Blueberry farm gets organic stamp
Jeff Utech eats up to 100 pounds of blueberries each year from his rose-scented farm on Rainbow Drive.
Those blueberries and that farm just south of Merrill became certified organic in early July.
Utech's Rainbow Farm has evolved over recent decades from a dairy farm with cows to one featuring dairy goats, and now it's home to about 8,000 blueberry bushes and 1,000 newly-planted raspberry plants.
The majority of Wisconsin's organic farms produce dairy and beef products; only a few dozen are fruit or nut farms, according to the Organic Agriculture in Wisconsin 2015 Status Report. Wisconsin has the second most organic farms in the country, behind California. And more than 200 farms were transitioning more land last year toward organic production.
"The organic industry is exploding," said Cori Skolaski, executive director of MOSA, the Midwest Organic Services Association. "We're seeing rapid growth."
Utech stopped spraying herbicides on his blueberries about 14 years ago. He'd been spraying the farm's sweet corn as well and one day he reacted badly to the chemicals, he said. Utech remembers his vision changed and everything looked blue.
"Right then and there I decided I'm not doing this no more," he said. Now he advocates for organic practices. "There's a lot of good organic crops out there. ... I'm hoping that the whole country's going to wake up here."
Utech's wife, Janet Skinner, never really liked their use of pesticides, she said. "The pickers, they don't care about the weeds too much, as long as they can get to the berries."
Utech has lost a couple hundred bushes to ants and is propagating some new bushes for the first time this year. It has been a good blueberry season. Clusters of the fruits grow from rows of bushes. Some berries are still in shades of soft green and pink next to the fat, ripe ones in dark blue.
Utech spends about two solid weeks weed-whacking around the blueberry plants each year. He takes time off from his other job to do that and harvest hay that he sells. On top of it he works 50 to 70 hours a week driving a truck that transports organic milk. He started driving a truck in 2011 after he and Skinner sold their dairy goats and equipment to lighten their debt load.
Family members, including two sons and Skinner's brother, work around the farm as well. Two granddaughters help staff the stand where people who pick their own berries pay $2.50 a pound. Utech charges $5 a pound when he goes to farmers markets in Minocqua and Rhinelander. He preps those berries in a machine he made himself with a conveyor belt and blower to remove the stems. He spent $700 on the homemade machine, compared to the $30,000 it would cost to buy, he said.
Skinner plans to start making organic berry jelly. She already makes jelly with the fragrant rose hips that grow in a row along the front of their house. She also bakes blueberry crumble with three to five pounds of blueberries, it's so popular her family will eat the whole thing in a day.
Utech said he always liked blueberries, but he has eaten a lot more of them since he's had his own crop. He eats them in cereal, ice cream and pancakes and smiles sheepishly when Skinner points out he can down 100 pounds in a year.
"Sounds extreme, but there's 365 days in a year. That's a pound every three days," he said. "It's not much."
He started with 1,000 blueberry plants and added 7,000 more in the 1990s. This year Utech planted 1,000 raspberry bushes, though they aren't producing enough fruit to sell yet. He's been following organic practices for more than a decade but only just applied for the certification.
At age 59, Utech is bucking the trend in organic farming a little. Organic farmers tend to be younger and newer to the industry than conventional farmers. Utech has lived his whole life on his farm. He brought in diary goats around 2003 and milked 200 a day.
Now Rainbow Farm is home to only 30 goats sold for meat. It's also home to a few boxers and a Labrador retriever-Australian heeler mix name Dowser who chases deer away from the blueberry plants.
Utech's attached to those blueberries, even as people have suggested he sell the farm. Those blueberries are profitable and, he said simply, he likes them.
"I've got a lot of pride in the berry plants," Utech said. "I think they keep me here."