Celebrate Bardenhagen Strawberries


By Rebecca Gearing Carlson

Sun contributor

June = Bardenhagen strawberry season. Yes, it is its own season in the Leelanau Peninsula. Every year around the peninsula, usually from mid-June to the beginning of July, fans wait impatiently for the harvest of the Bardenhagen strawberries. Once the word is out that the strawberries are ready, making the trip to the Bardenhagen farm stand at 7990 E Horn Road is a must. However, until the dedicated caretakers of these berries graciously sat down for an interview, I never truly appreciated all the planning, hard work, and love that these berries receive from Steve and Pam Bardenhagen (fifth generation owners) to become the fan-favorite strawberries of the peninsula. The harvest of these gorgeous berries launch the summer season and are a reason to celebrate.

After purchasing the first of the season Bardenhagen strawberries, most do not even make it home. They pop so easily into the mouth while driving to work or home. After pulling into the driveway at home, the container is empty. How did that happen? Oops, need to return to the farm stand tomorrow for more, but get there early as they run out. Next time, the strawberry devourer solemnly pledges to make it in the front door with full containers of strawberries to become strawberry shortcake, strawberry pie, a smoothie, make jam, or freeze.

The recipe possibilities are endless. According to Steve, his favorite strawberry recipe is “fresh out of the field.” Pam offered “Strawberry Glacé Pie” as a favorite recipe that Steve’s mother Christi (Bremer) Bardenhagen makes for the family. Aside from the succulent bite of the precious berries, the strawberry is a nutritious health bomb.

“Strawberries are loaded with Vitamin C. Eight medium strawberries contain 160% of …[a] daily recommended [dose]…That’s more vitamin C than you get from an orange…,” according to The Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials website. Furthermore, strawberries offer more “nutritional value for very few calories.” These powerful berries: “Boost brain power,…[s]trengthens…[the] immune system,…[p]rotects heart health,…[and] [r]educes inflammation” (The Cleveland Clinic). Honestly, it is not clear if people focus more on the health benefits versus the juicy, sweet taste of summer in each berry, but it is one more reason to appreciate the strawberry.

The Bardenhagen strawberry and cherry farm is a sesquicentennial farm of 152 years under one continuous family ownership. As has been reported previously in the Glen Arbor Sun, Leelanau County is home to numerous sesquicentennial (150 years) and centennial (100 years) farmsteads which speaks to the ideal soils, weather, growing conditions, and dedicated caretakers of the environment. This is why this area is home to a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, and other products produced by the amazing farming families in Leelanau County. The 184-acre farm was first homesteaded in 1872 by Johann Bremer, great-great grandfather to Christi Bremer Bardenhagen, Steve’s mother.

In the 1970s, under the fourth-generation ownership of Gary and Christi (Bremer) Bardenhagen, consumers of the strawberries became familiar with ‘The Garage.’ According to Steve, those who wanted to purchase strawberries would bring their own containers to the garage on the farm and fill them with the freshly harvested strawberries. In 2008, Steve purchased the farm from his parents and continued selling the strawberries in the garage until 2017 when the farm stand on Horn Road was built. Pam shared that, prior to 2017, selling strawberries consumer direct only accounted for about 10% of total sales with wholesale selling to local grocery stores (started by Gary) accounted for about 90% of sales. Post 2017, with the farm stand, sales began to shift from wholesale to consumer direct. The farm stand and consumer direct sales increased dramatically during Covid. In 2023, wholesale strawberries accounted for about 40% of total sales to local grocery stores, local restaurants, and other outlets, while 60% was consumer direct through the Bardenhagen-Berries farm stand (online and walk-up sales), farmers markets, and their Homestead Hill Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) business. Both Steve and Pam spoke proudly about the shift from wholesale to consumer direct as there are more benefits to both the farmer, consumer, and local community.

“We have always believed that we are stewards of the land and ownership is only temporary,” according to Gary and Christi Bardenhagen, Steve’s parents, as originally reported in a Leelanau Conservancy article by Carolyn Faught in 2018. This belief has been passed down to current stewards Steve and Pam, whose use of cover crops and yearly rotation equate to healthy soils, environment, and farming practices. Of the 30 acres of strawberry fields, they are only harvesting about 10 acres using rotation and planting cover crops such as rye, peas, and radishes (spring) which get sown back into the soils and replaced by oats and mustard plants (July), also sown into the earth, to further enrich the soil and thus the farm. According to Pam, “using the most sustainable practices possible” allows for the growth of nutrients in the soil which cuts back on pesticide use to fight insects, disease, and pests. In addition to strawberries and cherry crops, they grow vegetables and flowers as well. This year, Steve and Pam will add asparagus and raspberries to the farm stand and CSA boxes. With a newly-planted stone fruit orchard, peaches, plums, and apricots will soon become part of the Bardenhagen-Homestead Hill offerings.

There are many challenges local employers face in the Leelanau Peninsula; the biggest hurdle for many is maintaining a strong labor force. The Bardenhagens offer worker housing during the months from April to October. While they do have farm workers who return year after year, the labor force is constantly changing requiring adaptive measures and planning for the yearly crop harvest.

To purchase the first taste of summer, Steve and Pam have a wonderful website that allows for online purchases of the strawberries and other products, to be picked up at their farm stand at bardenhagenberries.com. They also participate in a 25-farm CSA box program that is available through the website mifarmcoop.org under the name Homestead Hill CSA. This outlet offers direct farm-to-consumer purchases of fruit, vegetables, flowers, and other local farm produced products. As Pam noted, farmers’ “margins are so thin,” thus farm stands, farmers markets, and CSAs allow for the consumer to support them by buying their products directly, with no middle man. The farmers control their pricing versus being at the will of wholesale buyers and losing control over their products. Consumers benefit because they can interact directly with the producer of their food.

There is no fresher product than the fruit, vegetables, and other food products that are purchased from local farm stands and farmer’s markets. In many cases, the food was harvested the same day the consumer is purchasing it. These adaptive measures protect our farmers so they can make a living wage which offers endless benefits, both short and long-term, to the community.

Steve shared that as the 2024 weather has been mild, the strawberry crop may arrive earlier than usual. Fingers crossed!