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Chippewa Valley growers lament weak strawberry crop

MENOMONIE — Strawberry shortcake lovers, beware.

Though the fresh local strawberry season just started, it’s already over for some local producers.

Chippewa Valley growers say the record-breaking heat this spring and a stretch of unusually late frost have combined to make this one of the earliest and weakest strawberry crops in years.

“This was our 19th year of growing strawberries, and it was probably the worst season we’ve had,” said John Govin, who operates Govin’s Farm just east of Menomonie with his wife, Julie.

Govin estimated that his six-acre strawberry patch produced about 30% of its normal yield this year, disappointing the family and their customers who look forward to stocking up on sweet strawberries every year.

Though the farm irrigates its berries to keep them moist, it wasn’t enough to overcome the heat, he said, noting that the unusually dry spring did at least lead to good quality for the surviving fruit.

The skimpy crop meant the farm was open only about half as many days as usual for pick-your-own customers and didn’t bother to send any of the usual truckloads of pre-picked berries to stands in Eau Claire.

“I anticipate a light day of pre-picked berries Wednesday or Thursday and I’m pretty sure that’ll be it for this year,” Govin said early last week, adding that customers have been understanding about the impact of the weather.

The season opened eight to 10 days earlier than usual because the extreme weather triggered ripening sooner, leading to smaller berries because they ripened before attaining their typical plump size, Govin said.

That also had a negative effect on the bottom line, he said, because customers returned with less volume after a typical 45-minute picking session.

The story was similar at Little Berry Farm, which started offering strawberries seven years ago on a site about 4 miles south of Eau Claire.

“This was a bad year,” said Gaye Engen, owner of Little Berry Farm. “We have a new strawberry field that we were hopefully going to be picking from this year and it just didn’t produce like we thought it would.”

Engen also blamed the early heat and late frost for the disappointing season, a pattern that a supplier told her is common among strawberry growers across the country this year.

“The plants are looking really healthy, but they created very small, kind of nubby berries,” she said.

McIlquham Orchard & Strawberries in Foster also reported producing fewer and smaller berries than usual this year, leading to lines for the 10:30 a.m. daily opening of its truck stand on Hamilton Avenue. The stand posted a sign last Monday indicating the season had only a few days left.

The strawberry-picking season, normally about three weeks long, started June 14 and was done just a week and half later at Little Berry Farm, said Engen, who is optimistic the farm’s crops of raspberries, blueberries, lettuce and sweet corn will help make up for the shortcomings of the strawberry season.

Likewise, Govin’s hopes this year rest with his farm’s other crops and activities, including raising lambs and offering pumpkins, a corn maze and a haunted trail in the fall.

“That’s one reason we’re diverse, so we don’t have to rely on one crop,” Govin said. “If strawberries were all we had, we’d be in big trouble right now.”

In the long term, Govin said, he is optimistic about the prospects for the pick-your-own strawberry business because of the surge in people taking up canning and freezing of fresh fruits and vegetables during the coronavirus pandemic.

Once more to the camp

Of all the phrases in the English language, none are more beautiful than “summer camp.”

The words leave the lips like butterflies, the updraft of “summer” coupled with the punctuative “camp” caught somewhere in the canopy of an ancient tree. Together, the words paint a picture of a place I know well: a campfire-infused, flag-folding, song-singing Shangri-La on the shores of a placid lake.

Between the ages of 8-12, I was bitten hard by the camp bug. From the moment my parents’ car steered down the winding road just beyond the Camp Potawotami sign in South Milford, Indiana, all reminders of the world I knew swiftly faded. Suddenly, I’d entered a new world with a new language: canteen, knapsack, feathering, fletching, and, of course, calamine lotion.

Now, as I steer the car down that winding road, this time in the driver’s seat, all those words come flooding back. My wife — whom I met at camp during our counselor years, and later married there — sits shotgun, trying hard to keep her mascara from running as our 9-year-old son Henry and 7-year-old daughter Eleanor anxiously await meeting their bunkmates at their parent’s old stomping ground.

