some rarified com- pany too: It's said George Washington planted them at Mt. Vernon.

Rural Advantage is a nonprofit corporation based in Fairmont, Minn. Its mission is to promote the connections between agri- culture, the environment and rural communities in order to improve ecological health, economic viability and rural vitality.

For more information, contact them at 507-238-5449 or visit