Tonya and Dean Sanner and their four sons run a picture-perfect berry and Concord grape operation on more than 12 of their 20 acres in southeastern Minnesota. They sell their fresh fruit to PYO customers, at the local farmers market, and on farm tours. They also produce their own juices, jams, jellies and fruit leather, which stretch their sales through the winter.
PYO customers appreciate the heavily straw-mulched rows, which keep both berries and pickers clean and dry. Dean, who grew up on a farm, applies the straw mulch about 5 inches thick at the beginning of November, right over plants and rows.
“I drive the tractor, and he stands on the wagon behind, feeding the rectangular bales through the hopper, which blows out a mulch blanket. We use about 480 bales of straw,” explained Tonya, the primary grower. (Dean has a full-time job offsite.) When spring finally arrives in southern Minnesota in late April, the whole family spends hours raking the straw off their 3 acres of strawberry plants, a time-consuming job.
The strawberries are planted with a transplanter using a matted row system. Each year, one third of the plants are removed and an equivalent area is newly planted. The boys snip off the flower buds that first year allowing the strawberry plants to root and save energy for the next season. Then the berries are harvested the second and third years.
Although Firefly Berries is not certified organic, the Sanners grow sustainably, and use organic methods, such as cover cropping with legumes and applying tons of leaf-based compost every year from the local recycling center to improve the health of their soil. Weeding is done by hand. Only “soft” pesticides are used, and only on the weeds, never on fruiting plants.
Tonya relishes the physical activity and the peacefulness of working with their berry plants. “I have the ideal office. I can see migrating birds on the water,” she commented.
Dean, in addition to the tractor work and helping to pick berries before he goes to work in the morning, has gravitated to jam and jelly making. “It’s an unspoken agreement between us,” Tonya explained. “He knows I would rather be working outside.”
Their four sons Lucas, age 13; Ian, 11; Eliot, 8; and Lincoln, 4, all pitch in. “Everybody weeds,” Tonya explained. “Ian as has taken over the job of bringing pickers out to the fields, and Lucas helps with the check-out. After that, it is ‘divide and conquer’ to get all the jobs done. One of the boys might say, ‘How about if I make lunch today?’ That’s fine with me.”
Planted on a hill gently sloping to the lake below, all their plantings have good air drainage. “We do have some frost pockets, though,” added Tonya. “We know where they are, and we plant less cold-sensitive varieties in those places.”
The Sanner’s Concord grape planting includes 640 trellised vines, planted by the previous owner who mentored them when they purchased the property. The Concord grape vines have been surprisingly cold hardy during recent severe winters. While nearby growers of wine grapes have lost whole vines of other varieties bred especially for extreme winters, the Sanners have only lost a few vines. Tonya believes the age of their Concord grape vines helps. “They’re 20 years old,” she explained. “The older the vines are, the stronger they are.”
“In the record-breaking cold of the winter of 2013-14,” explained Tonya, “We lost nearly all our flower buds and some side branches, but the main vines survived. We only harvested 147 pounds of grapes in 2014. But none of the vines needed to be cut back to the ground. Most grapevines can last 75 years if they are well cared for,” she added.
By comparison, Tonya explained, “In 2013, we harvested close to 12,000 pounds of grapes, and in 2015, our grape harvest was back up again.”
The Sanners also grow several varieties of raspberries.
“We planted 100 canes of the primocane Annes last year, plus 300 more red raspberry canes. The Annes have almost a nutmeg flavor, are more fragile, and don’t travel well,” but for the farmers market, they are a welcome addition.
“We pay for the season, and that spot is ours. If we can’t be at the market, we call the market manager, and he can put someone else from the temporary vendor list in our space that week.”
With the market space paid for the season, it behooves the Sanners to expand their product line so they can make use of their space over a longer season. “Next year we are planning to plant honeyberries and some other unusual fruits. The honeyberries ripen before strawberries, and will give us something to sell earlier in the season. Our oldest son Lucas has been begging us to grow them,” added Tonya.
The family planted asparagus three years ago, to provide more variety at the market, and divided all the previous owner’s rhubarb plants, increasing the size of that planting. Some of their customers enjoy their red currants, “although they’re not super-popular.”
“Currants are very labor-intensive because they’re so tiny. It can take an hour to pick enough for a batch of jelly. We also make fresh, raw currant juice and currant jelly, along with grape and raspberry jelly and strawberry jam, plus hundreds of quarts of grape juice and grape fruit leather, which is made using the leftovers from juice making. We put it through a food mill. It comes out like applesauce. Then we dry it.
“We’re expanding our blackberries. We have Prime-Ark primocanes that grow erect and are not trellised. They are the most frost sensitive of our fruits because they fruit late, around Labor Day. If we have an early frost in mid- to late September, we can lose them.”
In 2014, Tonya began giving farm tours, which include a story time and picking berries. “I charge $5 a child, and give tours to daycares. That way children, who otherwise might not have the opportunity, can experience berry picking first hand.” Tours are Fridays, when the PYO is closed, and are fun for Tonya, a trained teacher, who enjoys teaching the children about how their food grows.
Although some of their customers are urging the Sanners to expand their operation, “We will probably always stay a small family business,” said Tonya. “We like to talk to our customers personally, to keep the relationship between farmer and consumer strong.”