Holly farm thrives in Columbia Gorge

Steve Brown/Capital Press Ken Bajema describes how much new growth he gets every year on his holly trees. He and his wife, Dee, farm more than 1,000 trees on their land in the Columbia River Gorge.

Couple sells custom cuts directly to long-time customers

By STEVE BROWN

Capital Press

WASHOUGAL, Wash. -- Ken Bajema remembers picking strawberries between the rows of holly trees on his father's farm. The strawberries are long gone, but the trees are still there.

His father bought the 22 acres in 1950 to augment a 9-acre parcel he owned nearby. The land was in filberts, and in apples before that.

"He started planting variegated holly first, then added green holly in '59," he said. "It's nine to 11 years before you can harvest, longer for variegated. When a tree is 20 years old, you can get a substantial amount off it."

Ken and his wife, Dee, are like many farmers: retired but still working. He's 70 and a retired agronomist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She's 65 and retired after working as a bookstore manager and with a public utility district.

Their operation, Columbia Gorge Holly Farms, includes bees, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and cattle.

The meat of the farm, though, is the English holly, 1,200 trees that take up the bulk of the total acreage. These are far from traditional ornamental holly bushes, growing 12 to 15 feet tall.

Raising holly is much like farming other crops, Ken said.

"You manage for growth, disease, insects," he said. "We fertilize, add lime. With labor costs what they are, we do all the work ourselves."

Nearly all of the English holly in the U.S. is grown in the Northwest, he said, but it's not a commodity by any means. He figures there are 20 to 30 growers in Washington. And there is no industry-sponsored commission to help with promotion or research.

"We all do our own marketing. Some sell wholesale. We tried that but didn't like how the wholesalers cut it, so we do it ourselves."

Dee Bajema described how the two of them spent three years going to florists and trade shows, making contacts for direct shipping. "We still have most of our original customers," she said.

Since the trees can live hundreds of years, the key to making them pay off is in the cutting.

"Ken is an expert cutter," she said. "He quizzes customers on what they want."

"We cut to custom order," Ken Bajema said. "The customer specifies what length, the number of berries. ... There's a customer in Missoula (Mont.) that we've had for 10 or 12 years, who said they threw away maybe two or three pieces in all that time."

"What we sell to florists, we and the kids harvest at Thanksgiving," she said.

"That's 4,000 pounds."

Is holly invasive? No way, say farmers

WASHOUGAL, Wash. -- Dee and Ken Bajema scoff at claims that English holly is invasive.

"In 60 years here, these trees have put out billions of berries," Dee said. Despite the constant presence of birds -- flocks of band-tailed pigeons in the spring, robins during harvest -- "We've found very few (holly trees) popping up elsewhere on the farm."

Those berries are also on the menu for squirrels, mice, deer, elk and the Bajemas' own cattle.

"We propagate from cuttings, not from seeds," Ken said.

What would they do if the state were to declare their primary crop a noxious weed?

"We wouldn't have a market," Dee said. "We wouldn't even be able to get a loan. We'd just let the orchard go. Other growers could sell their land for development, but not us."

Ken explained that because they're in a scenic area -- the Columbia Gorge -- there are building restrictions.

"To keep it in agriculture, it would have to make a minimum of $200 an acre," he said. "But there are a limited number of crops that would work here. It's a hard market for berries. Again, those labor costs."

The Bajemas said it's difficult to remain positive about the fate of the requested "noxious" listing.

"Seattle won't quit. They've got paid staff. They don't understand farming at all," Dee said. "These people (holly growers) are not letter-writers; they're farmers."

--Steve Brown

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