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Currant events: Husband-and-wife team grows a Michigan berry business 

The Coons — Jerry, 50, and Julia, 43 — run Coon's Berry Farm, out in rural Coleman, about two hours north of Detroit. The couple has been married 10 years, but has only been growing gooseberries, black currants, and red currants for three. They don't produce right away, but once they get going they can be very productive. Last year, the Coons harvested a few thousand pounds from the almost four acres they have planted with bushes. This coming summer, they hope to have a few thousand pounds available just for U-pick, and in the following year, they hope to harvest 10 to 15 tons. This is long-range agriculture of a specialty crop, something we're seeing more of in Michigan, which should help cement Michigan's reputation for variety. We spoke to the Coons last week, and they sound happy and unhurried, clearly enjoying pursuing their unusual dream.

Metro Times: So I imagine you don't just wake up one morning and decide to grow a couple of acres of currants. [Laughs.] How did you both arrive at this?

Jerry Coon: I grew up on a farm about an hour south of here, and we had about seven to 10 gooseberry bushes on the farm, and my mom could kill just about anything that grows [laughs], but she couldn't kill those bushes! And they were just very prolific, and when I was a teenager, I said to my parents, "Geez, instead of struggling to grow soybeans on this farm, you should grow gooseberries." And, of course, they never did. And about 30 years later, I had the opportunity to buy my own farm, and that had always been in the back of my mind that somebody should do that. And with the power of the Internet now, I've learned more about gooseberries — and that black and red currants were all in the same family — so I've had the idea for 30 years to do this. And Julia and I got married 10 years ago and she has her own story, and it just worked out for the both of us.

MT: What's your story, Julia?

Julia Coon: Well, I was born and raised in Russia, and I lived there until I was 32. Black currants and red currants and gooseberries are extremely popular in Russia. And when I moved to the United States, I was surprised at not being able to find them anywhere here in America. And I kinda missed those berries, you know? And then Jerry and I started talking about it and I bought a few bushes for our own personal garden and they did very well, and that's where it all started.

MT: Your wholesale business has attracted some people who are pretty interesting: Eli Majid, who's making teas, and Slow Jams, which is making jellies and preserves on the east side. These people are driven by their passions to create interesting things. Did you know these craft producers were out there, or how did you find them?

Jerry: Well, I think we hoped they were out there! Whenever you have a good product that's unique, you just assume people will want it. And we started from the assumption that these are really yummy, tasty berries, they're very good for you, and if we grow them, people will want them. We met Eli and Slow Jams at the Making It in Michigan event.

Julia: I believe it was in October in Lansing. And Eli, when we mentioned our black currants to him, his eyes just grew big. He knew what we were into and sounded very interested. And we talked to the lady at the Slow Jams stand and she was very interested as well. That's very reassuring.

Jerry: Right now we have the jam companies, and the syrup companies wanting to do fruit-flavored syrups, and the stores want fresh produce, and the tea companies — you might not know this — want the leaves as well as the berries of the currant bush, which have quite astonishing properties, and the flavor is intense in the leaves as well.

For more information about Coon's Berry Farm, see coonsberryfarm.com.

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