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Alexandria farm yielding plenty of bushels

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 10/03/2013 4:32 PM

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ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — It's a good year for apples, and that's good news for Troy and Tracy Heald's Country Blossom Farm near Alexandria.

The 2,000 trees they planted with their children Taylor, Tristan and Tiana in 2010 began bearing fruit last year and are yielding a bumper crop.

"We will have hundreds of bushels," Tracy said. "This is really our first and biggest year."

Their 12 apple varieties include Fireside, Honeycrisp, Zestar!, SweeTango, Sweet Sixteen, Haralson, Frostbite, KinderKrisp, Cortland, Honeygold, Chestnut Crab and SnowSweet.

The Healds also raise fall-bearing raspberries, aronia berries, haskap berries and garden produce. They sell produce at the Glenwood and Alexandria farmers markets. They plan to do on-farm sales and possibly U-pick it opportunities in the near future.

Tracy is quick to point out that they could have been picking flowers instead. The couple had many discussions about the type of venture they could start on the 64-acre farm they purchased in 2009. Tracy wanted flowers while Troy voted for apples.

"Troy won," she said with a smile, recalling the friendly debate.

They took steps to learn all they could about fruit production. They talked to fruit grower organizations and enrolled in production workshops. They weren't complete novices because Troy planted a few fruit trees at each home the family moved to, Tracy said. Some were pear trees and others plum.

Their gardening backgrounds have been a good foundation for their orchard development. Tracy grew up near LaCrosse, Wis., where apple orchards are prevalent, she said. Both her family and Troy's family in Prior Lake had large gardens. They continued to grow their own fruits and vegetables after they married and began raising their family in Belle Plaine.

The Healds, in 2005, moved to Lake Reno in Douglas County to get away from the hectic pace of city living. They'd been looking for hunting land and found the Alexandria area was the perfect spot.

They purchased their farm four years later and began making the renovations necessary for their foray into fruit and berry production. The Healds dug water lines and installed drip tape irrigation as they planted fruit trees. Tall fescue was planted between each row of the dwarf and semi-dwarf apple varieties to provide grassed walkways and to reduce weed pressure.

A high tunnel was built for their raspberry bushes. The two varieties, Heritage and Nantahala, thrive in the greenhouse conditions. The plants are well over six feet tall, bushy and bearing lots of berries. Other raspberry bushes planted in the grove are much shorter, Tracy said.

Several rows of trough-like wood structures stand next to the high tunnel. The structures are raised beds that are several feet above the ground. A mesh screen covers the bottom, which is covered with mulch to prevent dirt from falling through the screen. The Healds built the beds with the intent to use them for strawberries. It worked, Troy said, but they needed more plants to meet customer demand. The strawberries were moved to a garden plot within the fruit tree grove while beets and other vegetables were planted in the raised beds.

A battle goes on in the orchard as the Healds act against pests and disease. As great as the high tunnel is for the raspberries it's also a spot where spider mites hang out and dine on the plants. The release of predator bugs within the building helps control the mite populations, Tracy said.

They monitor the grove for codling moths. Troy checks the orange traps that capture insects often. He counts the number of codling months caught on the trap's sticky floor. If the moth numbers reach threshold levels, trees in production are sprayed.

A sprayer, pulled behind a tractor, sprays a fine mist to keep pests in check. The unit can also spray plants with calcium and other nutrients needed for optimum fruit production.

Electronic sounds in the grove keep birds at bay while bumble bees, purchased through a fruit grower publication, have been released in the grove to help pollinate the trees.

In the farmyard, the family has converted a shed for the cleaning and packing of the fruits and vegetables. An apple washer also sorts the apples by size, Tracy said. Once the apples are bagged they are stored in a cooler.

Vegetables, grown in their orchard garden, are also washed and stored in the shed for market day.

Their work isn't limited to the growing and harvest seasons, Troy said. It took five days in March to prune the orchard's trees. As trees start bearing, small fruit is thinned so the trees can focus on the remaining fruit.

In their first four years of production, the Healds have purchased equipment, trees and berry varieties to plant. It's quite an investment, the couple said, but it's been worth it. Their family has grown closer as they work together in the orchard and garden.