Far more than fresh fruit grew on the Bauer Berry Farm in Champlin over the past four decades: Nancy and Bill Bauer’s two sons, then their grandchildren and finally more than 800 teens employed to lighten the work of running the pick-your-own farm.
“The most important thing about this whole 42 years of picking has to hearken back to the teenagers that we hired,” said Bill Bauer — what he called “the real sweetness.”
The couple, now in their 70s, this week announced to 6,000 followers on Facebook and 4,000 e-mail subscribers that they’re retiring and shutting down what has become a beloved traditional destination for many Minnesota families. This summer they were already starting to tell people this would be their last picking season.
“We have been blessed with lasting relationships with many repeat customers,” Nancy wrote. “In the end, we may have even been growing berries for the grandchildren of our first pickers. This is the part of our farm operation that we will miss. All of your eager faces as you drove up to our gate ...”
Older and without the help of their sons and in-laws, the Bauers decided it was time to sell and leave their home on the farm.
Developers have approached the family for years about the property, and until now they said no. They expect much of the 46 acres of land off French Lake Road will be turned into housing.
The Bauers plan to retire to a cabin in the woods of Hayward, Wis., a place closer to their sons and suited to cross-country skiing, their favorite winter reprieve.
In 1968, Nancy’s father, Webster “Web” Wadsworth, an Osseo farmer, bought the Champlin property and let the newlyweds rent the falling-down farmhouse built in the late 1800s.
Wadsworth then tried selling some of the land. “The for-sale sign went up and we were just heartbroken,” Bill said.
But there were no bites, so the young couple asked to be stewards of the land and start a vegetable farm.
“It was an impossible dream,” Bill said. “We were still in college with a youngster.”
Wadsworth thought it over and said, yes, but how about a strawberry farm instead? And what was supposed to be a short-term project turned out to be their life’s work.
Nancy and Bill planted their first crop of strawberries and sweet corn, along with hundreds of pine tree saplings, soon after establishing the business in 1977. Back then, pick-your-own farms were everywhere, Nancy said. One was just down the road from them and they worried about how they could compete.
That farmer, soon to retire, gave the Bauers priceless advice. The Bauer Berry Farm blossomed — so much that they had to add acreage and enlist the help of neighborhood youths and middle school students that Bill taught in the Anoka-Hennepin district.
Twelve-year-old Bill Robinson, eager to have his own spending money, got his first job working on the Bauer farm in the summer of 1986.
“I started out picking weeds — I absolutely hated it,” said Robinson, now 44. “I came home and I was so upset. My mom said, ‘Stick it out; you made a commitment.’ I requested after a couple of days of doing that to do something different, and they put me on the irrigation line … and then graduated to basically customer service, helping customers grab their boxes of strawberries … and hauling them out for them.”
Robinson, of St. Michael, said his mother was still visiting the farm in recent years, bringing along his three children “and introducing them to the patch where Dad worked.”
“It just brings back good old memories,” he said. “In a way, it’s kind of sad ’cause these types of things are going by the wayside. Farmers in general are selling off their properties for housing or construction.”
Now rows of pines tower over the blueberry bushes. Bill said it will be tough leaving the place: their beloved grove of oaks, an old tractor used to haul day-care kids around for tours, even the two large solar panels installed in 2009 that power the entire farm.
Fortunately, the fruits of their labor remain preserved indefinitely in freezers, jars and hearts.