Farm turns up the juice on organic cranberry business
By Mike Williams
EO Media Group
LONG BEACH, Wash. — The operators of Starvation Alley Farms aim to prove general wisdom wrong by profitably growing organic cranberries.
Jared Oakes and Jessika Tantisook began farming his parents’ 5-acre cranberry bog in 2010. In addition to that farm, they also own a 5-acre plot along U.S. 101 coming into Seaview.
In October 2013, they completed the three-year organic certification process.
They came into the with experience in vegetable farming, but raising cranberries is whole new ballgame.
“You can’t just go out, plow the ground and plant seeds,” said Kim Patten, Washington State University Extension professor.
Starting the switch to organic farming in 2010 added to their challenges.
“We saw a huge downslide in the couple of years we were doing it,” Oakes said. “A lot of things can be attributed to organic-growing practices, a lot of things can be attributed to just not knowing how to grow cranberries to begin with.”
Where traditional farmers can use herbicides and pesticides to control weeds and bugs, Starvation Alley uses alternative approaches that don’t have years of research to back them up.
“Weeds are the obvious ones,” Oakes said. “It’s unique to cranberries in the way they’re grown, so if you see a weed out there (in the middle of the bog) and you want to go get it, especially during the season, you either have to trample buds or blossoms or berries.”
They accept that they’re going to lose some production to weeds, but it doesn’t mean they lose the battle, Oakes said.
Tucker Glenn, manager and owner of the 85-acre Jubilee Farms, said he uses a variety of methods to control weeds and pests, including herbicides and pesticides, but his focus is on a more sustainable approach.
That means using herbicides and pesticides correctly.
“We don’t just use pesticides to use them,” he said. The farm checks to see what’s needed and decides what to do
“We use the least amount possible,” he said. It’s better for the land and it’s cheaper too, he added.
When it comes to weeds, “We pull, we spray, we wipe ... we have a whole bag of tricks,” he said.
The farm uses whatever works best, he added.
Organic farmers use alternatives such as vinegar and hand pulling.
Independent grower Chase Metzger is experimenting with manuka oil, a substance derived from a New Zealand tea tree, Oakes said. Lemon oil also works.
“They’re also more expensive, though,” Tantisook points out.
And they don’t come with instructions for application on cranberry bogs.
“So for us to spend $800 on a couple of pounds of manuka oil that can go a long way and try it for that first time, that’s a big step for a small farm, whereas if the extension office said, ‘Hey, if you spend $800, here’s what happens.’ Then you can go, ‘$800, OK, that’s not bad because I know I’m going to see $3,000 in increased production.”
Unfortunately, the Long Beach extension office is not working on a study of manuka oil.
Patten said the extension has done minor projects on organic cranberry farming, but added that there’s very little research compared to organic farming of other agricultural crops.
So organic cranberry growers must do their own studies, Oakes said, and it can take a year to learn if it has been successful.
“It’s hard to be able to run trials specifically for research when you’re trying to make a living from growing what you’re growing,” Tantisook said.
Oakes said the farm can run profitably depending on the season. There was a steep learning curve the first few years, but operationally they’re on track.
The farm’s cranberry production on 5 acres doubled in 2013 to between 15,000 and 16,000 pounds. That was still much lower than other Peninsula farmers, Oakes said, but it’s moving in the right direction.
Starvation Alley has 10 acres of cranberries on two 5-acre farms, with about 6 acres in production.
Patten said conventional Peninsula farmers usually average about 100 barrels, or 10,000 pounds, per acre. Although yields the past four to six years have been lower due to cool, cloudy springs and summers, he added.
Glenn said Jubilee averages about 130 barrels an acre.
Oakes said the juicing business is in its first eight months. The plan is to be profitable from an operational standpoint by November.
The company is still getting out of debt. It’s probably 21/2 years from that point, he said.
Corporate Life On The Farm
The couple formed Starvation Alley Social Purpose Corporation.
Tantisook explains, “Because we wanted to have our mission written into our company thread to increase farmer livelihood while decreasing the often negative impact farming has on communities and the people who eat the food being grown.”
The corporation handles production, sales and marketing.
This is the first year the company has hired staff. Oakes and Tantisook got a $100,000 loan through Craft3 Bank for operations and inventory for the social purpose corporation.
The staff of seven includes Tantisook and Oakes.
The company delivers unpasteurized juice, its main value-added product, to bars, restaurants and farmers markets in Seattle and Portland.
The company’s Juice for Concoctions includes an organic line that sells for $26 plus a $2 deposit for the 32-ounce bottle. Juice from traditionally grown berries is sold under the Local Harvest label at $20 a bottle plus $2 deposit.
The juicer was financed through Community Sourced Capital, a Seattle company that provides financing to small businesses by selling $50 “squares.” Anyone can buy a square, and the business pays back $50.
CSC’s website describes it this way: “It’s not a donation. It’s not an investment. It’s a right-sized mechanism for moving money to a business in your community while still getting paid back.”
It was just right for Starvation Alley.
“We couldn’t have easily raised 12 grand for our juicer,” Tantisook said.
A Little Help From My Friends
Starvation Alley bought traditionally grown berries in 2013.
Metzger has decided to transition to organic practices. He put in the paperwork.
“I can still spray for weeds and pests, but the list is a lot more restrictive,” Metzger said.
The effectiveness can be an issue he added.
Metzger has 17 acres on a farm he purchased in 2008. The older, well-established vines are thick and tend to outcompete weeds, said Metzger, an agricultural technologist with the WSU Extension office.
His farm produced 1,200 barrels of fruit in 2013. Starvation Alley bought much of it.
“We got pushback on that,” Tantisook said.
People didn’t understand, because the company is known for organic cranberries. But they made a business decision to help advance the organic growing process.
“We realized in order to get [other farmers] there we were going to have to help them along every step of the way,” she said. Buying Metzger’s berries was a way to help.
Oakes added, that as much as they’ve helped him along with the organic certification process, Metzger’s helped them with general cranberry farming issues.
Metzger said it wouldn’t be possible for him to switch to organic without the juicing operation. A glut of conventionally grown cranberries in recent years has made it tough on independent growers.
“I can’t move that much fruit other than sell that to a processor,” he said. “Even if he’s only able to take a portion of it, I’m far better off.”
Another local grower, Nick Haldeman, has two acres and is beginning to transition to organic.
“We’re paying a premium, so there’s definitely farmers interested,” Oakes said. “We’ve had interest from farmers in Grayland and others, and we’re at capacity. If things go well we’ll want to add to our team.”