Apr 7, 2007
Utah Farm Wants to Renew Interest in Strawberries

Maple Mountain Greenhouse and Strawberry Farms has a pretty good motto:

“Our berries are so sweet, you’ll think we dipped them in sugar.”

Owner Mark Van Wagoner credits the sweetness of his berries to central Utah’s warm days and cool nights. He doesn’t have the primo growing conditions they have in California, but he thinks flavor is his edge.

Other Utah growers haven’t caught on to strawberries yet, but Van Wagoner thinks it’s only a matter of time. He claims to be the biggest grower in the state.

“There are a lot of raspberries and blackberries, but no strawberry growers,” he said.

Van Wagoner’s farm is situated on 2.5 acres near Mapleton, Utah. He grows one acre of strawberries, but plans to add another couple of acres this year.

Van Wagoner grew up on a dairy farm. He started growing strawberries on a small scale a few years ago, after his brother – who owns a nearby vegetable farm – decided to stop growing them. Van Wagoner took his brother’s old plants and got a small, but good, crop from them. Everything evolved from there, he said.

The farm is expanding onto a patch of land that’s across the road from its current location. Another 5 acres will be available in the future. The owner eventually wants between 5 and 10 acres of strawberries.

Van Wagoner gets help from a couple of migrant workers a few times a year, but the strawberry operation is mostly a family affair. His wife, Lynnette, and his four children – who range in age from 10 to 15 – all pitch in and help. The kids’ favorite part of the season is harvest, when they get to show customers the proper way to pick strawberries.

“It’s a fun opportunity for them to learn,” he said. “I’ve taught them a little bit about strawberry planting.”

Van Wagoner, a salesman, travels often. His wife runs the farm when he’s away. Fortunately, his travels slow down in the spring and summer, so he can devote more time to the harvest. In the next year or two, he wants to pull away from traveling and focus more on the farm. Eventually, he’d like to become a full-time farmer.

If the farm expands successfully and draws in more customers, he could get his wish. Currently, all the farm’s berries are sold directly to customers, either u-pick or ready-pick. Van Wagoner wants to dive into farmers’ markets next, and as the farm gets larger, he will look into commercial sales. Local stores are interested in picking up fresh berries, he said.

Most strawberries sold in grocery stores are fairly tasteless. Van Wagoner wants to change that. He also wants to put Utah strawberries back on the map. There used to be more strawberry farms in the state – some towns still have strawberry festivals but no strawberries – but they died out due to high production costs and a lack of laborers, he said.

Planting is done in May. If it’s done any earlier, the dreaded Utah frost could come in and wipe the plants out. Harvest runs from June through October, thanks to early and late varieties. The farm usually shuts down November through May, due to cold weather and snow. Last year, however, the weather was so mild that berries were growing through Nov. 15, he said.

The farm has been having some success lately with a variety called Seascape. Last year, it harvested about 3,000 pounds of Seascape berries. Darselect is another phenomenal variety, he said.

Van Wagoner charges about $3 a pound for u-pick berries and about $4 a pound for ready-picked berries.

“We don’t try to gouge people with price,” he said.

This year, the plan is to pull 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of berries off one acre. Van Wagoner uses pesticides early in the season to control insects and plasticulture to control weeds. Drip irrigation is used to supply the plants with water, which comes from a nearby well. The nice mountain water contributes to the sweetness of the berries, he said.

The farm is expanding into greenhouse strawberry production this year. The plan is to grow about 3,000 plants in the 30-foot by 96-foot greenhouse, he said.

As the farm expands, Van Wagoner plans to hire more employees. For more information, visit www.utahberries.com.

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