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Brimson farmer innovates to build a better blueberry crop

BRIMSON -- Before he officially puts his 1,000 blueberry bushes to bed for the winter this year, Brimson farmer Al Ringer had one last resource to harvest.

Blueberry farm
Al Ringer of Brimson makes an adjustment on the snow-making equipment he is using to cover his blueberry bushes Tuesday morning at Pine Creek Farm near Brimson. Ringer received two grants to research the best ways to winter blueberry plants. CLINT AUSTIN / NEWS TRIBUNE

BRIMSON -- Before he officially puts his 1,000 blueberry bushes to bed for the winter this year, Brimson farmer Al Ringer had one last resource to harvest.

A crop of snow to cover the blueberries.

To be fair, it's actually well water that Ringer is harvesting. On Tuesday morning, Ringer used an air compressor, power washer and home snowmaker to turn his home water supply into snow flurries above the blueberry patch, all in the hopes of boosting next year's harvest.

Ringer can produce all that snow thanks to a sustainable agriculture grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Ringer got a total of $10,000 from the agriculture department and a Nebraska agency.

Since 1989, the department has awarded about 10 such grants per year "to give farmers an opportunity to try something new," said Jeanne Ciborowski, the department's sustainable agriculture demonstration grant program coordinator.

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The idea of manufacturing snow in northern Minnesota "is a little weird," Ringer said. But snow can mean the difference between a bumper crop and no crop at all, he said. The buds that produce next year's fruit dry out and wither away if they are left unprotected through a cold, dry winter.

Last summer, after the plants had spent the winter buried in natural snowdrifts, the bushes yielded about 1,500 pounds of berries, which Ringer sells for an average of $2.75 a pound. During the summer of 2007, however, when a good snowfall didn't arrive until March, the yield was just a little lower.

"We picked five pounds," Ringer said. So the difference between a bumper crop and no crop at all is financially significant.

The state grants must be used for innovative on-farm projects, rather than simply building a bigger greenhouse or buying a new tractor.

For example, a grower might want to experiment with different ways of growing cold-hardy plants such as spinach, arugula and carrots to extend northern Minnesota's short growing season. Kelly Smith of rural Carlton County received a grant this year to tackle that problem.

Or a farmer might wonder, "What's the best way for me to prepare this field choked with brush for next year's garden?"

David Abazs of Finland spent the summer of 1999 working on that one. His answer: pig plowing.

"We wanted to see how cost-effective it would be to use pigs to plow instead of bulldozers," said Abazs, who operates Round River Farm with his family.

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Every day or so, Abazs rotated three pigs in a movable 12-by-12-foot pen around a half-acre of brushland. He let the pigs go to work in digging up roots, grubs and anything else they might like to eat -- in the process, they cleared the area of brush and weeds, added their own fertilizer to the soil and gained weight to boot.

"It cut our labor by 65 percent," Abazs said. "So we used less energy, it cost almost nothing, and we sold the pigs at the end."

Abazs said the sustainable agriculture grants are a boon to farmers who want to experiment with new ideas, but who don't have the start-up money in their pockets.

"So much of the research dollars are going to people sitting at desks," Abazs said. He recalls the day, years ago, when a researcher visited the farm where Abazs was working; one of the man's first questions was, " 'How do you use the tractor?' " Abazs said.

"What's cool about this research is that farmers ... are coming up with applied ideas," he said. "It's a much better approach."

The average grant is for $14,000, distributed over three growing seasons, she said, though farmers can apply for up to $25,000.

Ciborowski said her department doesn't track the eventual success or failure of each grant project. But every year a summary of the projects are collected in the "Greenbook," which is available online and in print.

Ringer used his grant to buy the snowmaking equipment and other types of row covers, and will use the remainder to pay for hiring picking help and long-term monitoring in the blueberry patch, he said.

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