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Family feeds festival a berry at a time

BY TONY HUFFMAN Effingham (Ill.) Daily News

NEWTON, Ill. - Crossing the Burl Ives Bridge over the Embarras River and passing Lake Jasper, you can almost smell the air get sweeter. With enough strawberry fields to inspire a Beatles song, Larry and Janice Bigard sit at the entrance of their strawberry patch, which they started 39 years ago.

Now a multigenerational family business, the patch has become a staple of the community. At the upcoming Strawberry Fest, if you bite into something red, juicy and sweet, it came from Bigard's Strawberry Patch and Peach Orchard. According to Jasper County Chamber of Commerce President Suzie McCann, the Bigard's patch provides all the local strawberries for the festival.

"We are one of the biggest patches around," said the Bigards' daughter, Melinda Barthelme.

Their patch will produce about 800 quarts, or about 1,000 pounds, of strawberries for the festival. Barthelme, who grew up picking strawberries and is now a nurse practitioner at Marshall Clinic in Newton, is proud of her family's contribution to the farming community.

"I think the Strawberry Festival has been a great asset for Jasper County," she said, adding they have provided strawberries for the festival since its inception 20 years ago. "Without having a large local strawberry patch, I don't know if the festival would have worked."

Despite a historically cold winter, the patch has been able to create enough produce to be featured at the fest and farmer's markets in Jasper and Effingham counties.

According to the senior Bigard, winter killed a third of the strawberry crop and decimated their peach orchard.

"We won't have any peaches this year," said Bigard, whose farm also features an apple orchard. "We had an idea some of the produce wouldn't make it because winter was so cold."

Winter pushed back the date of edible strawberries to just before the festival. In a typical year, strawberries are ready for consumption in early May.

Melinda's husband, Chad, and their kids, Dylan, McKendra, Jaclyn, and Kohlten, all lend a hand with other hired workers during peak harvest times.

"I enjoy it, and hopefully the kids do too," said Chad. "Not everyone gets to do this kind of farming."

On the farm, approximately 10 acres are irrigated and a protective covering is put over the strawberries. Over the years, Bigard said he has seen several orchards come and go through the area and is protective of the hard-earned secrets to a productive crop.

Now a staple of the Strawberry Festival and other farmer's markets, the family has only seen the demand for local fresh produce grow.

"We sell out at the farmer's markets," said Melinda. "We will probably sell out at the Strawberry Festival."

The Bigards hope the lifelong passion will endure for years to come.

"Any time you have a small business that involves family, you can't ask for anything better than that," said Janice.

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