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Blueberry orchard's U-pick season off to strong start

ELEVA — Bits of blue may generally be seen speckled around 20 acres of land on a southern Eau Claire County orchard in July and August — unless perhaps you happen to stop by to take a peek on a Monday.

With Blueberry Ridge Orchard’s U-pick season in full swing as of July 18, odds are fairly good that most of the mature blueberries hanging on the plants will have been picked off by Sunday’s end. Luckily, in the intervening days from close on Sunday to reopening on Friday, new fruit will ripen alongside any ready berries that were missed in time to satisfy the next round of blueberry enthusiasts who visit the property.

Thousands of blueberry plants didn’t always dot this section of landscape, owned by Mark and Andrea Nyseth, just north of Eleva, though.

The farm, which totals 80 acres, has been in Andrea’s family for decades, first home to her grandparents’ dairy operation and then her father’s beef cattle. But, Andrea said, while she has found many things to love about the orchard since they bought the property, she had been led to the business side of the world and she didn’t initially expect to be farming on the family’s land when she grew up.

Still, when her father was looking to sell, the Nyseths didn’t want him to have to move, Andrea said, so Mark, who also grew up involved in family farming and says he got his green thumb from his grandfather, had the idea to plant blueberries.

They went forward with that plan, bought the farm in 2003 and added over 6,000 blueberry plants to the farm in the spring of 2004. The orchard, which features nine varieties of blueberries, continued to expand for several years and remains family-operated by Mark, Andrea, who works outside the farm as well, and their son, Coy.

The orchard doesn’t stop with blueberries either.

Plum and several varieties of apple trees, which began to be added to the orchard a little over a decade ago, will produce fruit that will be available later in the season. Their apples are tree-ripened and of a strict quality, the Nyseths said.

The apples and plums are offered on a pre-picked basis only.

For the first time, the Nyseths also plan to soon add their own honey made from their own bees to the mix of products offered to customers this year.

The blueberries alone, though, have thus far provided the orchard with a strong start to their growing and selling season.

A later spring meant good pollination for the plants, Mark said, and the hot and humid weather this summer helped push the beginning of the season up ahead of where the later spring would’ve otherwise put the start date.

Crowd size has been good this year as well, the Nyseths said, with customers not only showing up for the berries but the experience too.

“People come out here for more than blueberries,” Andrea said.

Some people may come out in a large group for a family adventure, while others may come out for a solo blueberry-picking experience because they like the berries and it’s “pretty peaceful and beautiful,” she said.

One caller, Andrea said, dubbed the location “a little slice of heaven.”

Visitors come from “all over” the region, Mark said, to pick the blueberries, coming from as far as Milwaukee, Chicago, the Twin Cities, Iowa, southeastern Minnesota and northern locations such as Duluth, Superior and Hayward.

And with limited excursions still available this summer, the orchard is benefiting not only from loyal repeat customers but more new visitors making the trip for blueberry-picking this year as well.

The sprawling acres of plants make social distancing easy when outside, and the shed where customers check out has social distancing and safety measures in place, with many customers donning masks when inside and sending only one person inside the shed to pay. The orchard is also recommending that visitors bring their own containers for the blueberries.

“We’re trying whatever we can to have our customers be as safe as possible,” Andrea said.

Those customers have returned the favor by being patient and “very kind” when at the orchard, Andrea said, noting that customers seem to have become accustomed to the safety measures put in place at the orchard.

Blueberry Ridge Orchard is open Fridays from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. The U-pick blueberries — pre-picked berries are available by request as well — will be available until the end of the season, likely late August or early September, weather dependent. Pre-picked apples and plums will continue later into the year.

In addition to the on-farm fruit sales, Blueberry Ridge Orchard can be seen at the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market with early-season blueberries before U-pick opens and later in the season with their other fruit. Robbe’s Family Market in Strum also carries the orchard’s produce

For current updates on operations before visiting, see blueberryridge-orchard.com or the orchard’s Facebook page. Updates can also be heard on the orchard’s voicemail, 715-287-3366.

