116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
As he is most of the time of year, Mark Gingerich was out in his strawberry patch just west of Old Man’s Creek.
“This farm is fairly visible from the road, so I get a lot of honks and waves and I start to recognize some cars,” Gingerich said one evening earlier this month.
“The UPS guy always honks. There’s a lot of hours out here, weeding. It’s some good time to think.”
Gingerich was preparing this year’s crop for Berry Basket Farm’s brief busy season, expected to begin … almost any day, now.
“We’ll see,” he said. “With the cool spring, it might be the second week of June. But we’ve had quite a few flowers out and they’ve run their course, so now we’ve got a lot of green berries out there.”
With a bit more cool weather, those berries should be red and plump by the time customers who book an appointment arrive to pick their own.
“Over 80 degrees, strawberry plants just shut down,” Gingerich said. “They don’t grow.
“So if we can get a little more nice cool weather, all these green berries in here are going to fill out.”
Once fully ripe, the berries will be gone in a few brief, busy weeks.
“We work for eight months weeding and tending these things, and people come for a couple weeks,” he said. “Typically it’s a three-week season.
“We kind of call it quits on July Fourth. Things are usually winding down, it’s too hot and we want to take a day off.”
It’s the routine since the Gingeriches planted their first strawberries back about 2017. It wasn’t the farm’s first berry crop — Gingerich’s parents started the pick-your-own tradition with a small plot back in the 1980s, after returning from several years of volunteer service in Latin America.
“When they came back to the States they needed somewhere to land,” Gingerich said. “My uncle was farming the ground, so my dad either needed to fit into the operation and bring some new things to it or he needed to find another job.
“They lived on this ground. They moved a trailer on here and planted a strawberry patch.”
That didn’t last long. The farm was too small for two families to draw a living from it, so Gingerich grew up in Washington, Iowa, until he was about 12.
“When I was in junior high we moved back and they built the house here,” Gingerich said.
“My uncle moved off, so my dad started farming. Mom was a biology teacher. I didn’t have any interest. I was interested in computers.”
Gingerich studied graphic design and communications at Goshen College in Indiana, returning to help with planting and harvest on the extended family’s farm.
“After college I did a little bit of work in some of the field I’d studied in and decided that I could find a place here,” he said.
He and Kristina got married, “and I had been helping Dad part-time and substitute teaching and other things, then Dad started thinking about retiring. Then I needed to figure out if I wanted to be on the farm full-time. This (strawberries) was a good in-between thing.”
Outside the strawberry patch, the Gingeriches’ farm “is a conventional farm, soybeans here and corn,” he said. “We’re quite small, so that means we get to use old equipment that breaks down.”
Strawberries are perennials, but to sustain a larger organically grown patch the plants should be rotated about every third year.
“They need to be rotated because we don’t have the fungicide and the herbicide,” Gingerich said. “The first year, they’re very productive.
“Each year they go down a little bit more, and in time the weeds and the fungi take over. So it’s more common to take them out of production and do a cover crop of something else.”
After a year in wheat or rye, the Gingeriches put in another strawberry variety — about a quarter-acre this year, all by hand.
“Nine different varieties, three rows of each, 27 rows,” he said, indicating a newer planting. “We had early, mid- , and late-season varieties.”
Owners: Mark and Kristina Gingerich
Address: 2683 Highway 1 SW, Iowa City
Phone: (319) 325-7542
Gingerich also has a teaching certificate, “so I go into Iowa City and substitute teach whenever things slow down or if it rains.”
He draws on that experience when families arrive to pick the crop.
“Especially with families with small kids, I say, ‘Do you know how to pick strawberries?’” he said. “Sometimes the parents use that as a good opportunity to have the education background come in.
“I get down on the ground with them and show them how to snap the stem so it doesn’t pull off others.”
As for the berries, “the redder the better” is Gingerich’s advice.
“We also tell them that the plants all have the same amount of nutrients in the ground and sun coming to them, so sometimes the smaller berries are sweeter because they’ve taken the same amount of nutrients and put them in a smaller package,” he said.
Gingerich hires “a couple of friends from church who help out, high school girls who need something to do for the summer. Hard workers.”
Besides the fruit, the Gingeriches hope the berry-picking experience reaches their customers.
“We’ve got a little bit of a passion for kids and learning,” he said. “One of the things we think about on the hard days is that a lot of families come that don’t have a lot of agricultural experience.
“A lot of people from the international community come out, and in a little way it’s kind of a mission or a benefit. It’s important to get people out and see where their food comes from.”
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