We park outside the newly constructed cabins, a major improvement from the plywood-floored hovels my wife and I recall from our own camp days.

“Well?” I sigh, opening the van door. “Everyone ready?”

We are soon overcome by an overzealous counselor who welcomes us heartily.

“Welcome to camp!” he says, turning to my son. “You must be Henry!”

As my wife and daughter break toward the cabin to the right, the counselor escorts Henry and me toward the cabin to the left. Inside, I fulfill the sacred charge of unfurling my son’s sleeping bag, double-checking his packing list and reminding him to drink lots of water — all without shedding a tear.

“These cabins sure beat what I was up against during my counselor days,” I tell the counselor.

“Yeah, I noticed your beads,” he says, nodding to my camp necklace (a bead for every summer), which I have less-than-surreptitiously positioned outside of my shirt in full view — offering me a bit of “camp cred.”

“Best summers of my life,” I say, realizing, once the words leave my lips, that I have become the nostalgia-drunk father whom I remember prattling on during camper drop-off days nearly two decades ago. Still, I can’t help but indulge in a few war stories, regaling the counselor with the less-than-riveting tales of the “old days” — back when the lake was colder, the cabins hotter, and the songs sang twice as loud. He listens politely, just as I once did.

Meanwhile, in the cabin to the right, my wife has much the same conversation with Eleanor’s counselor. How desperately we want to be remembered: some proof that we have rubbed off on this place half as much as it rubbed off on us.

I lean in close to hug my son.

“You’re going to be great,” I say. “Best camper ever. Be nice to your sister.”

Next, I make my way toward my daughter, offering her the same message, with the “sister” swapped out for “brother” at the end.

She nods, smiles, and then — with a flicker of hesitation — returns to her bunkmates, leaving my wife and me alone on the cabin porch, completely cut off from the camp magic we crave.

“Well that’s that,” I say.

“That’s that,” she agrees.

Returning to the van, I’m overcome with that hollow feeling that burbles forth from belly to throat in moments just like this. Moments in which the world reminds us, a bit cruelly perhaps, that the places we once called home are no longer habitable for us.

Our only consolation comes by way of the counselor we meet on the drive out — a young woman with 16 beads festooned around her neck.

“Wow, you’ve been here 16 summers?” I ask.

She nods, her pride unmistakable.

“Wow,” I say again, wanting to slip my own seven beads back inside my shirt.

As we steer past the winding road toward the highway, my wife — who has been quiet — speaks.

“If she’s been here 16 years,” my wife says, “then her first year was our last.”

“We ... shared this place!” I say, my excitement growing. “The circle remains unbroken!”

For the uninitiated, circles make for an important shape at summer camp: from the basketball rims to the campfire pits to the water ripples in the wake of a canoe paddle. But they’re even more important in the metaphorical sense: a reminder of the power of continuity.

For camp veterans such as myself, the connected lineage between counselors reminds us that our exile is only in the physical sense; more importantly, the songs we sang, the skits we performed, and the stories we shared have all safely made their way to the next generation. We have passed the torch that was passed to us — however hard it was to let go.

Though, in truth, each of us still carries a glowing ember, just enough to rekindle the flame should it ever go cold.

Two days later, when my wife and I circle back to camp yet again, we come not as campers, or counselors, or because it’s our wedding day. We’ve come to retrieve Eleanor, whose “mini-camp” has just reached its end.

“Well?” I say, pulling the van door wide. “How was it? Tell us everything!”

Eleanor tells us about the songs she sang, and the skits she saw, and the stories she heard — some we know well, but others we’re hearing about for the first time.

“That sounds amazing,” I say. “Anything else?”

“Oh, and I saw your guys’ picture on the wall!” she says. “From back when you were counselors.”

A silence lingers as long and wide as the lake.

“That’s uhh ... pretty cool, huh?” my wife says. “That mommy and daddy were once there, too?”

