WINONA, Minn. — Along Wiscoy Ridge Road, surrounded by forest and native prairie overlooking the stunning microclimate known as Wiscoy Valley, lies Blue Fruit Farm.
“This diversity fosters a bountiful population of busy pollinators and predators such as dragonflies and frogs,” Jim Riddle said.
Riddle and his wife Joyce Ford co-founded Blue Fruit Farm in Winona, Minn. nearly ten years ago. The farm has been organic since 1976 when Ford and Riddle grew and helped start the Winona Farmers Market. Due to their busy lives during the salad days of organic agriculture, the farm was rented out for a few years.
“We had done vegetables,” Riddle said. “But every year the weather kept getting harder so we looked at perennials. We also looked at hazelnuts, but they had lots of squirrel problems so fruit it was.”
In 2008 Riddle and Ford added perennials such as aronia berries, black currants, blueberries, elderberries, honeyberries, juneberries and plums.
When starting the farm on blue fruits, Ford really wanted to grow blueberries (which required soil amendments) and Riddle wanted to grow black currants, elderberries, aronia berries, honeyberries, etc. which which would do well in the existing soil.
“These fruits provide great heart and mental health; in addition to having 2-4 times the amount of antioxidants as blueberries,” Riddle said.
To take on the challenges of pests, the farm utilizes overhead bird netting, an eight-foot-high deer fence, and an eight-inch-high electric racoon fence.
“It looks kind of like a big greenhouse or net house full of fruit,” Riddle said.
Riddle really enjoys introducing and raising awareness for the new crops such as the honeyberry, aronia, black currant and elderberry. “It’s really fun to see people’s faces when they taste our jams,” Riddle said. “Our jams are 60 percent fruit instead of 60 percent sugar.”
Riddle and Ford have been involved in organics from a very young age. Their expertise led to a career as organic inspectors for a number of years and the founding of the International Organic Inspectors Association.
Riddle also served on numerous boards and committees such as the National Organic Standards Board, International Organic Accreditation Service, Organic Farmers Association, and Minnesota’s Organic Advisory Task Force. Ford served on the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) board of directors and helped develop a Healthy Food Charter for the state of Minnesota.
In 2019 Riddle and Ford were recognized as the MOSES Farmer of the Year.
“I enjoy being in nature and having a diverse healthy ecosystem,” Riddle said. “The community is really welcoming and enjoyable.”
The public’s growing awareness for where their food comes from helps out local organic food systems and increases the support for them, Riddle said.
“Limiting the use of pesticides heals the earth,” Riddle said. “Get to know your farmers and farm before purchasing.”
From Riddle and Ford’s years as organic inspectors, Riddle said organic standards have not weakened, but enforcement has been weakened in recent years.
“USDA now allows hydroponics which is a nutrient solution,” Riddle said. “To be organic, soil must be used.”
Riddle also said even animal welfare issues are being overlooked and that Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOS) are certified organic — even though the natural behavior of cows is to graze.
“There is a large demand, but the USDA is turning a blind eye to the requirements,” Riddle said.
For young people looking to get into organic farming, Riddle encourages them to focus on building their soil. It is important to have a plan for nitrogen/carbon and produce products with integrity. Organic newcomers will also benefit from starting small, building local markets, knowing where products are going, and attending conferences.
“A healthy soil equals healthy crops,” Riddle said. “It also helps to visit farms that are doing the kind of thing you are interested in.”
Currently, Ford and Riddle are enjoying retirement. Farm operations are being directed by Katie Lange with help from a crew of about ten young people. Riddle and Ford look forward to fishing, grandparenting, hiking and traveling (social distance).
More information on Blue Fruit Farm can be found at www.bluefruitfarm.com.
“The farm will also continue to expand because the plants will keep growing and people want healthy food,” Riddle said.