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Strawberry season starts soon at Driftless Orchard

In late May, the strawberries haven't quite grown yet, but they're starting to bloom at Driftless Orchard in Hager City. Pictured here are Madeline Neenan (left), Clare Neenan and Francis, Clare's son. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
Apples won't be ready until 2020 at Driftless Orchard. Until then, Madeline (left), Clare and Francis suggest stopping by the strawberry picking times on their website. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

Juicy strawberries are hard to beat on a hot summer day. A strawberry you can pick off the vine is even better.

At Driftless Orchard in Hager City, the strawberry picking season starts on June 13 and runs until July 2.

A former dairy farm, Madeline and Clare Neenan spent years learning, studying and researching what it takes to own and operate an orchard.

When the 28 acres off Highway 63 became available in 2016, the sisters jumped at the chance to make their dreams a reality.

Driftless Orchard has a quarter acre of strawberries on its property. Apples won't be ready until 2020, but the family already has a trellis system set up with trees beginning to grow.

The trellis system has the apples growing similar to the way grapes do and makes a sort of "fruit wall," according to Clare.

Madeline said the system will help them manage the apple growing with a small crew (husbands and parents) and give them a chance to perfect their system over time.

At Driftless Orchard, they use the Integrated Pest Management system to monitor their crops. They use as many organic prevention techniques and as little chemicals as possible.

Why do this? It's simple, Madeline said. They eat the produce too. They don't want to consume all of those chemicals either.

Continuing to meet fruit standards and having a positive ecological impact on the region is always on the minds of the family.

It's important to Madeline and Clare that kids can pick strawberries and immediately take a bite. After all, it'd be difficult to resist the temptation of a freshly picked strawberry.

It can be "daunting" at times to run the farm, according to Clare. However, the approach of taking their time and easing into the business is the best piece of advice they could give to future apple growers.

"One is just to grow at a rate that's sustainable for you and not just jump in too fast all at once," Clare said.

"I think one benefit of that is, when we started two years ago, we were out there with a hand tiller," Madeline added. "Our neighbor tilled up the big stuff, but the equipment investment to jump in a big way, you could end up spending a lot of money on the wrong thing. Growing slow kind of allows us to grow smart, I think."

Ultimately, becoming a community resource is the goal of the sisters. Giving a family a chance to get a farm experience, have a picnic, grab an apple or strawberry is what they want for Driftless Orchard.

For strawberry picking updates, visit the Driftless Orchard website. Madeline and Clare said checking the website will give customers a good idea if they've run out or not.

Picking hours are from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

Matthew Lambert

Matthew Lambert joined the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2018 covering school board, public safety, and writing features. Lambert previously wrote for the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal. He is a graduate of Winona State University with a Bachelor's degree in Mass Communication: Journalism. 

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