Soil pathogen leads to sour times for popular west-central Minnesota berry patch
A soil pathogen has led Brouwer Berries to cease strawberry production, much to the disappointment of thousands who came each year to the you-pick berry farm near Raymond. Owners Sarah and Dan Brouwer are working with researchers in hopes of someday resuming production.
RAYMOND — Brouwer Berries of rural Raymond announced to its customers this June that it could not welcome them to pick the crop. For the second year in a row, the nine-acre, you-pick farm suffered a crop failure, according to a social media post by owners Sarah and Dan Brouwer.
It took 10,000 people to harvest the strawberry crop, and that's just a small measure of how many people are disappointed by the news.
In previous years, the you-pick farm attracted roughly 10,000 customers during the three-week harvest season in May and June, according to the Brouwers. Their customers came from an area ranging from Duluth to Fargo. Brouwer Berries was one of the westernmost you-pick strawberry farms in Minnesota.
It’s an award-winning operation. WCCO honored the farm as “Minnesota’s Best” in 2016. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture and farm organizations have also recognized it for its ability to connect customers with farm-fresh produce.
The Brouwers learned the cause of their crop failure just a few weeks ago, Sarah Brouwer told an audience at the Ag Innovation Conference held Tuesday on the MinnWest Technology campus in Willmar. A type of fungus that lives in soil and moves with the underground water has infested their strawberry farm.
“The grief has been really, really real,” she told the audience.
Afterward, Sarah and Dan told the Tribune that they are continuing to work with researchers from Cornell University and the University of Minnesota to explore their options in hopes that someday they can resume strawberry cultivation.
They have plowed under most of the strawberries. Dan and Sarah Brouwer said it could be three to six years before the soil can be free of the pathogen and production could begin again. Since the fungus is underground, there is no effective way to attack it with a fungicide.
Other options, such as covering the affected land in plastic to bake the fungus, appear to be cost-prohibitive, they explained.
The Brouwers and their five children began raising strawberries on their 80-acre farm in 1999. That’s the year that Dan Brouwer casually mentioned to Sarah over dinner that he had picked up some strawberry plants.
“How many?” she told her MinnWest audience she asked him. He replied: “1,500.”
The operation grew from a quarter of an acre to three acres to six and, more recently, nine acres, she told the audience.
Each year, Dan would express his disbelief to Sarah, marketing manager for operations, that she could find the customers they would need to harvest the crop. “'Watch me,'” she said she replied.
Like the field of dreams, the customers came.
The friendships with customers are not the only loss the Brouwers are grieving. Sarah Brouwer also spoke of how Karen refugees who have made Willmar their home helped the family tend the crop each year.
And, of course, the Brouwer children played star roles in producing the crop and orchestrating the annual harvest. Root beer floats were the incentives used to entice the children to keep on weeding away, Sarah said.
While disappointed, the Brouwers are resilient. They had been tracking their per acre production and watched it begin a decline after peaking in 2016. Worried by the drop, they began diversifying to include raising sheep as part of their farm operation, which also includes goats and free-range chickens.
Today, the sheep production allows Dan to continue to pursue his life-long love for farming on the relatively small acreage. Sarah continues to pursue her own passion for teaching as a middle school science instructor with the Minnesota Christian School in Prinsburg.