“Uh huh,” she says, only half-listening. “But let me tell you about my friends. And the climbing wall! And the horses!”

Hands gripped tight to the steering wheel, I say nothing.

In the backseat, an ember burns bright.

top story
Strategies can help keep calves cool

About half of the 4,000 calves on Busse’s Barron Acres in northwestern Wisconsin are on milk in calf hutches, said Sherry Arnold.The operation is dedicated to raising calves from birth to five months for 13 dairies.

In the summer months the calves that are in hutches, as opposed to a weaning barn, are watched particularly closely for signs of heat stress. It’s important to keep heat stress from happening and to address it if it does happen, Arnold said during a June 29 Professional Dairy Producers Dairy Signal webinar.

There are several techniques the farm uses.

First, the hutches are turned to the east at the end of April or in early May. During the winter, the hutches face south, Arnold said, and re-orienting the hutches in the warmer months allows the hutches to cast shade for the calves to rest in during the afternoon hours.

That strategy requires advance planning, Arnold said. A common mistake is producers waiting to long to recognize they have a problem and fix it.

“I can’t go turn 2,000 huts today and face them east,” Arnold said. “I can’t wait that long.”

The calves’ winter straw bedding is also replaced with sawdust bedding in the warmer months. The sawdust improves air circulation, Arnold said. Busse’s Barron Acres also puts wire outside the hutch to give the calves a little space to get out and opens all the vents.

Hutch type is also important to consider. Busse’s Barron Acres uses Poly Square hutches, Arnold said, because they reflect more of the sun’s heat in the summer and tend to be cooler than other brands the farm tested.

“The type of hut, the material definitely makes a big difference,” Arnold said.

Water is always available for calves, and that water is kept refreshed using low levels of chlorine dioxide to keep bacteria levels down and prevent the pails from getting green. During extreme heat, particularly when even nights don’t cool off, they may also provide electrolytes for the calves.

They also haul calves early, ideally by 9 or 10 in the morning. Arnold said it’s a common mistake to pack calves in too tight when hauling them. A trailer might hold 40 calves, but 25 might be a more suitable number when the heat rises.

If all of those steps fail to prevent heat stress and a calf is panting and under stress, workers will pour water over the calf’s core area to help the calf cool down, Arnold said.

“I don’t want to get to that point, but if they do look like that, that’s kind of what we do,” she said.

Calves in a weaning barn seem to have fewer issues with heat stress, Arnold said, with vent tubes running throughout the year and temperature-controlled shade curtains used when the temperature is warmer.

The steps being taken at Busse’s Barron Acres bear similarities to the heat-stress-prevention tactics for calves that are supported by the limited research available on the topic.

“Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of science here, there’s not a lot that’s been published on what is the negative impact of heat stress and how much is it reduced by different things, but there is a little bit of research,” said Geof Smith, dairy technical services veterinarian at Zoetis.

Some of the things thought to minimize heat impact are providing shade, improving air flow, using reflective insulation hutch covers, offering diluted electrolytes and potentially feeding more volume or more frequently, Smith said. For calves that don’t want to eat or drink, feeding early in the morning or later at night might help, too.

In Smith’s opinion, finding ways to improve air flow would be the “most bang for your buck,” followed by offering some electrolytes.

Implementing steps to address calf heat stress is likely to require effort and in many cases money, but they can help avoid the negative effects of calf heat stress.

Among the potential consequences of calf heat stress that Smith listed are reduced growth rates, decreased starter intake, poor immune function, reduced response to vaccinations, increased morbidity and mortality, and negative effects on calf welfare.

The impacts of heat stress in calves might not show up as obviously as they do in cows, where milk production may be impacted, but Smith urged producers to keep calves in mind too when it’s hot.

“Even though you’re not seeing your milk check drop, realize that heat is impacting those calves,” Smith said. “I think everyone realizes heat is impacting the cows, but we forget about the calves.”

A black morph eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly landed on the flowers of a Ligularia plant recently in Eau Claire.