Every year is a learning year, no matter what the weather
By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
John and Ruth Jansen found their farm acreage south of Brainerd in 1994, and began putting their vision into practice. Brambling Rows Berry Farm is a U-pick/breeding/research farm that goes way beyond “raising” plants. The Jansens develop new methods of growing plants for the north country as well as new varieties through breeding and selection.
It all began for John in early childhood, less than 30 miles west of the farm.
“I can still picture my mother opening a box of Ogallala strawberry plants from Gurney’s when I was 4 years old,” he said. “I can remember recognizing the differences between plants when I was 5 or 6.”
Although Ruth helped her mom in the garden near Waterville “when she had to,” she now enjoys what she does. She credits her mom for being a good teacher.
John and Ruth both worked for Potlatch until the Brainerd location closed, John for 29 years and Ruth for 21.
They began selling berries from a gazebo in Brainerd in 1995. The U-pick opportunity kicked off in 1996. They joined the Lakes Area Farmers Market in about 1998, and are one of the founding members of the Nisswa Farmers Market.
After years of hard work the 40-acre farm now has four greenhouses and two high tunnels. Six to seven acres are planted, and six acres are cut for mulch.
This year has proven to be more of a challenge for farmers and gardeners in Central Minnesota, and the Jansens are no different, at least in some respects.
“The grapes normally blossom about mid-May. They didn’t blossom until mid-June,” John said. “The ground was too cold this year. Even so, almost everyone plants too early in the season. We put the tomatoes in the ground June 9, every year. This year, we took the first field tomatoes to market July 26.”
Much of the Jansens’ produce can’t be found anywhere else in the world because they are breeding it themselves. They have developed purple raspberries that will cover a quarter. There are black raspberries that have to be pruned back from 15 or 16 feet in height.
Their raspberry plants don’t need any special pruning. They are mowed down each spring and still produce berries each fall from disease-free canes.
“We picked ripe raspberries the third week in July — four weeks sooner than usual,” said John.
He built a three-trough system for growing strawberries which allows for three times as much growing space. There are two troughs at waist height, with one above that.
“With the plants off the ground, any frost goes beneath the plants. Tomato plants have been killed by frost while the strawberries are still blooming,” he said. “And it’s a lot easier on a person’s back when picking.”
John has developed his own strain of lettuce after a rogue plant appeared in the romaine one year.
“We raise romaine for several Brainerd restaurants and one oddball plant showed up. It got to be about 32 inches in diameter,” he said. “It was such a dense plant and very sweet. I let it go to seed.”
He planted the seed the next year and flagged each plant that looked like the original, saving seeds from all plants that showed the attributes of the original hybrid. He noticed that even after it went to seed, continued cuttings were not at all bitter.
“After the eighth or ninth planting, it has stabilized and I pretty well know what will grow,” said John.
He named the new variety “Godsend.”
John is also breeding new apple trees, grafting buds to his existing trees. He started with wild apples growing in hazelbrush in 1994, with McIntosh being recognized as one of the fruit’s parents. He crossed it with a tree found growing in the wild in Wisconsin, and the first fruit from that cross is being produced this year.
Along the way, the Jansens have discovered other nifty strategies that have made gardening much easier and more cost-effective.
“We have three water tanks in greenhouses and had been spending about $80 per month on algaecide,” said John. “We’ve covered the water tanks with black plastic to keep the light off, and haven’t used any algaecide since.”
There are certain advantages to being outside gardening for many months of the year.
“I’ve always like the fresh air,” Ruth said. “It’s so nice to watch the swans and geese fly over. We’ve seen bears cross the field.”
The Jansens enjoy other activities in addition to breeding and gardening, including deer hunting. But at one point, Ruth had just about decided she wasn’t going hunt deer anymore while being exposed to the elements.
“But he built a little castle for me in the woods,” she said. “I came home and found a beautiful deer stand he and his son made for me. It has walls, a roof and everything. I can’t quit hunting now.”
“She’s a crack shot,” John said proudly.
Brambling Rows produces from mid-April through Thanksgiving. When the season ends, it is not because of temperature but because of shorter days and less light.
This year customers can find lettuce, Russian heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, peas, raspberries, broccoli, kohlrabi, string beans, blueberries, garlic, fall raspberries, fall strawberries and grapes.
For more information, call (218) 829-3241 or (218) 838-3954 or email [email protected].