The story now goes that local production is superior, and consumers are mainly looking to buy products that are cultivated close to home. Yet, sometimes this goes one step further, and that’s exactly what Warm Belly Farm has been doing with their You-Pick experience.
“Our You-Pick experience is slightly different than the norm,” says Erin Warner, a horticulturist from Warm Belly. “To come to the farm, you’ll need to book an appointment online. Our high tunnels are quite large, but we limit the number of groups allowed per day. The result is a very exclusive and intimate experience for our customers while maintaining a quality crop for everyone.”
An itch for horticulture
Quite special is also how the whole Warm Belly operation sprouted. “Back in 2017, the current owner of Warm Belly Farm, Francis Wisniewski, purchased a vacation property. He worked as a trader and owned a firm in Chicago. He thus wanted to get a vacation home where he could escape, not too far from Chicago. On the property he bought, some apples were growing in the field. Intrigued by that, he took some classes at the university on fruit production and got very excited. So, he decided to set up an apple orchard business on the property.”
The interest in cultivation, though, didn’t stop at apples, and Francis wanted to go deeper than that. “So, he participated in a conference in the Netherlands. When he came back, he decided to add a hydroponic strawberry operation to the farm.”
Next to the strawberry tunnels, there’s the apple orchard, of course. “We do high-density planting,” Erin says. “We are at about 5 acres of trees right now. We are using our cultivation methods to make a fruiting wall – it’s all about maximizing and very easy picking. We are getting to the point where we have a lot of apple production, as it takes a few years to achieve that. Soon, we’ll be open for the You-Pick there too.”
Building upon the success of the strawberry and apple farm, Warm Belly is planning new activities for customers. “We have bought another property in Cottage Grove,” Emily points out. “The plan is to have an agritourism business and garden center. We will have Fall events with sunflowers, pumpkins, a corn maze, and so on.
An experience for everyone
On top of providing the public with a You-Pick experience, Warm Belly is also positioned in that space of growers advocating for local production. “Sometimes, supplies in grocery stores are not enough, or their quality leaves a lot to be desired. Some of our production goes directly to local establishments such as restaurants, food cooperatives, and the school district. Since we serve local businesses and customers only, we cut down a lot on transportation costs, but especially on our carbon footprint. All the restaurants and accounts we serve get our berries the same day we pick them.”
Despite the light-hearted atmosphere at Warm Belly Farm, the operations in the greenhouse are far from being that. “In the tunnels, we use a hydroponics system, and plants get exactly what they need in terms of water and nutrients. In this way, we save a lot of water. On top of that, we have a strong IPM program, especially in strawberries.” Keeping the season going as long as possible is not only beneficial to the public who can enjoy a You-Pick experience for a longer time during the year, but it also contributes to stabilizing the supply chain – even though there’s still a lot to be done. But when the season is done, the Warm Belly team seeks ways to improve their operation.
“During winter, we spend a lot of time going to conferences and meeting growers,” Erin explains. “Winters are very educational, and we always come back with new methods for enhancing our systems, maximizing production, and procedures that lead us to be more environmentally conscious.”