On the road to freedom

Before the late congressman John Lewis coined the phrase “good trouble,” he and Jim Zwerg, a former Eau Claire resident, lived it out. I first learned of this local connection to the larger civil rights story a few years back, while writing a book on the Freedom Riders.

How on a cool February night in 1961, 20-year-old Zwerg first met 19-year-old Lewis outside a movie theater in Nashville. Zwerg, a white college student originally from Appleton, had recently enrolled in Nashville’s Fisk University — a historically Black school — as part of an exchange program. Prior to his arrival in Nashville, Zwerg’s interactions with Black folks had been limited.

“All through high school I didn’t know anyone with a different ethnic background,” Zwerg shared with me in a 2015 interview. “It wasn’t until my freshman year (at Beloit College), when I had a Black roommate, that I saw firsthand prejudice and discrimination.” That school year, Zwerg overheard racist remarks whispered behind his roommate’s back, and noted, too, how the local barber refused to cut his roommate’s hair. After witnessing injustice up close, Zwerg’s commitment to social justice grew.

Two and a half years later, his commitment led him to the exchange program in Nashville, where the civil rights movement was already in full swing.

On that cool February night, Zwerg watched from across the street as a dozen demonstrators protested a segregated movie theater.

“All were nicely dressed,” Zwerg recalled. “The guys were all in suits and ties, and the girls were all in dresses. But they just stood there. They didn’t have placards, they weren’t singing any freedom songs, they weren’t trying to get any tickets. They just stood there …”

Zwerg was baffled by the seemingly low-key approach to the protest. Where were the signs, the songs, the chants? Weren’t protests supposed to be more attention-grabbing?

Zwerg approached one of the demonstrators to share his observations.

“You need to talk to our spokesman,” the demonstrator said. “And he’s up front.”

Weaving past the others, Zwerg eventually came face-to-face with Lewis, a man with whom he’d soon share a destiny. But in that moment, they were still just two strangers on the Nashville street.

Zwerg introduced himself and expressed his interest in getting involved with the movement. Lewis studied the lanky, white Wisconsinite, then said, “This demonstration is almost ending, but if you want to follow us back to the church, I’d be happy to talk to you.”

Zwerg agreed.

It was a decision that change his life forever.

• • •

Three months later, on the morning of May 20, 1961, Zwerg and Lewis shared a bus seat from Birmingham to Montgomery. But this wasn’t just any bus ride; it was a Freedom Ride — one of many throughout the summer of 1961. The Freedom Riders’ mission: to test the enforcement of a pair of Supreme Court rulings that confirmed the unconstitutionality of segregation in interstate travel.

Two weeks earlier, on May 4, Freedom Rider buses had been attacked in Anniston and Birmingham, and while all the riders survived, many were severely injured. Some were hospitalized after enduring a beating at the hands of a mob, others nearly dying of smoke inhalation while trapped on a fire-bombed bus.

Yet the members of the Nashville Student Movement, Zwerg and Lewis among them, refused to be turned away by violence.

“If not us, then who,” Lewis famously remarked. “If not now, then when?”

After an uneventful ride (in part, thanks to a state highway patrol escort), the bus pulled into the Montgomery Greyhound station. No sooner had the bus come to a stop when Lewis, just waking from his nap, noticed an eerie silence had developed, and turning to Zwerg, whispered, “That’s not good.”

The riders disembarked, and just as Lewis approached a press conference microphone, the mob suddenly emerged. They spilled from the shadows between buildings, 200 or so white men armed with baseball bats and iron pipes. Zwerg and Lewis found themselves cornered, and as the mob closed in, Zwerg fell to his knees and prayed. Lewis watched, horrified, as Zwerg endured blow after blow and collapsed to the pavement.

“(Lewis) had one final thought,” journalist David Halberstam wrote, “and it was that the last thing he was going to see in his life was Jim Zwerg being murdered.”

Zwerg survived, though he suffered a severe concussion, several cracked vertebrae and internal abdomen injuries.

Lewis, too, took a beating.

