John Jansen is almost ready to say farewell to the land that changed his life. Almost.
Nearly two decades after he and wife Ruth nurtured their first patch of raspberries at Brambling Rows Berry Farm, the couple made the difficult choice to sell. It’s the conclusion of a chapter in their lives and the beginning of a new one for 29-year-old Brainerd High School graduate Rachel Cobb and husband Travis, who assumed ownership this spring.
“It was one of the hardest decisions I ever made, to put it up for sale,” John said, standing among rows of grapevines on the northwest corner of the property in early July. “This was nothing but corn stubble and sand burs and gopher mounds when we bought it. Now we’ve got seven greenhouses here and 4-5 acres of produce. You put a lot of yourself into that over the course of 20 years.”
John, 70, continues to put a lot of himself into the land, despite the change of hands -- he’s on site nearly every day as the Cobbs familiarize themselves with the farm that’s a fixture at area farmers markets and a haven for pick-your-own enthusiasts.
“We really had to hit the ground running since we closed (on the sale) at the end of April,” Rachel said. “They were kind enough to have everything started, tomato plants going and everything else.”
For Rachel, buying the farm is a homecoming. She moved back to the lakes area from Colorado, where she managed a small vegetable farm. Travis will soon follow, but remains in search of work.
For John and Ruth, it’s goodbye. But maybe it could be called a Minnesota goodbye -- one of those prolonged rituals in the entryway, each relative fitting in the last story and hug and sour cream container filled with leftover mashed potatoes. In this case, it’s the Jansens sharing their knowledge of every square inch of the land: the beloved garlic patch, the greenhouse home to the accidental hybrid lettuce they named “Godsend,” the complex breeding lineage of each crop John’s tinkered with.
“It’s big shoes to fill, that’s for sure,” Rachel said. “I’m so grateful. I really thought that if I was ever going to get to farm, it was going to be clearing a patch of woods and start from zero. So to start with greenhouses and plants and everything else is just amazing.”
A fresh start
Farming came into the Jansens’ lives during a tumultuous time. Both were among the approximately 600 lakes area residents who lost their jobs with the closure of the Potlatch paper mill in 2002. They’d purchased the property eight years earlier, but the professional upheaval was the final push they needed to make something of it.
“I grew up on a dairy farm, and like I said, it’s something I craved all my life, and I just inhaled any information I could on it. … We wanted a breeding farm is what we wanted, but until you stumble on that first perfect cross there’s no money in it,” John said. “When Potlatch said that they were shutting down I thought, well, a berry farm alone isn’t going to do it, so I’m going to build a greenhouse.”
Ruth’s roots are also agricultural, having grown up on a farm between Elysian and Waterville in southern Minnesota.
“We also raised cattle and my mom had a garden and I helped her pick -- and pull weeds, as little as possible,” she said with a smile.
Ruth was 56 when Potlatch closed and she took an early retirement, locking in the couple’s health insurance. She initially planned to stay at home with their teenagers, but soon found that wasn’t a good fit for her.
“I needed a job that I could have my summers off, so I looked into getting into the school district,” Ruth, 74, said. “I had raised a special needs child of my own and that’s what opened the door for me, so I was able to work at Garfield (Elementary School). I worked there for seven years and John worked at Ace (Hardware) for a couple years. We just got too busy in the summer and it was getting to the point where he had to have some help. So I retired, and we’ve been working hard ever since then, together.”
John’s approach to gardening has a bit of a mad scientist flair to it. To speak with him on the topic is to be a student in a master class, piecing together instruction on cross-breeding, disease resistance, plant biology and saving heirloom seeds, from which a large number of the farm’s plants grow. Jansen was able to develop some varieties of black raspberries that are not only winter hardy, but are also nearly immune to the common disease anthracnose when grown in high tunnels.
And then there’s Godsend. John stabilized the accidental hybrid, which he believes was a cross of romaine and buttercrunch. But it took time and patience -- seven generations of time and patience, to be exact. This is the number of generations required to stabilize a genome to the point the seed’s output will be predictable. Until then, seeds can produce wildly different results. John said of the 150 seeds he planted in the second generation, about 100 different variations sprouted. Throughout the process, John saved the seeds from the plants that looked the most like the original hybrid.
By the eighth or ninth generation, John noticed an emerging trait in the lettuce that defied conventional wisdom about the green. Instead of becoming inedible once blossoming, the Godsend variety remained palatable.
“Most lettuce, if it gets this (tall), it gets real bitter,” John said. “We noticed that enzyme disappearing. Ruthie and I have taken leaves off of a blossoming plant right up next to the stem. There’s a tiny little dab of bitterness (at the end) but you break that off, and we use it.”
The success of the Godsend variety is an example, Ruth said, showing “the good lord has been with us.”
While her husband got his hands dirty in the gardens, Ruth dirtied hers in the kitchen, making jams from the farm’s berries and other fruits, including grapes, plums and cherries.
“After I got married I would have to call Mom and say, ‘How do you do this? How do you do that?’ She taught me how to can over the phone. I had to learn all that then,” Ruth said.
One of her most successful products at the farmers markets came yet again from John’s experimental streak.
