Produce Acres still going strong after 30 years

The Willenbring family includes just one offspring still at home and helping with produce. At one time, all nine siblings pitched in. Pictured are (from left): Trese, Jeanne and Russ Willenbring.
The Willenbring family includes just one offspring still at home and helping with produce. At one time, all nine siblings pitched in. Pictured are (from left): Trese, Jeanne and Russ Willenbring.


By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
[email protected]

A traditional proverb states that many hands make light work, and the Willenbring family has seen this at Produce Acres near Cold Spring. Russ and Trese have nine children who all actively contributed to the success of the farm over the years.

“We couldn’t have done it without them,” Trese said.

The farm’s Web site explains that during an age of corporate farms owning thousands of acres, the Willenbrings are committed to the family farm.

Now, Jeanne is the only one left on the farm still working with her parents.

Russ grew up on the dairy farm just one-fourth mile to the south, while Trese grew up on a dairy farm near Eden Valley. They purchased their 75 acres in 1980.

Their first planting year was 1983, with 40 acres on the back side planted in corn. For the past 10 years, those acres have been planted in alfalfa and the resulting hay is sold.

The front acreage contains the farm gardens.

“The vegetables are visible from the road, and we can see people drive in,” Russ said.

The Willenbrings’ main crops are asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, cucumbers, pumpkins and sweet corn.

This is the third year they are using a high tunnel containing tomatoes, peas, beans, radishes, lettuce and kale.

“The crops can be harvested a little earlier,” said Trese. “We have a little more control over it. We also start the cabbage there — we’re learning to do it that way.”

“We don’t have everything down there yet,” Russ said. “We’re still learning with it.”

Although the farm has been running pesticide-free, growing sustainably since 1993, it was certified organic in 2012.

“It’s a different mentality, constantly thinking about what you can use,” said Russ. “We pull weeds by hand and also use a mechanical weeder that is pulled with the tractor. We’ve planted grass between the raspberry rows.”

The biggest mistake the Willenbrings made was to try to start a produce store.

“In 1986, we rented a building in Cold Spring,” Trese said. “We were inexperienced in marketing, and it was too much to try to run a farm and manage a store besides.”

Their biggest success has been the use of bionutrients to build a balanced soil. The higher the nutrient density, the better the taste and shelf life of the food.

“We put beneficial nutrients into the soil,” Russ said. “With a balanced soil, there is a complete cell within the plant. Every nutrient the plant needs is there.”

Because of this, Russ and Trese discovered a few years ago that they were able to keep raspberries for much longer than normal without having them go bad.

“We have been able to accomplish quality produce, meaning our produce will dehydrate before it rots,” Trese said.

Raspberries have been left in the fridge for about eight weeks, and at the end of that time they were dried up but not rotten. Berries have also sat on the counter for about two weeks in June and July with no air conditioning and they didn’t rot.

“We used to have three days to sell the berries after picking or they would be mush,” she said.

Russ and Trese have been pleased with the benefits of produce farming.

“It’s nice and healthy to be able to work outside, and it created a good work ethic for our kids growing up,” Trese said. “They learned to do things and we were close enough to answer questions.”

“I could bake cookies when I was eight,” Nick said.

“The work was hard all day long, and it wasn’t hard falling asleep at night,” said Mitch. “The sweet corn and raspberries were my favorite.”

Customers show their appreciation when they keep coming back.

“One person has been here for asparagus three to four times in two weeks,” Trese said. “Her husband told her to keep coming back until it’s done for the year.”

“Knowing that I can influence the health of my customers through quality produce is very satisfying,” Russ said.

The harvest from Produce Acres can be found at the Minneapolis, Cold Spring and St. Joseph Farmers Markets.

For more information, call (320) 685-3257.