SUTTONS BAY — Steve Bardenhagen is following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather in the family tradition of raising strawberries.
Years ago, Edwin Bremer began growing strawberries for local customers and the processing industry. Later, his son-in-law, Gary Bardenhagen, worked alongside him and expanded the acreage and customers, and was soon overseeing the largest strawberry farm in Leelanau County.
“Back in the early 70’s, we had a lot more strawberry growers,” Gary Bardenhagen said. “It was a profitable business to sell to processing, but once Mexico and California got into berries, that took away from our business and processors couldn’t afford to pay us enough. That’s when we switched toward the fresh market.”
“The nice difference between fresh and processed berries is that the processing price bounces around, but the fresh price only goes in one direction—it keeps going up,” he said.
In 2008, Gary’s son, Steve, purchased the farm and manages the operation, which also includes 40 acres of cherries and one acre of blackberries. This year, Steve has more than 12 acres of strawberries and almost all are sold to local grocers, restaurants, farm stands and markets. The rest go to processing for American Spoon, Leelanau Fruit, and when possible, local schools.
“Over the years demand has grown,” said Steve Bardenhagen. “All of our customers seem to be ordering more every year, so we sometimes have trouble keeping up with demand,” he said.
The amount of hand labor needed is one of the biggest challenges, not only for picking the berries, but also for weed control, which starts in April and continues through September.
“Not having enough workers limits how much we can distribute in a day. We’ve had the same crew, year after year, and they do an excellent job, but we have an aging fleet of workers and no new families coming looking for work, because they have no easy legal way to get here,” said Steve.