“When there’s always a little bit left at the end of a batch, he mixed some sometimes, so he would say, ‘Oh can you make a recipe and mix these two together?’” Ruth said. “One of those was our top seller, and one of those was his mom’s recipe that I just expanded so I could make a bigger batch. It’s been a learning experience, too, and it’s been fun to experiment with the different products.”
‘What I want to do’
With wonderful memories and life-shaping experiences aplenty, leaving the farm is a welcome proposition for the Jansens, too. Running a farm operation of the scale and nuance of Brambling Rows doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for other things in life. The couple owned a lake property near Grand Rapids they visited only six times in the course of 18 years, for example.
“We’ve just gotten to the point where we have 21 grandchildren and the 14th great-grandchild is on the way, so for them, it’s just time, we need to spend time with the kids,” Ruth said. “I just lost a daughter last March and it just kind of concretes it all the more, that it’s time that we spend time with family and work on our bucket list.”
The contents of Ruth’s and John’s bucket lists vary greatly, however. For Ruth, it’s all about traveling -- to Alaska, to the tropics, to the mountains and the vineyards of the West, to Colorado where new owners Rachel and Travis previously lived.
As for John?
“I have a couple more crosses I want to do, I want to develop,” he said. “I have a rhubarb that is red and it’s very large. … It’s very coarse. So I would like to breed it with another one that I have that is quite fine, and see what we can get out of that. There’s a perennial sunflower that I’d like to work on. … It all takes time.
“So many people say, ‘Why are you working over there if you’re retired?’ What do you do when you’re retired? You do what you want to do. And this is what I want to do.”
Despite his bucket list, John said he’s slowly becoming acquainted with the idea of more free time.
“I’m getting used to it. We went fishing the other night for the first time in 10 years,” he said. “Yesterday on the spur of the moment we dropped everything and went to Safari North (Wildlife Park). That wouldn’t have been possible last summer.”
Finding the net
Rachel knew for some time farming was in her future, and her passion was ignited further by a great teacher.
“I was lucky enough, the town we lived in Colorado there was this little farm that was very similar to this. The farmer was just kind of a master of vegetables, and I was able to get a job with him and work for him for two years, ended up managing the place,” Rachel said. “And so I just learned everything I possibly could. I really loved being able to grow vegetables, and grow really delicious vegetables. I think most of the art is knowing when to pick it correctly and he was really good at that, so that was a great education.”
Although farming as a goal was clear, Rachel didn’t exactly expect to make her way back home -- at least not as soon as she has. She and Travis, 33, casually browsed real estate listings from Maine to Idaho with the goal to eventually own a farm, but knew Colorado wouldn’t be the place. Rachel’s parents, Larry and Beth Lindman were the ones who happened across John and Ruth’s listing in the classifieds.
“My parents were really into me coming home,” Rachel said. “I knew I didn’t want to live in Colorado long term, and I did miss living around this area. I missed the trees especially. It was good to come back, and farming here is definitely easier than Colorado. You don’t have water limitations here like you do there.”
Beyond the location, the timing was unexpected, too.
“At some point you kind of just have to leap and go for it. I didn’t want to do this for another few years. I thought I needed more experience, but I’m glad I did it,” Rachel said. “My mantra has been, ‘Leap and the net will appear.’ I heard that quote somewhere and I liked it. It’s been helpful in getting me through these days.”
Her gusto hasn’t gone unnoticed by Ruth, who expressed gratitude for the successors fate delivered.
“I think Rachel is just the neatest kid. Travis hasn’t really been around that much but when he’s here he just dives in and he works hard,” Ruth said. “And you know they’re going to have to be hard workers, and they are. I can see she has the passion like John, and that’s what it’s going to take. … So I look for success. I sure do.”
Although she’s mostly just soaking up as much as she can right now, Rachel said a few changes are underway. She’s dropped “Berry” from the farm’s name, and she intends to begin implementing organic practices in her first full season. At this time, that doesn’t include certification through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which can be expensive and cumbersome, but Rachel said she’d enjoy community input on whether that label is important to them.
Under a blazing late afternoon sun, the past and future of Brambling Rows convened at the garlic patch, one of John’s favorite places on the farm.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what I can produce,” Rachel said. “I feel for John because when you work land, you fall in love with it. I’m looking forward to that, getting to know the different intricacies of the place, what goes best where and what I can pull out of this. You kind of get to have your own little kingdom.”
“That’s a good way of putting it, your own little kingdom,” John replied.
“You get to create a little empire here from scratch,” Rachel added.
The conversation turned toward garlic productivity, soil-borne fungus and the math equations farming requires. But soon, John circled back.
“The kingdom,” he said. “This is Rachel’s kingdom now, and I just hope she finds as much satisfaction as what I did over the years.”
For your info
Business: Brambling Rows Farm.
Location: Rural Brainerd.
Number of employees: Five, including owners Rachel and Travis Cobb.
Did you know? Four greenhouses at Brambling Rows Farm are built partially below ground. In one of them, John Jansen devised a method to heat the plant beds directly, rather than through the air. It costs just $45 to heat for the entire spring, according to Jansen, versus conventional greenhouses that can run about $1,300 a month.