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Bucket list: Pick blueberries

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MAIDEN ROCK -- It's a fairly nondescript sign. A white rectangle jammed in the ground on the shoulder of Wisconsin's Highway 35 just north of Maiden Rock. The word "blueberries" is painted above a simple blue arrow.

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However, if you heed the arrow's directions and turn east, after three miles you'll come across a farm that's anything but nondescript.

John and Terry Cuddy have owned Rush River Produce for a quarter century.

"I wanted a farm," Terry said of Rush River's beginnings. "He wanted a business."

Rush River Produce, which specializes in blueberries, was the perfect compromise.

The Cuddys began planting their blueberry bushes in 1986. They worked slowly, adding in an acre at a time, eventually working up to the current 9 acres with 14 varieties of blueberries. The husband and wife also have an additional acre of red, white and black currants and gooseberries.

Now, the farm is the biggest berry U-pick in the region.

"Nobody was quite crazy enough to go into it as deeply as we did," John said, laughing.

They open the farm to berry-pickers every summer. Rush River Produce brings people in from the metro area, Rochester, Eau Claire, Wis., and sometimes as far away as Chicago or Milwaukee.

On good weekends, as many as 200 people can be found among the berry rows, which produce up to 15 tons of blueberries each year.

"This was a bad idea that maybe worked out," John joked.

An early crop

With the early spring this year, John said the bushes flowered earlier than normal. That caused a few sleepless nights when the temperatures dipped below freezing during April and May.

"It was scary," John said.

But being perched on the top of a hill above Rush River paid off. The cold air sinks into the valley, while the slightly less frigid air stays near the top, surrounding the fruit buds.

John and Terry said the majority of their flowers survived the hard frosts, leading to a good berry crop this year.

John estimated that the farm will produce about three times as many berries this year as last year.

Still, this summer's unusual weather is continuing to affect the crop.

"This is the earliest season in 26 years," Terry said.

In normal years, the season would have not started until mid-July. This year, the farm opened to berry-pickers the last weekend in June.

In addition, a typical berry season -- in which temperatures hover in the mid-seventies -- lasts about 10 weeks. But the recent heat wave has temperatures soaring into the 90s, which could cause the fruit to ripen faster.

"I'm not quite sure what's going to happen," John said, adding that anyone interested in getting blueberries should make their way to the farm quickly.

"It's a gamble," he said. "It's agriculture."

Pies, muffins and pancakes

When Kim Schneider, her husband and three sons arrived at the farm last Sunday, they grabbed a few baskets and spread out among the rows. It was the family's first visit.

"It's great. They love doing this kind of thing. They pick to eat," Schneider said of her 6-, 8- and 10-year-old boys.

Which is perfectly all right, according to Terry and John. In fact, making sure a few berries land in your mouth instead of your basket is encouraged.

"Try everything. Eat everything," Terry said. "We really want people to enjoy them."

While the farm gets plenty of new visitors each year, there are also people who have made a trip Rush River a yearly -- if not monthly -- tradition.

"Some people come every week," Terry said.

Mary Johnson and daughter Hanna, 13, are just two of the farm's repeat visitors. They've been coming for about 10 years.

On Sunday, they made the hour-and-a-half long drive down from Lakeville, Minn., for their first visit of the summer.

"They're the only one worth coming to ... we just love the setting. It's just so beautiful," Mary said, referencing the farm perched above the Rush River.

"I love the people here," Hanna added.

The Johnsons said they visit Rush River Produce at least once a year, and sometimes two or three times a year.

As for the blueberries they pick, they were sure at least a few of them wouldn't make it home.

"We'll probably be eating them in the car on the way back," Hanna said.

Lynn Long, who was out picking blueberries with husband Tim and children Kara and James, said her family can't wait to dig in either.

"We usually eat half of them on the way home," she said.

This was the third summer that the Rochester family has visited Rush River.

"It's gorgeous out here. We just love to be outside," Lynn said. "It's just a family event."

The details

Rush River Produce is open Thursday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Cuddys recommend you call (715-594-3648) before starting out, just to make sure there are berries to pick.

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Sarah Gorvin
Sarah Gorvin has been with the Republican Eagle for two years and covers education, business and crime and courts. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2010 with a  journalism degree.
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