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Berry good: County honors Dana farmers

DANA — Like his father before him, Larry Stepp Sr. raised apples, keeping at it until back trouble made it impossible to drive a tractor.

Seven years ago, Stepp and his son, Larry Stepp Jr., made a bold move. They bulldozed the apple orchard off Jackson Loop Road and planted berries and asparagus. They also run a greenhouse and nursery, Stepp's Plants, that sells hanging baskets and bedding and potted plants in the spring and summer.
"It's a great complement to the flowers," Larry Jr. said of the blackberry, blueberry and raspberry crop. "We have a wholesale portion of that and we sell directly to some restaurants."
For their innovation — they are among the first in the county to cultivate berries on a large scale — the Stepps were named Farmers of the Year on Farm City Day. Last year the Stepps won a WNC Agriculture Options grant of $6,000 to plant 1,500 raspberry and 230 blackberry bushes.
Larry Jr. welcomes the partnership of his father.
"This is probably more labor but it's a different kind of labor," he said. "The tractor work we have, I can do that."
Larry Sr. described berries as more challenging than apples. Fungus is always a threat. This summer's rain drowned some bushes and hurt the berries' growth.
Although the Stepp farm does not need much migrant labor, Larry Sr. said the threat of an immigration crackdown has greatly reduced the supply of labor. Years ago on the farm, "you'd have 10 carloads (of workers) lined up ready to work," he said. "Now you couldn't find 10 carloads if you looked forever."
The father and son team grows about seven acres of berries. Blueberries can require five to seven years to reach full production and blackberries and raspberries about three years.
"We've taken everything you see there for three or four years and got almost no revenue out of it," Larry Jr. said. "It's taken a lot of capital."
But both Stepps are happy to be working together and preserving the family farm. Larry Jr. and his wife, Kelly, have two children who are growing up on the farm. Kelly and Larry Sr.'s wife, Gayle, work in the greenhouse and in sales in season.
In raising berries, the younger Stepp is carrying on the family tradition.
"We live in a great area to produce fruit," he said. "We've had this land with Dad and PawPaw growing apples for so long, maybe the fruit growing is in our blood."