It’s No Time For Hibernation

MISSION HILL — Although not much growing is done this time of year, it doesn't mean Hebda Family Produce goes into a state of hibernation over the winter months.

"The winter is mostly our preparation time," said Rena Hebda, manager and co-owner. "(It) kind of sets the stage for the rest of our year."

Hebda said one of the main tasks is to determine which vegetables will be planted in the spring, as the crops vary from year to year.

Another primary focus is the maintenance of the farm's apple trees.

"We prune the apple trees back this time of year, usually in January and February," Hebda said. "They'll prune back what we call sucker branches — ones that are not going to produce apples, yet take (nutrients) from the trees. …

"Plus, we prune the height of the trees," she said. "We don't let them grow as high as they want to, because that makes it very challenging for harvesting. We also keep the branches not real extended, because we have to have a pathway for the tractor to go up and down the rows."

Hebda said the snow has presented some challenges in this endeavor.

"It's deep out in the orchard. If it doesn't melt, it will be very difficult to get out there and do a quality pruning of the trees, because we're not going to expend the manpower to move snow in the orchard to get there," she said. "So the ones on the edges we can easily get access to, but there will be some that we will probably just not get to because of the amount of snow that is here, and the fact that it's probably going to stay here for a period of time."

The winter also provides an opportune time to get processing done, Hebda said.

"We have a couple of private labeling contracts that we do, and so we privately label some jelly for a couple of organizations," she said.

Although Hebda Family Produce doesn't keep store hours from January through May, sales are also a focus, with orders taken over the phone. There is also the release of new products.

This past year, an intern from South Dakota State University assisted the business in developing low-sugar jams and jellies, some more of which will be on the shelves this year.

"We did one of them at Christmastime, and so we'll get that in a format now with appropriate labeling so it would be able to be marketed more widely to our wholesale customers," Hebda said. "We're really excited about that because it's all-natural. Our apple cider is the sweetener, and there's no artificial sweetener in it, so that was kind of an exciting piece to add."

Apple cider is also being pressed, both for wineries and wholesale customers, she added.

Another new addition to the farm is the high tunnel, a structure that will allow for some earlier planting.

"It is structurally similar to what might look like a greenhouse, but we plant right into the ground, rather than being planted in beds," Hebda said. "The heat of the sun will be enough to be able to plant and have the greens … be able to grow."

She said the frame for the high tunnel was constructed last fall, "but we'll put the actual covering on the tunnel on a warm late-winter day, and anticipate we'll get that ready for early planting in the early springtime. … That way, when we start our markets in May, we'll not only have asparagus to start the markets, but we'll also have some fresh vegetables ready, as well."

Hebda Family Produce is located at 30661 444th Ave., west of Mission Hill. For more information, call 665-2806.

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