ALPHA, Ill. — After a few hours turning hay atop his tractor, Bruce Curry was ready to check out his strawberries.
And, Curry, who owns the 80 acres of land known as Country Corner Farm Market in Alpha, Illinois, kept his expectations low.
The business he started in 1987 — which draws 25,000-35,000 visitors each year — is mostly known for pumpkins.
“Our fall business is huge,” Curry said of the farm’s 10 acres reserved for pumpkins. “We keep our berry patches small, because the berry business can be difficult. A lot of things can go wrong.”
Still, over the last month, Country Corner staff have fielded “non-stop” questions about pick-your-own strawberries, says special events coordinator Bob Frees.
“There’s a lot of phone calls, emails, Facebook comments, stop-ins about the U-Pick strawberries,” Frees, who manages the farm’s Facebook page, which has more than 13,000 followers, said. “People are eager to get out here.”
Visitors have had to wait longer than usual this season, according to Frees, who Curry calls his “right-hand man.”
“Mother Nature was not so kind to us this year,” Frees said. “The warmer winter and freezing again in March put us behind.”
The strawberry season typically begins in late May or the first week of June. This year, Country Corner opened its U-Pick strawberry patches to customers on May 30, but had to temporarily close the next day. Frees offered this explanation in a Facebook post: “Due to the unusual cool weather, strawberries are not ripening as soon as normal.”
Now that the berries are ripe, the farm’s eight rows of strawberry patches will be open for picking Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays likely through the end of June.
“It really is a small window,” Frees said. “All the work you put into it, you get two to three weeks of strawberries.”
But he and Curry agree: It's worth it.
As a group of 6-year-old kids toured Country Corner on Monday, Curry seemed pleasantly surprised by what he saw in the strawberry patches.
“It looks to me like we’re going to have good berries,” he said. “They look beautiful.”
And the taste?
“Just perfect,” he said.
Dream come true
At some point during his morning work, Curry wrote three words on his hand with pen: “Affordable, fun, educational.”
“I was thinking of things that were important to say about this place,” he said. “Those are the things that set us apart.”
Curry, 56, who started selling pumpkins on his front yard when he was 12, owes his success to those three words, which is basically his business plan . He said he’s “amazed” at how his farm — his dream — has grown over the years.
Country Corner now offers weekly farm tours, where visitors tour the produce patches as well as a learning center, farm animal petting zoo, bee barn, corn maze and a playground with several games.
“We have a blast,” Curry said. “It’s about educating the public on what farmers do and how things are grown.”
Curry’s wife, Alex, overlooks the farm market, which serves as somewhat of a food hub and offers jams, honey, cheeses and more from five neighboring farms.
It takes a lot of work: In the fall, Curry is on the farm about 120 hours per week. In the summer, he’s there around 50 hours per week.
“What keeps you going is happy customers,” he said. “My wife and I don’t talk about money we make, we just talk about the customers and if they’re happy.”
There’s another talking point: When, on Aug. 17, 2011, then-President Barack Obama visited Country Corner to hold a town hall meeting.
“If you ever wonder if what you’re doing means anything to anybody, the president coming to visit you is a good sign,” Curry said. “It was unbelievable.”
At the time, Curry was surprised to get the call from a White House representative. Looking back on the visit now, “it makes sense,” he said.
“I’m pretty sure the president came to visit me because I’m the American dream,” he said. “I tell everyone that if you have a dream, you can make it happen.”
‘Somebody’s got to pick them’
Jacky Lindstrom, who started working at Country Corner 11 years ago, has seen the reactions from visitors over and over.
“Some people have no idea what we do here,” she said. “And then they come and get to actually see it and pick things themselves — they’re so excited.”
That goes for her two grandkids, who Lindstrom brought for a visit over the weekend.
“It was the first time they had ever picked strawberries, so we cleaned them up and ate them with ice cream,” Lindstrom, who got the nickname “Jacky of all trades,” because of all she does on the farm, said. “They’re so much better than the store for some reason — they’re smaller, but juicier.”
That’s why, Lindstrom said, strawberry season — however short it may be — keeps bringing people to Country Corner. By the way, red raspberries, blueberries and blackberries will soon be available at the farm, too.
“Doing the U-Pick thing was a great idea for us, because it brings people here,” she said.
The U-Pick part of his business is a “no brainer,” said Curry.
“It’s fun to grow things people enjoy and want to pick,” he said. “And somebody’s got to pick them.”