“Someone grabbed my briefcase, which I’d been holding in my right hand since stepping off the bus,” Lewis recounted in his memoir. “I pulled back but it was ripped from my fingers. At that instant I felt a thud against my head. I could feel my knees collapse and then nothing.”

He’d been struck by a wooden Coca-Cola crate, rendering him unconscious.

When both Zwerg and Lewis regained consciousness, they stood alongside one another near the bus station’s brick wall, Lewis gazing out at the aftermath of the moment, while Zwerg stares at Lewis, his index finger pressed into his mouth to examine a tooth. Both men’s suits were blood- spattered.

A photograph of this precise moment has been ingrained in America’s consciousness. Years later, Lewis wrote that this photo — much like the photos of the Freedom Rider’s burning bus in Anniston and those documenting 1963’s Children Crusade in Birmingham “became timeless.”

“They went out in the world,” Lewis remarked, “and no one who saw them would ever forget them.”

Our inability to forget such drama-filled photos — and in particular, white people’s inability to forget — shifted the civil rights movement from a “southern problem” to a national one. Moreover, the bloodied photograph of Zwerg and Lewis made it clear that all Americans were at the mercy of violent segregationists.

Though their paths would diverge, Jim Zwerg and John Lewis would stay in touch over the years. Lewis ran for political office and, from 1987 to his recent death in July, served as the congressman for Georgia’s fifth district. Zwerg, meanwhile, became a minister and was called to serve in churches throughout Wisconsin, including a three-year stint as associate pastor at Eau Claire’s First Congregational Church from 1968-1971.

“That was a very meaningful experience for all involved,” Zwerg said. “Eau Claire had such wonderfully, wonderfully warm people and they were very accepting”

Yet in 1971 Zwerg and his family were called to a church in Tucson. He was pleased with his work in Eau Claire, but felt it was time to head a church of his own. Plus, he conceded, he was “getting a little tired of the cold.”

In 2015, Zwerg and Lewis reunited at Lawrence University in Appleton, where both men received honorary degrees. In his commencement address, Lewis reminded students, “We are one people, we are one family, we are one house. We are brothers and sisters.”

Lewis employed similar language in his memoir, noting that throughout the movement, Black and white people became “brothers and sisters” in their shared fight for social justice.

“We bled together. We suffered together,” Lewis said.

It’s hard to trace the precise convergence of events that brought a young, white Wisconsinite and a young, Black Alabamian together on a bus seat all those years ago. But by sitting together, suffering together, and continuing the fight nonetheless, Zwerg and Lewis demonstrated to the nation what the future of the civil rights movement might look like: one rooted in allyship, shared sacrifice, and checking one’s privilege in the service of progress.

Today, we mourn the loss of Congressman John Lewis, though we should celebrate, too, all he’s left behind: a blueprint for a better world, and an invitation for each of us to stand tall by taking our seat alongside him. To make “good trouble” wherever we can — from Alabama to Wisconsin and beyond.

Benoit Cheese Haus employees Christine Hecimovich, left, and Cathy Ossanna slice cheese for customers.

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New COVID-19 relief applications to open Aug. 10
  • Updated

Applications for a new round of COVID-19 relief payments targeted at more farmers open next week.

The Wisconsin Department of Revenue will be taking applications from Aug. 10-24 to use the approximately $8.4 million remaining from the $50 million Wisconsin Farm Support Program, which offers one-time direct payments to farmers struggling during the coronavirus pandemic. The first round of payments used about $41.6 million of the $50 million allocated for the program and were available for farmers who had a gross income between $35,000 and $5 million.

An interactive map of county-by-county funding distribution from the first round is available at tinyurl.com/yx9uyl7c.

Eligibility for the second round will include farmers with $10,000 in gross income and above according to their 2019 tax filings. The upper income eligibility limit will again be $5 million.

A group of nine farm organizations July 20 sent a joint letter to DATCP expressing appreciation for the lowered threshold of $10,000 in annual gross receipts for the second round of the Wisconsin Farm Support program. The groups also asked for the upper limit of $5 million to remain in place to keep the focus of the state program on small and medium-sized farms.

