farmer livelihood and the state’s first certified organic cranberries
STORY AND PHOTOS BY JENNIFER CRAIN
Birch Street is a narrow lane shouldered by fir, spruce, and alder trees. It’s easy to picture the shacks and small, low houses that once stood here, sheltering impoverished Depression-era families who likely helped bring in the cranberry harvest. To the locals, this is still Starvation Alley.
When Jessika Tantisook and Jared Oakes moved back to Washington in 2010, to take over a historic cranberry farm along this road, they kept the name Starvation Alley Farms as a way to honor laborers, past and present. The well being of farmers and of the land is primary for Tantisook and Oakes, a focus that led the farm to become, in 2013, the first certified organic cranberry farm in the state. It also cast them as the creators of their own unsweetened, undiluted cranberry juice.
Starvation Alley cold presses its berries into a raw drink with a bright, full flavor that urban bartenders esteem as a cocktail ingredient (they sell to 18 restaurants in the Seattle area). It’s also available by the 8 or 32-ounce bottle at a few retail outlets and several markets in Portland and Seattle. Their local juice has created a niche that the two never could have foreseen.
Even before Tantisook and Oakes decided to move back to Washington from Ohio, they were picturing themselves as farmers. Both worked on organic vegetable farms for a time and Tantisook, who is originally from Tennessee, started and managed two urban community gardens as part of her work with AmeriCorps. The experiences helped them envision a life on the land and something else: they wanted to create a value-added product. But no particular crop stood out.
“We liked grapes. We liked apples,” Tantisook explains. “But for those things, the markets were pretty tough. There’s a lot of people that make really amazing wine and ciders.”
Their loose plans, however, left them open to serendipity. Oakes’s parents, looking toward land security and their pending retirement from the commercial fishing trade, purchased the five acres adjacent to their Birch Street property in 2008. They planned to farm the cranberry bogs in their spare time.
“I always joke with them because hobby farming five acres of anything is impossible!” Tantisook laughs. “I think they realized that pretty quickly.”
The Oakeses soon asked their son and Tantisook to consider moving back to run the operation, including an additional five acres in nearby Seaview. Influenced by their former farming experiences, the two made them a deal. They would make the move to Long Beach and run the farm if they could transition it to organic.
His parents eventually agreed, even though Tantisook and Oakes couldn’t find a single expert in the area who thought it would work. The idea of an independent, organic cranberry farm on the Long Beach peninsula was close to absurd: most grow for the Ocean Spray cooperative, enjoying a guaranteed market for their crops and benefitting from its infrastructure. Still, the current oversupply of cranberries has driven prices down and led to controls such as production caps. The dire situation is an eyebrow raiser for growers who are considering a change.
Oakes and Tantisook left the cooperative when they transitioned their crops and started farming by trial and error, informed by the scattered bits of information they could find on growing organic cranberries. They started throwing work parties, inviting Tantisook’s graduate school colleagues from Seattle to help pull willow, purple aster, and horsetail.
Production dropped off the first two years. But on the eve of their fourth season, Oakes says their yield is back up.
“These last two years we’ve seen significant climbs,” he says. “This will be our best year, which is really exciting.”
At harvest, Oakes floods the bogs (they are dry most of the year) with water pumped from an adjacent lake. Because cranberries remain ripe on the vine for months, farmers can wait until the end of the season before gathering them up like this, all at once. To do so, a worker drives a vine-stripping machine called a bog beater straight over the densely matted vines, thwacking the berries loose. (A few damaged fruits won’t matter; wet harvested fruits are all bound for the freezer.) Behind the harvester, cranberries pop to the surface en masse. Workers corral the floating berries with a boom.
A cranberry is a tough little balloon with pliable skin encasing a sturdy pulp and four distinct air pockets, attributes that make fresh cranberries buoyant and resilient but also resistant to juicing. Last year, Tantisook and Oakes tried extracting juice from a batch of fresh berries, but even their industrial press couldn’t force much liquid from them. Oakes explains that freezing the cranberries breaks down the cellular structure, making them more amenable to juicing.
A fruit that grows well in our climate and improves in the freezer is deserving of accolades, but step back and cranberries can be seen another way: as a symbol of the land and farmers of the peninsula, a lens through which Tantisook and Oakes view their local food system. The two are big thinkers, but they’re also pragmatists. Last year, when they needed fruit, Starvation Alley purchased conventional berries from a local grower and pressed them into their “Local Harvest” juice, which sells alongside the organic version. Now they’re helping this grower and one other transition their own farms. But they’re not snobs. Tantisook will be the first to tell you that they value relationships over a farming philosophy.
“What is our mission, then? Is it to spread the organic gospel? Or is it something else?” she asks. “Pushing the cranberry industry in our area toward organic is a huge, huge accomplishment. But even more than that, keeping Northwest cranberries here is important. We’re thinking less about organic as the end goal, because it isn’t, and more about how we can support farmers’ livelihoods and our local food network. We’re trying to move the whole system, by giving farmers the option to earn good money while making sustainable growing choices—organic and beyond.”
Find Starvation Alley Farms’ cranberry juice at the University District Farmers’ Market, Ballard Farmers’ Market, and at Marx Foods. starvationalley.com
Jennifer Crain is a freelance writer in Olympia who tried a straight shot of Starvation Alley’s cranberry juice and doesn’t really want to go back. Learn more about her work at jennifercrain.com.
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