With most of Minnesota experiencing severe to extreme drought, farms across the state have been struggling to keep up with increasingly dry conditions. But for Mark Peterson of Peterson's Berry Farm south of Eveleth, problems predated the drought.
His pick-your-own berry farm is usually filled with people filling their buckets with fresh blueberries and strawberries and a few raspberries. This year, a late May frost wiped out the crop.
"It just got too cold," Peterson said. "It was in the 20s around 2 a.m., and I just couldn't do anything. It killed off all the blossoms on the plants. You need heavenly help when it gets like that."
Peterson has been growing berries since the 1980s and said he'd seen only one other year, in the 1990s, where he had so few berries left on the plants.
"That year, I gave a blueberries crop report and said I could pick them all in my hat," Peterson said. "We had a few more than that this year, but not much."
One good thing came from this year: Peterson was free to attend the agricultural convention Farm Fest, where his farm was honored as St. Louis County's Farm Family of the Year.
"Normally, I'd be too busy with the berry harvest to make it there," Peterson said. "But this year, the granddaughter and I headed down and had a pretty good time."
The University of Minnesota's Farm Family Recognition Program honors families throughout Minnesota for their significant contributions to the agriculture industry and their local communities. The program has honored these families since 1979.
In Lake County, the Haselow family was honored as a "Farm Family of the Year" as well. They didn't attend the festival because it was the same weekend as the Lake County Fair.
"Our oldest is really involved in 4-H, and we wanted to be there to show some of our animals," Beth Haselow said. "But she was really excited when she heard about it. We were all excited when we heard."
Picking berries with Peterson
Peterson is a third-generation farm owner. His grandfather received four 40-acre plots from the Homestead Act in the early 1900s at what is now the intersection of U.S. Highway 53 and Minnesota Highway 37. In the 1960s, the farm was split up by the construction of Highway 53. In the 1980s, Peterson inherited the farm from his father and decided to use the plot of land split by the highway to grow blueberries. Until then, his family had tried growing potatoes and hay on the land.
"That didn't really work due to the level of acidity in the soil," Peterson said. "But around that time, a new cultivar of blueberry plant was created that combined wild blueberries with the taller plants that grow in Michigan. And it was hardy enough to stand the northern Minnesota winters, so I started with my first plants by my house."
He started with a dozen or so plants. That number has grown to 40 rows of roughly 10 plants per row. At first, Peterson grew only blueberries, but after the last low berry year, he decided to diversify to strawberries and a few raspberry plants. He also started to test out honeyberries and a couple other berries to see how they stand up to winter.
Besides the cold, another challenge Peterson faces are the various animals that also like his berries.
"That's the biggest problem I have," he said. "The squirrels, chipmunks and birds all like to sample my berries. I've actually seeing a chipmunk pick up and eat a strawberry like it's an apple. And if they didn't like the taste, they'll go down the row and eat a bit of each until they find one they like."
A large fence surrounding his property keeps out the deer, bears — and even the occasional moose.
In addition to berries, the farm has expanded to maple syrup, Christmas wreaths and garland production. Peterson and his wife, Carol, own and operate the farm, but receive a lot of help from their daughter, Robin, and grandchildren, Julia and Zack, particularly during the busy berry season.
"You need a family to pull it all off," Peterson said.
Peterson, a retired agriculture teacher at St. Louis County Public Schools, serves on the local soil and water conservation district and works with the Minnesota Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
Caring for animals with the Haselows
Farming has also been in Beth Haselow's family for generations. She's the fourth person to run their family farm in Lake County. Her father, Kevin Bergman, ran the farm until he died in 2019. The family's farm started out as a dairy farm but now raises, sells and processes beef cows.
"We've been working on building up the herd again," Beth said. "I think at its peak, my father had 65 head of cattle. We're closer to 30 these days."
Beth remembers her father raising all kinds of animals on their plot of land, from ostriches to pigs, deer to elk.
"He'd cycle through just about anything," Beth said.
In addition to raising cattle, the family also boards 30 horses for local families. They keep trails around the property for people to ride on when they visit their horses.
"My dad started boarding horses in 2001, and we wanted to keep it going," Beth said. "We know it's not easy for everyone to keep their own horses, so we take care of them."
All those horses and cattle require quite a bit of hay, so the Haselows grow their own to keep their animals well fed. Unfortunately, the drought has made this part of the operation a little more difficult than past years.
"I think we'll have just enough for ourselves, but not to the level that we normally would," Jacob said. "It's been a tough year on the pastures, too."
In addition to their farm operations, the couple have two daughters and are involved in the local 4-H program. Their daughter, Josie, shows animals at the Lake County Fair. Her favorite animals on the farm are the miniature cows the family raises.