August 31, 2016
Few things are more emblematic of Minnesota’s warmer months than fruit, fresh from the tree or vine. Bob Werner, an aspiring botanist and Minnetonka resident, has made it his mission to grow the best grapes, apples and other fruit the harsh Minnesota climate will allow. Along the way, he’s donated thousands of pounds of fresh produce through the ICA Foodshelf to people who otherwise might go hungry.
In total, Werner has donated 93,025 pounds of fresh, home-grown produce to local food shelves since 1993. “As the crop improves, you’ve got to do something with it. You can’t eat it all yourself,” he said. Werner said he first offered the fruits of his labor to friends and family. When there was too much even to share, he decided to start donating the fruit.
He said he was never interested in selling or marketing his produce, preferring instead to focus on his plants. His small backyard on Lake Street Extension is a wonderland for gardeners and foodies alike, with more than a dozen kinds of fruit on the vine. Werner’s crop includes apricots, hazelnuts, black walnuts, many kinds of apples, pears, plums and several kinds of berries as well as a diverse array of grapes. Even more of the botanical bounty can be found at his hobby farm, a short drive away from his home, with several acres of orchards.
Werner retired from the workforce about four years ago, and now spends most of his time tending his beloved vines and trees. “Now I can take my leisurely time with it, instead of limited it to evenings and weekends,” he said. Werner has lived in Minnesota his entire life, and moved to Minnetonka in 1972. His life story includes an University of Minnesota education in electrical engineering, service in the Air Force from 1959-1962, a brief stint in oil prospecting and a career in manufacturing and industrial design. Gardening, however, has always been passion.
“When I was a kid, I knew where every apple tree in the neighborhood was, so I could steal the apples,” he recalled with a smile.
Growing up, he remembers helping his father garden, growing grapes, carrots, strawberries and the like. He loved having something fresh to eat. In 1980, Werner bought a hobby farm in Minnetrista, on the other end Lake Minnetonka from his current home. Although only a few acres, he said the work, and rewards, were more than he initially expected. “When you go into something like that, it seems so simple,” Werner said. “You end up spending more time combating weeds and insects than raising fruit, but it’s interesting and it’s good exercise.”
He never had formal training in agriculture and picked up the tricks of the trade through trial and error, as well as watching other passionate planters at work. “It was before the Internet, so you just research and try things,” he said. “I learned a lot from other people and traveled a lot.”
Werner said it helped that he came from a well-educated family, with both of his parents having college educations. His children have carried on the tradition, one of Werner’s daughters is a professor of biology, another is a dentist and the third worked for the Peace Corps. Werner has also contributed to furthering the field of Minnesota fruit growing. He has experimented with grape varieties since the 1970s, searching from variety hardy enough to withstand Minnesota winters. His efforts put him alongside a cadre of well-known scientists with similar goals, including pioneering grape breeder Elmer Swenson.
While Werner has donated cuttings of his more resilient crops to the U of M for research, he was humble about the results of his many years of hands-on work. “I had a lot of fun, but there’s nothing I came up with that’s known beyond my small circle,” Werner said. “Maybe someday it will be of use to someone.” Werner recently celebrated his 77th birthday, but is still spry enough to do all the tending and harvesting of the crop himself, suggesting there may be some truth to the old adage of “an apple a day.” “Sometimes I eat two or three apples,” he said with a smile.
Good health seems to run in the family — Werner recalls seeing a photo of his grandfather in his hometown newspaper, more than 70 years old and still pitching hay. “I don’t have the energy I used to, but I’ll keep doing it as long as I’m capable of it. It’s good exercise,” he said.
Werner also plans to keep donating as much as he can to ICA, and hopes his efforts will gain attention not for him, but for the charity, and encourage other people to get involved in feeding the community.
“This is what I’ve donated, but what I want people to think about it what else could be donated, what else the food shelf does and how people can help,” he said. Monika Salden, communication specialist at ICA Foodshelf, said that Werner is an exceptional supporter of the organization. “He donates so much and does all the work himself,” she said. “He maintains an orchard that’s just for us, and that’s really beautiful.”
Salden said other community groups, such as churches and schools, also grow gardens for the food shelf, as do some residents. In total, the organization feeds approximately 848 families per month, a total of 6,300 area residents in 2015. Whether or not one has a green thumb, however, Salden said there’s a variety of ways to get involved. “Whatever you’re passionate about, we can figure out a way for you to help,” Salden said. “There’s so many ways to engage and we’re always looking for donations and volunteers.”