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Farm family of the year: Ron and Ann Branch of Berry Ridge Farm honored

Ann and Ron Branch of Alexandria say the name given to their farm over 30 years ago was an obvious choice, as they live on a ridge and grow blueberries, strawberries and raspberries. (Alexis Habberstad / Echo Press)1 / 3
As well as farming, Ron Branch of Berry Ridge Farm works with the University of Minnesota on experimental research projects with the farm's produce. Over the years he has participated in more than 10 projects. (Alexis Habberstad / Echo Press)2 / 3
Berry Ridge Farm is known regionally for its use of high tunnels, which are greenhouse-like structures used to grow concentrated crops. (Alexis Habberstad / Echo Press) 3 / 3

Ann and Ron Branch were each raised on Minnesota farms, but neither thought they would carry the trade into adulthood.

"I'd say it all started by saying, 'Hey, let's try this!,'" said Ann. "We knew we weren't going to go giant and we knew we weren't going to have animals, so this is a sort of an alternative to grow food. What better thing to do than to grow food?"

The Branches are the owners and operators of Berry Ridge Farm in Alexandria, where they have grown their own produce for more than 30 years. Both grew up in rural Minnesota until leaving home to attend the University of Minnesota where they would eventually meet.

Ann was an active 4-H member and Ron a state FFA vice president in high school, but neither planned on carrying their farming roots into their adult years until 1984, when they purchased a property across town to build a more solar energy-efficient home with space for a larger garden. As it turned out, that garden turned into a larger operation than they expected, and this year the duo was named the Douglas County Farm Family of the Year.

"It was unexpected. It's nice to be recognized for the hard work Ron especially has put into this," said Ann. "It's nice to be appreciated."

High tunnels

The Farm Family Recognition Program has existed for over 30 years and is coordinated by the University of Minnesota Extension. Recipients are chosen by area University of Minnesota Extension committees based on their demonstrated commitment to enhancing and supporting agriculture. This year, 80 families in Minnesota were recognized, including the Branches for pioneering the use of high tunnels on their own 11-acre farm and in their area.

As explained by Ron, high tunnels are basically greenhouses that use natural ventilation without any mechanical heating or fans while protecting plants from the elements. The tunnels are especially effective because they are built to house concentrated beds that produce the most for a grower's space.

Ron built the first of six high tunnels on the farm in 1992, after learning of the technology at an agriculture conference.

With the use of the high tunnels, the family yields a large produce harvest each growing season, including strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, green beans, beets and cut flowers.

Going to market

As well as at their farm and online at a local harvest market website, the couple makes a living by selling at Alexandria's Farmers Market three days a week, where they have been setting up shop for 31 years. In fact, Ron was one of the founding members of the Minnesota Farmers Market Association before the days of formal dues, advertising, hours or space.

Over three decades later, the Branches have market days down to a science.

Market days must be greeted earlier than the rest-- between 5 and 6 a.m., explained Ann.

"There's some things that are fresh and some things that are picked the day or a few days before. That's a common market question. There's just not enough hours in the day. We would have to work through the night if everything was picked the day of," said Ann.

"It's hard work. I won't say that it's not hard work. It's a 24-hour day in the height of the summer in July and August."

To offset the workload for Ron and Ann, Berry Ridge Farm hires two part-time employees to help with the picking and preparing for market. To maintain the quality of produce before it's time to sell, the Branches utilize large walk-in coolers that perfectly maintain proper temperature and humidity.

"There's a lot of science to it," said Ann.

All in all, the couple explained that the early mornings and late nights are worth the reward their livelihood provides.

"I love the satisfaction we see in people who enjoy quality produce and appreciate what we do," said Ron.

Ann, who was a high school family and consumer sciences and foods and nutrition teacher in the Alexandria school district for 37 years, said providing quality produce is what makes her so passionate about what they do.

"When I taught, part of my day was always foods and nutrition, so this came naturally to me. I like talking to people about the food, what they do with it and how they prepare it — about why it's good for you," said Ann. "It's the difference in shelf life and quality that matters. You could definitely buy the produce cheaper somewhere else, but it wouldn't be near the quality."

A family effort

The couple agreed that although they didn't see themselves ending up on a farm decades ago, the lifestyle ultimately was the best thing for them and their two now-grown sons.

"What I love about this lifestyle is that it has enabled my family to work together and it was a great way to raise children. Eric and Carl had a job here as much as they wanted. We were lucky because they liked what they were doing and paid for their college that way," said Ann.

"It also helped them make good food choices. They eat more vegetables than most of their friends do!"

After participating in 4-H and FFA and working on the farm, both boys went on to major in an agriculture field of study at the University of Minnesota. The elder, Eric, graduated with a degree in plant science and is working toward earning a Ph.D. in plant pathology at Cornell University in New York, and his brother Carl is a soon-to-be graduate of plant biology and agronomy. Neither son currently plans to take over the farm when their parents retire. Instead, they are looking to take on their own agricultural ventures in the coming years.

With so many active growers like themselves set to retire in the near future, the Branches explained it is more important than ever that there is growth in the industry. In an effort to spark new interest and curiosity, the couple has held a number of 'field days' at the farm over the years for the general public.

"You have to help new growers because we're not going to do this for another hundred years," said Ann. "Someone's got to do this, otherwise how are you going to get your food?"

Recognition

Berry Ridge Farm received its Farm Family of the Year award at a ceremony during the annual Minnesota Farmfest on the Gilfillan estate near Redwood Falls Aug. 9.

For more information on the Branches or other 2018 Minnesota Farm Families of the Year, visit " target="_blank">mnfarmfamilies.cfans.umn.edu

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