NORTHFIELD, Minn. ― Alicia Franke from Eagan, Minn., was peacefully picking berries on the morning of Friday, July 16, for the third time this season at Little Hill Berry Farm.
"You can't beat the ambiance, with the sun shining and birds singing," Franke said. "I like to have them in the freezer for winter, and I like supporting local organic farming."
"We specialize in berries," said Aaron Wills, owner of Little Hill Berry Farm.
During the berry season, the farm employs between 12-15 workers. Most of those employees work during you-pick mornings, while the rest work to harvest berries that are packaged and sold.
Over the last decade, Wills said they've transformed the rolling terrain from a field of corn and soybean crops to a "luscious, fruitful landscape." The farm now contains rows of organic blueberries, strawberries and raspberries.
"Our biggest crop is blueberries," said Wills, in his eighth year of running the berry operation.
Around 10,000 pounds of blueberries are picked from Little Hill Berry Farm each year, said Wills, with about 1,000 pounds picked during a busy weekend morning of you-pick customers.
The season starts with blueberries, usually in early July, and then strawberries starting later in July. Raspberry season is usually August through September.
"We go from July through September, basically," he said.
Wills said this year has been "really good" for you-pick berries, and that anywhere from 200-400 people will come out for a day of you-pick.
"We get a lot of people both locally and then driving from the Twin Cities," he said.
He said last year, like many berry farms, they were unsure if they could remain open and be safe for customers during the pandemic.
Franke said her family decided not to do you-pick because of the pandemic last year.
"We knew they were being safe here, we were just taking every possible precaution at our house," she said.
However, in the end, the folks at Little Hill Berry Farm decided since you-pick was an outdoor activity in a lot of open space, they could stay open last year, Wills said.
"Although we had to change some things, we could do you-pick, and it was really popular," he said of the season during the pandemic. "We met a lot of new customers last year, I think because people couldn't travel and a lot of other things they couldn't do. And so now they started to come back, and hopefully will year after year.
Wills said it's been a "challenge" dealing with drought conditions this year.
"Blueberries have kind of been OK, but strawberries it's really hard on," Will said of the drought. "We've irrigated more than we ever have in the past."
Fabia Dennison, employee at Little Hill Berry Farm, organizes the customer you-pick experience. This is Dennison's third season working at the Northfield farm.
"I love to be outside, and I love the fact that we are doing an organic berries, and I love the people that I work with," Dennison said on July 16.
She said birds are the main predators to berry farms, so there are a few things in place to prevent them from stealing unharvested berries. One method is speakers, which when customers leave, play sounds of birds in distress.
"So other birds hear that, and think something is going on, and stay away," she said.
Dennison loves getting to interact with the you-pick customers.
"They always have something to share, and they have their own experiences with their own plants and berries, but for some people it's their first time," she said.
There's a lot of excitement around picking berries, she said, especially for kids.
During the pandemic there were rules put in place by many you-pick berry operations, including customers had to refrain from eating while they picked. This year, Dennison said rules are relaxed.
"There's not many rules, you can pretty much do whatever you want," she said with a laugh. "You can eat, you can run around, you can try different varieties — it's just a place to have fun."
Wills said when he started the farm with his wife, their goal was to have people come to the farm to enjoy it.
"And to create a really great space for families, grandparents and grandkids to come out and pick berries and have a really nice memory to make," he said. "And so it's fun to provide that for people."