In Transition: Washington State’s (Future) Organic Cranberries

photo from Jessika Tantisook

I don’t remember the last time I saw Jared Oakes – we were kids when I moved away from Washington State’s Long Beach peninsula  – but it couldn’t have been too far (the peninsula is only about 30 miles long and a mile and a half wide) from the land he’s now farming. My family lived in Long Beach for a few years, during which we befriended the Oakes family and I have only hazy memories of an energetic blond kid, but that image evokes the wild grit that a venture into organic farming requires. Jared’s farm, Starvation Alley, is on track to become the state’s first organic cranberry operation.

Through a stroke of internet luck, I happened upon the Starvation Alley Facebook fan page when I friended Jared’s sister Tiffany, so I sent an email and made contact with Jared’s girlfriend and business partner, Jessika Tantisook, then gave them a call to catch up with my childhood friend and hear about their extraordinary endeavor.

It turned out that after growing up in Long Beach, Jared had spent eight years in California and a stint in the restaurant business, when his relationship with Jessika, who was already on her way to a career in farming, got serious. Jessika was in Ohio doing community gardening through Americorps, and when they decided to make a life together, it presented something of a crossroads for them. The future, as they say, was wide open. Both had a strong interest in farming, and Jared’s parents had five acres available back home. Nobody was growing organic cranberries in the entire state. In fact, they said it couldn’t be done, and the couple couldn’t resist the challenge.

But that lonesome niche has also been one of their biggest obstacles – the insular and increasingly elderly community of growers offers little in the way of guidance or mentorship to the new farmers. Even online, there are few answers to the many questions that pop up, in part because cranberries are such an obscure crop. (Jessika recently started a blog in an effort to share resources online.) With all the perseverance of a couple of young farmers, they've pushed through their first year, learning lessons along the way, and Starvation Alley is one year into its transition on its way to becoming the state’s first certified organic cranberry farm.

A few facts about cranberries

We mostly think of these nutritious, if tart, little guys around the holidays, but a substantial amount of those harvested in the US go into juice. In fact, a whopping 95% are processed into juice, sauce or the ridiculously named “craisins.” But how do they grow, and what are the environmental implications of their production?

If you have a mental picture of cranberry production, it likely involves a bog full of water, with a layer of fresh berries floating on top of it. And this is what harvest looks like for the majority of cultivators, though the bogs tend only to be flooded during spring and fall, and as the raw cranberry market has heated up, growers are trending toward dry harvest, which makes for a longer-lasting -- and legally marketable -- fresh product (wet-harvested berries can’t be sold, just like flooded produce). Jared and Jessika have devoted a small portion of their land to dry harvest and describe the process as much more difficult, but point out that it could be easier with better machinery for harvesting and sorting and that innovation has stagnated in this area because the focus has traditionally been on processed cranberries and therefore wet harvest.

And their love/hate affair with water

Cranberry production requires a lot of water and has a substantial impact on it, from quantity impacts (springtime high levels and fall harvests lead to floods of discharge into local waterways, summertime irrigation and flooding requires massive intake from same) to quality impacts (pesticides flow right into local waterways and water tables) and wetland impacts (cranberry operations are often situated where wetlands once stood, or adjacent to them).

In Wisconsin – far and way the top state in cranberry production – a “Cranberry Law” that goes back to 1867 exempts growers from being required to obtain permits before physically altering lakes and streams by setting up irrigation systems, ditches and dams. On a national level, cranberry producers are exempt from the Clean Water Act, in spite of the vast amount of water involved in cranberry production and the flow of chemical fertilizers and pesticides into local waterways.

As far as pesticides go, in 2006, the USDA Pesticide Data Program found 13 pesticide residues on tested cranberries, including three known or probable carcinogens, six suspected hormone disruptors, five neurotoxins, one developmental or reproductive toxin and six honeybee toxins.  Suddenly, those images of the bright berries floating in the watery bogs is decidedly less pure.

And their marketability

The Starvation Alley farmers also have a challenge in marketing. Right now, they are selling to the Ocean Spray cooperative, which controls a whopping 95% of the cranberry market, but they withhold a portion (10% of their average yield) of their berries to market directly, with an eye toward getting out of the coop. Ocean Spray doesn’t have an organic line – apparently, they tried at some point, but it wasn’t profitable – so once they get through the three-year transition process, they will need to find an alternative or see the product they work so hard to grow thrown in with the conventionally-grown fruits of their neighbors.

So, for the last two weekends in a row, they've trucked up to Seattle’s Pike Place market and sold fresh berries as well as two value-added products: pure, un-pasturized cranberry juice, and cranberry sauce with ginger, fennel seed and red wine. The products met with mixed reviews the first weekend -- not surprising, considering that Pikes' draws a massive tourist crowd compared to the food-conscious crowd that attends less famous markets -- but picked up last weekend, with Thanksgiving looming. Jessika said she considers everything they do part of an experiment now, and that they are thinking of other creative and practical ways to move the other 90% of their crops in coming years.

The fact that Ocean Spray controls the vast majority of the market and has no organic line has greater implications than the fact that only some brave and passionate young farmers are crazy enough to take on the kind of risk and hard work finding that growing organic cranberries and finding a way to market them requires, but it also goes back to the earlier problems they described, the lack of information out there and the lack of machinery. Ocean Spray isn’t even doing research in the organic sector. Even the website for Rutgers University’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, with its focus on blueberries and cranberries, houses virtually no information on organic cultivation.

It’s kind of a catch-22. In order to expand the organic market, there will have to be growers, but the growers are pretty much left to their own devices when they decide to transition. Here’s hoping that their perseverance, their commitment to sparing their downstream neighbors from chemicals and the wild enthusiasm they have for their project carry them through the next few years and they are able to forge a path for other aspiring organic growers to follow.
What can you do?

Given the lack of respect with which most Americans have treated cranberries over the years -- foodies may have moved on to delicious sauces with orange zest and bourbon, but the majority still blurp a cranberry jello log out of a can -- their environmental impact hardly seems worth it. But if we support small, organic farms and consider the hard work that goes into a product like Starvation Alley’s, maybe cranberries can recapture the wonder and respect a traditional dish deserves.