“Hey, Mom!” my daughter Becky said on the voicemail message. “What was the name of that blueberry picking place where we went that time? I want to take Eddy and Sophie.”
A student at the University of Minnesota, Becky returned in June from a study abroad year in Iceland.
Two of her dorm-mates in Reykjavik were arriving for a four-day visit. Becky planned a State Fair outing and hotcakes at Al’s Breakfast and had borrowed a canoe for skimming Lake Harriet. But she wanted them to see more than the urban attractions, and that’s when she remembered a family visit to a U-pick berry farm.
Depending on where you live in the Twin Cities, it’s a 60- to 90-minute drive to Maiden Rock, Wisconsin. Getting there takes you on a spectacular meander along the bluffs of the Mississippi. The water widens as the Great River Road approaches Pepin. A jog off the highway, then another turn or two, and the road dead ends at Rush River Produce, a sustainable farm featuring nine acres of blueberry bushes.
“Eat as much as you want,” said Terry Cuddy, as a way of welcoming my daughter and her friends.
Terry is the mom of this mom and pop operation; she and her husband John raised their family in a century-old farmhouse on the hilly property.
Handing out boxes, baskets, and colanders for the picking, she smiled almost conspiratorially. “Eventually some berries will get into the basket.” She waved her hands in a shooing motion. “Go, now. Go!”
On a late summer day, Rush River Produce is a paradox. The old red barn, the sonorous buzz of bees, and the scent of the fresh-cut grass combine to induce laziness. But the sight of the bushes dotted with fat berries creates a greedy itch to get down to work.
“Put this little basket under the branches and jiggle,” Terry instructed. “The ripe ones know when to let go. It’s easy!”
“I’ve never seen blueberries like this!” exclaimed my daughter’s friend, Eddy Paskevicius, as he strolled the shoulder-high rows and tugged off a few dusky orbs. “And so tangy!”
Now in their 24th year cultivating the crop, the Cuddys tend 10,000 bushes and raise 14 varieties of blueberries. The berries vary in taste, size, and when they ripen.
“If you laid out the rows, we would have nine miles of blueberries,” Terry said. “It sounds like a lot, and it is a lot. I know; I do the weeding.”
This summer, the July-ripening North Blue variety, developed at the University of Minnesota, put out an inexplicably puny crop. Many eager pickers who showed up last month went away empty-handed.
“I hated to disappoint them, but the cupboard was bare. It’s a mystery why it was so poor,” Terry said.
“Over the past six years, we’ve had more yield every year. We’ll send off soil samples and cuttings from the bushes to the U for their analysis.”
The back half of the season has been more productive.
“It’s supply and demand,” Terry laughed. “Supply is smaller, so demand is good. Sometimes I have 40 people here waiting when I come out with the boxes at 8am.”
The Cuddys have noticed a sharp upswing in pickers seeking out their fresh product. It may be that the sheer number of years they’ve been open has spread the word. With their cheerful flower gardens, picnic tables, and the eat-all-you-want policy, a trip to Rush River Produce has become a sublime summer tradition for visitors. The Cuddys suspect that curiosity about where food comes from and a sincere desire get closer to it also drives traffic.
Or it could be because the Rush River berries are simply the most gorge-worthy imaginable. “I thought it sounded crazy, but it’s true!” Eddy exclaimed. “The berries do jump into the basket!”
My daughter and her friends picked seven pounds of blueberries in an hour. At $4.25 a pound, Becky remarked that the Rush River produce was less than what she spent at a campus grocery.
“Don’t wash them when you get home,” Terry warned. “They’re fine; Mother Nature puts her special bloom on them.”
“I’m going to freeze some for winter,” Becky said, then snorted. “Who am I kidding? I’ll never resist them for that long!”
During a below-zero stretch of winter, when August seems a million years ago, the memory of that juicy blue ambrosia will both haunt and taunt you. If you find fresh February blueberries at the grocery, they will have been flown in from South America, hard as sapphires and almost as expensive. Those berries will be a sad substitute for these homegrown ones, gathered by your own hand and produced by sunshine, a whispered breeze off the Mississippi, and some good, old-fashioned Wisconsin dirt.
The farm is open for picking Thursdays, Fridays, and some weekends. The season, which lasts eight to 10 weeks, is nearing the end, so Terry urges pickers to always call before they make the drive. She answers the phone consistently. Happy picking!
Rush River Produce
W4098 200th Ave
Maiden Rock, WI
HOURS: Thu-Sun 8am-2pm in July-early Sept. (call first)
DIRECTIONS: From Highway 35 near Maiden Rock take County Road A two miles north to 420th St. Turn left onto 420th St and go up the hill one mile. Turn right at the top of the hill onto 200th Ave. Go a quarter of a mile to the end of the road.
OWNERS: Terry and John Cuddy