Agriculture

Mill Creek Farm ends strawberry production

From left, Mike and Theresa Roegge and their son, Wilson, pose under a high tunnel on their farm, Mill Creek Farm, in Quincy on Thursday, June 25, 2020. One of the last commercial strawberry producers in the area, the family will no longer be growing strawberries after this year due to the intensive labor involved. | H-W Photo/Katelyn Metzger
Katelyn Metzger1|
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jun. 28, 2020 12:01 am

QUINCY — It's the end of another chapter in the story of a sweet crop in Quincy.

Mill Creek Farm owners Mike and Theresa Roegge have wrapped up strawberry picking for the year — and for good — on South 48th Street.

The Roegges started Mill Creek as a strawberry farm in 1995. By 2020, the farm — also known for its asparagus, sweet corn and pumpkins — was the last commercial strawberry patch in Quincy.

But Quincy and the surrounding area has a long history with the sweet spring crop.

Wilson Roegge, Mike and Theresa's younger son, researched strawberry production in Quincy's past and discovered what he called "astronomical" production totals.

"They're talking up to a half million quarts of strawberries shipped out of Quincy. That's crazy," Wilson said. "This past year I'd be surprised if Mill Creek even topped 2,000. To go from Quincy being such a huge hub of activity to this being the last 'mom and pop' strawberry stand, it's the end of a chapter."

Production at Mill Creek started at 2 acres, but "the last three years we cut back considerably," Mike said. "This year we only had a quarter acre. Last year it was two-thirds of an acre and the year before three-quarters of an acre."

Deciding to stop production was bittersweet for the Roegges.

"Mike's been talking for a number of years of getting rid of strawberries, kicking it around when we're frustrated when it's downpouring and we don't have enough berries," Theresa said.

"It was a hard choice, but a decision that needed to be made," Mike said. "It was just a very demanding crop. We just couldn't do it anymore."

Caring for the crop, usually harvested beginning in mid-May, required specialized equipment and coincided with planting sweet corn and harvesting asparagus.

"We have to hire pickers for strawberries. It was the crop we had to hire the most extra help for," Mike said. "Managing pickers, managing weather, it was problematic."

Theresa Roegge appreciated the stories told by customers who remembered picking strawberries in their youth.

"Most of the older people who came out told me how much they were paid per quart. A 92-year-old man was paid a half-cent a quart. Some were paid two or two-and-a-half cents," she said.

In between jobs as a traveling physical therapist, Wilson was home this year and able to help with the strawberry and asparagus harvests.

"You get tired of doing it, really tired, but I looked forward to it," Wilson said. "I do love strawberries. They are delicious."

Strawberry harvest years ago required what Wilson called a traveling economy.

"It was migrant workers, but not the way you think of migrant workers," Wilson said.

According to an 1891 account from the Nauvoo Independent, "a steamship would come from Fort Madison (Iowa) to Nauvoo every morning with 300 pickers," Wilson said. "People would travel up and down the Mississippi just for strawberry harvest."

Quincy and Nauvoo papers from the 1890s to the 1920s suggest over 1,000 pickers working the fields in the Quincy area alone. Quincy produced a bumper crop in 1922, but production may have peaked in 1924 with "unusually large" and "excellent" quality berries "commanding top prices in the northern cities," according to one account.

"By the end of the three-week strawberry picking season, 64 refrigerated train car loads of Quincy-raised strawberries departed the Gem City," Wilson said. "Each of these 64 train cars contained an average of 420 crates with each crate carrying 16 quarts of strawberries … or around half a million quarts in a single year."

And, Wilson said, that included only berries shipped out of Quincy to canneries and markets to the north, not those used for local production and consumption.

Picking berries also played a role in romance, with Theresa and Wilson sharing stories of women who wrote their name and address for potential suitors on the underside of a box and soon got letters. "One of the ones he found, two sisters and an aunt all found husbands in Iowa," she said. "You never knew where the quart boxes would end up."

Stopping strawberry production frees up some Mill Creek land, and more importantly time, to spend on other fruits and vegetables. But Wilson said the farm's decision doesn't have to mean the end of commercial strawberry production in Quincy.

"If you're interested, you could definitely do it in your backyard," he said. "Locations of strawberry plots in Quincy's heyday are likely in your backyard. The Whig recorded strawberry plots 100 years ago existing on such through streets as 12th, 18th and 24th. Even the Vets Home had 70 acres of tilled fields with their half an acre of strawberries yielding almost 6,000 quarts in the bumper year of 1924."