On a recent weekday morning, Phyllis and Larry Ehlers were reliving childhood memories.
“We grew up doing this,” Phyllis, 72, said, holding a bright strawberry in her hand. “We grew up in a farm and you would pick your strawberries.”
Larry, 78, her husband, nodded as he plucked plump berries straight from the vine and into an overflowing plastic bucket.
This was their first time back at Bauer Berry Farm in Champlin in several years. The Ehlers started visiting the “pick-your-own” farm when their daughters were little, Larry said.
Comparing the berries they picked at the farm with store-bought varieties, Phyllis said, “These are fresh and much more juicy.”
Last week, Bauer Berry Farm opened its large metal gates for strawberry season. Although the first official day was welcomed with rain, the next was perfect for picking.
‘… doing this a long time’
Bill Bauer, who owns the farm with his wife, Nancy, herded a few newcomers to an untouched section of the strawberry field. White and orange flags sprinkle the green rows indicating where to begin — a system designed to ensure everyone has a shot at picking the perfect berries.
“We’ve been doing this a long time,” Bill said.
The couple opened their farm in 1977. Nancy’s father was a dairy farmer who stumbled across the land in 1968 and bought it. The Bauers, newlyweds at the time, rented the little farmhouse on the property.
“We thought it was a castle,” Bill, now 69, said. Nancy, 67, smiled and said it’s been their first and only home.
The Bauers lived in that farmhouse well before there were area neighborhoods, which now encompass the property.
Seven years later when “the sale sign went up, we were heartbroken. We got used to this place,” Bill said.
But the market was down and the property didn’t sell. So the Bauers teamed up with Nancy’s parents to create a family farm — Bauer Berry Farm.
“We thought about it and suggested a strawberry farm,” Bill said. “Nancy’s mom picked strawberries for [a local farmer].”
Their first strawberries, known as “king berries,” were “big ones.”
At one point the Bauers planted asparagus but “it was backbreaking work,” Nancy said as she bent at the hips and made a shovel motion.
The strawberry season, which generally lasts into about mid-July, is their busiest, the Bauers say. The blueberry season, which starts near the end of strawberry time, is “less hectic and more relaxed,” Nancy said. The Bauers also farm sweet corn, a nod to a crop her father had planted.
“He had such a following,” Nancy said. “Cars lined up for two to three hours. And he had to limit how much corn people could carry.”
Before her parents retired 11 years ago, Nancy and Bill had help from their two sons.
Then the family workforce went from six to two. “It was a shock,” Nancy said.
The couple have since enlisted help from neighborhood teenagers.
According to the farm’s website, bauerberry.com, it has employed about 700 teenage workers over the years. They’re a large presence, especially on picking days. On early mornings, they are often outside helping Mr. or Mrs. B, as they call them, pre-picking berries or tending to the fields.
During picking season, they are scattered throughout the property, greeting customers, weighing fruit, or out in the fields.
As Phyllis and Larry Ehlers finished packing their pails to the rim, a young man wearing a fluorescent vest marked the spot with a flag.
A different group on a different day might start where the Ehlers left off.