“Farmers throughout Wisconsin are facing unique challenges that have arisen around COVID-19. The Wisconsin Farm Support Program is offering some relief from the market disruptions family farmers are facing,” said Darin Von Ruden, president of Wisconsin Farmers Union, which was among the groups that sent the letter. “It’s critical that this state aid remain targeted at small and mid-sized farmers, who are less likely to be able to tap into federal COVID-19 response programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program, Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, and Economic Injury Disaster Loans.”

Gov. Tony Evers introduced the $50 million Wisconsin Farm Support Program in May. The funding is part of the money allocated to Wisconsin through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

Farm groups in April asked Evers for $50 million in aid after calculating the economic impact of the pandemic on ag sectors.

During the first round of the program, the Department of Revenue received 14,543 applications between June 15 and June 29 for the one-time direct payments from the $50 million Wisconsin Farm Support Program.

The original plan was to offer payments of of between $1,000 and $3,500 on a sliding scale based on gross income. Instead, the number of eligible applicants, based on the Department of Revenue’s findings, resulted in $3,500 payments to everyone who received funding, according to Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary-designee Randy Romanski.

Of the 14,543 applicants, a little fewer than 12,000 eligible farmers received payments from the Farm Support Program, which used about $41.6 million of the $50 million allocated for the program.

“The goal of the program was to spend all of the funding the governor provided on behalf of farmers,” Romanski said during the July 23 DATCP Board meeting. “We continue to have ongoing conversations with organizations representing farmers, so they’re involved in discussions about how best to set parameters and timelines.”

The application window for the second round of Wisconsin Farm Support Program payments will be from Aug. 10-24. Payments from the new round are expected to be sent out in mid-September.

Payments from this round will be smaller than they were in the first round, Romanski said. Payments will be administered on a sliding scale based on income, but the minimum and maximum payments on the sliding scale have yet to be determined, he said.

Farmers who received payments in the first round are not eligible.

The Department of Revenue will be looking for an applicant’s “Gross income from farming,” the amount reported on line 9 of the 2019 federal individual income tax return Schedule F, Profit or Loss From Farming.

Farmers can apply online at www.revenue.wi.gov or by calling 608-266-2772.

Seed packages

DATCP learned that some Wisconsin residents have received unsolicited packages in the mail containing seeds that appear to have originated from China. The types of seeds in the packages are currently unknown and may contain invasive plant species. Similar packages have been received in other locations across the United States.

If you receive a package of this type, do not plant or throw away the seeds. If you have planted the seeds, leave them be until further guidance is given, Romanski said during a July 30 call with ag media.

If the seeds are in sealed packaging, do not open the sealed package. If possible, retain the original packaging. It may be useful as DATCP investigates this issue.

Report the seeds to DATCP using the online form at tinyurl.com/y4oqd59v.

During the ag media call on July 30, Romanski said that more than 500 complaints had already been received through the form, in addition to complaints that have come in other formats, like phone calls.

After filling out the online form, hold onto the seeds and packaging, including the mailing label, until DATCP or U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service contacts you with further instructions.

Romanski also said that in addition to reports of the unsolicited seed packages, they have received reports of other unsolicited non-seed packages arriving. For those packages, Romanski directed anyone who has received one to contact DATCP’s consumer hotline at 800-422-7128 or DATCPHotline@wisconsin.gov.

Regarding the unsolicited seed packages, all foreign seeds shipped to the United States should have a phytosanitary certificate which guarantees the seeds meet import requirements. Unsolicited seeds could be invasive species, contain noxious weeds, could introduce diseases to local plants, or could be harmful to livestock. Invasive species and noxious weeds can displace native plants and increase costs of food production.

DATCP works closely with APHIS to prevent the introduction of invasive species and protect Wisconsin’s agricultural industry.

For updates and information, visit datcp.wi.gov/Pages/News_Media/UnsolicitedSeeds.aspx.

The Country Today reporter/copy editor Courteney Jacob contributed to this report.