Strawberry fields are not forever

(First published in the July 18, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Mike’s Berries closes after 33 years as owners scale back their farm


Mike and Jeannine Matushak, at their Engelberry Farm in Merrill, which they will expand in acreage next year now that they have closed Mike’s Berries.

When Jeannine and Mike Matushak wrapped up the 2019 strawberry season last week at Mike’s Berries, it was a final wrap for a strawberry field that for 33 years provided people with pick-your-own and prepicked fruit every summer.

     They opened the farm in 1986, before they were married, with about a quarter acre of berries on her parents’ dairy farm, located about 8 miles northwest of Wausau. They didn’t advertise but simply put up a sign and sold to people who happened to wander in. That quarter acre later would expand to six acres—one of, if not the biggest operations that close to Wausau.

     They also expanded north. In 1987 the family opened a second strawberry farm in Merrill, just past Council Grounds State Park, Engelberry Farm, when grower Harold Engel wanted to retire and asked them to take over his farm.

     During the berry picking season, the husband and wife team divided and conquered with Jeannine managing Mike’s Berries while Mike managed Engelberry Farm in Merrill.

     Jeannine says strawberry farming has been a great passion for her husband, who has worked on strawberry farms since he was 13 years old. “He enjoys the challenge of helping the plants grow and the success of a good crop,” she says.

     Mike’s Berries was undeniably a family business with Jeannine’s parents and children helping out on the farm. Jeannine says her kids started helping at around age 5 and continued to work in the fields until after college.

     For the 2020 berry season, the family will transition to operating only one farm, Engelberry. Their family has grown older and their children have moved on to start their own lives. “It is very difficult to for me to leave my family farm, but we know we have to move to one farm because the physical demands of two farms is too much for just the two of us” she says. Operating one berry farm will make their lives easier. Plus, as Jeannine points out, they were unusual for operating two separate locations. Most strawberry growers have just one farm, she says.

     Jeannine, who has been a teacher in the Wausau School District for more than 30 years, says they have wonderful memories at Mike’s Berries, especially of her family and friends always pitching in to help during berry picking season.

     “It’s great to see customers come back year after year,” she says. “You only get to see them once a year, but you get to hear how their families are doing.” It was especially heartwarming to see even older customers now in their 80s and 90s returning to Mike’s to pick berries each year.

     She has enjoyed watching the kids of repeat customers grow up, often seeing toddlers become teenagers. That’s also true of the workers. Kids who once worked for Mike’s Berries now have families of their own and return with their kids to pick berries.

     The land where Mike’s Berries once stood will stay in the family and become a hayfield. Jeannine and Mike will increase the acreage at Engelberry Farm in Merrill—offering 8 acres of berries next year—and plan on growing strawberries there for many years to come.