Jams, jellies and birdhouses are sure to please at the county fair

By Kerry Drager, Correspondent

Jim Bilharz spends many hours in his wood shop manufacturing birdhouses, feeders and wooden yard art that he sells at the farmer’s market or shows at the county fair.
Jim Bilharz spends many hours in his wood shop manufacturing birdhouses, feeders and wooden yard art that he sells at the farmer’s market or shows at the county fair.

This year’s Morrison County Fair patrons will get to admire some of the area’s finest woodworking and taste some of the most delicious canned goods made by the skilled hands of Jim and Bonnie Bilharz of Little Falls.

For several years Jim Bilharz has been crafting birdhouses, bird feeders and yard art. His inspiration was born in the heart of Montana and Wyoming’s wilderness. Today it has been perfected for some of Minnesota’s most beautiful bird species.

“I’ve been making birdhouses for most of my life,” said Bilharz.

It hasn’t always been these quaint, small projects. Bilharz started his woodworking hobby by making furniture, but the cost of the lumber and the time he had to put into the projects never seemed to pay off. Being a bird watching enthusiast and an avid gardener, Bilharz turned his efforts towards birdhouses and feeder.

“I use cedar because it lasts longer, you don’t have to paint it and people love the way it smells. When I make the birdhouses, I use my own dimensions. I’ve never used a pattern. It’s just like an artist, he sees the profile and then he paints it. My wife is very particular. She can tell if one side is longer or shorter. She has the eyes for being a critic.”

Those keen eyes and skilled hands have certainly gathered noticed. For the last two years, Bilharz has entered his crafts into the Morrison County Fair. Each year he has won best of show and grand champion on his birdhouses. This year, he’s pulling out all the stops and has quite a surprise in store for the judges.

When not competing at the fair, Bilharz sells his crafts at the Little Falls Farmers’ Growers’ Market. Now retired, he needed a past-time, and the farmer’s market was the perfect place to sell his houses and feeders. Wood products are not the only things for sale at his market stand. Jellies, salsas and his wife’s homemade baked goods are also available.

“It’s been going over so well. We have five different flavors of salsa and 18 different kinds of jams and jellies. We buy a lot of the fruit through the farmer’s market. Some of the produce that we use comes from our own garden.”

The safety and quality of his products are important. As a nature lover, Bilharz knows the harmful effects chemicals can have even on his small backyard garden. He fertilizes his plants with composted grass clippings and leaves, and he practices container gardening to help cut back on weeds. While making jelly and jam, the gelatinous mixture is produced by cooking down the product instead of adding pectin.

“Bonnie is better at cooking down the jellies and jams. She loves to do the novelty jams. She has a carrot cake and apple pie jam. I don’t waste these jams on toast. I put them on ice cream. It’s delicious,” he said.

Such care in the product from the garden to the jar has produced some phenomenal tastes that have wowed over not only the farmer’s market customers but the Morrison County Fair judges these past two years. Red and blue ribbons have been awarded to the couple for their canned goods.

There is no secret to winning the county fair’s first-place ribbon. It just takes providing a quality product and being honest with the customer. These are things that Bilharz and his wife have learned during their time with the Little Falls Farmer’s Market. Their promise is in the time and care that goes into their products, and that’s something the judges can appreciate.