WHEN JESSIKA Tantisook and Jared Oakes set out to farm organic cranberries, Tantisook recalls, “we were young and probably very naive.”
After all, it would take naiveté — or idealism, or maybe entrepreneurship — to farm a crop with no obvious market. Washington is the nation’s fifth-largest cranberry producer (Oregon is No. 4,) but you’d never know it from our produce aisles. The harvest’s vast majority is sold to a national cooperative, Ocean Spray, which has no division for organic berries. The ruby haul is processed into sweetened juice blends or sold at Thanksgiving in branded 12-ounce packages that don’t boast of their origins.
An even bigger issue than marketing organic berries, though, was whether the couple could even produce a viable crop.
Plenty of experienced agricultural specialists said flat out, “You can’t do it.” Organic cranberries are notorious for poor yields and susceptibility to disease.
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“They would list this fungus and that fungus and the weed pressure and how it wasn’t possible …” Tantisook recalls. “It didn’t make sense to us entirely, because obviously cranberries have grown as natives in North America for a long time.”
So the couple, who had worked on sustainable farming and restaurant projects in Ohio, came back to the Long Beach peninsula, Washington’s “cranberry coast,” where Oakes had grown up. They took on the land owned by Oakes’ parents, commercial fishermen who spent a lot of time in Alaska. They did it on the condition they could try to shift the bogs to organic production, a three-year process involving “transitional” crops carrying all the disadvantages of organic farming without the benefits of a price premium.
Their yield did drop dramatically, by as much as half at the beginning. Tantisook thinks that was partly because they made mistakes more seasoned farmers wouldn’t have made, including “knowing which weeds you can live with.” The numbers are improving with experience. Finding a market turned out to be no problem.
Last year, their 10-acre farm, Starvation Alley, became the state’s first certified organic cranberry farm. The business (starvationalley.com) sells frozen whole berries at farmers markets, including at University District and Ballard, for those looking for sauce for Thanksgiving and far beyond. Their specialty, though, and success story, was in realizing they needed to add value to the harvest to turn a profit, in the same way that so many dairy farmers have turned to cheese production to add value to their milk.
They came up with bottles of cold-pressed, raw, unpasteurized 100 percent cranberry juice, increasing the per-pound price of their product by a factor of 10, Tantisook said in one business statement. The juice is too tart for nine out of 10 people, she said, “but the people who love it are die-hard fans.”
Plain cranberry juice is sought-after for health benefits — vitamin C, antioxidants, etc. Some customers drink the juice in shots like wheatgrass, but the producers found another surprise outlet in the region’s cocktail bars, from Rob Roy to Tom Douglas Restaurants. Hot spots favoring local products for their drinks never had a hometown source to build Cosmopolitans and other cocktails.
Local berries, they learned, were almost as exciting to the cocktail crowd as organic ones.
With a successful model, more farmers in the area are now looking toward organic certification. In addition to their organic juices, Starvation Alley has a separate line of local juices, purchasing berries to help other farmers get through the difficult years of transitional crops.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve entirely perfected the model yet,” Tantisook says, but “I think we’re well on our way.”
Freelance writer Rebekah Denn is a regular contributor to The Seattle Times blog All You Can Eat. Ellen M. Banner is a Times staff photographer.