Jessika Tantisook of Starvation Alley Farms knows the image everyone has of cranberry farming. “Yes,” she laughs, when I ask about the Ocean Spray ads featuring guys in waders submerged to their chests, surrounded by floating berries. “It’s just like that.” For a few weeks each year, anyway.
In 2010, Tantisook and her partner, Jared Oakes, moved to Washington to take over ten acres of cranberry bogs from Oakes’s parents. They decided to turn it into the state’s first organic cranberry farm—despite all expert advice to the contrary.
Five years in, the farm is now certified organic. They produce their own raw, unsweetened cranberry juice, which has found devoted customers among health-seekers, craft-cocktail connoisseurs, and farmers’ market shoppers alike. And the pair is working with neighboring farms to help them make the same transition to organic. Tantisook estimates there are fewer than twelve organic cranberry farms in the country, totaling three hundred acres—compared with about forty thousand acres of cranberries grown nationally.
This is Starvation Alley—the house my partner, Jared, grew up in. His mom and his dad live here. Cranberries seem sort of niche and silly sometimes, like, I’m a cranberry farmer! But at the same time, it’s a huge industry. Cranberries are a two-billion-dollar industry, and it’s fun to be able to see the changes in the last five years. Never before has there been a raw unsweetened cranberry juice, so it’s exciting to be able to share that with people.
Jared’s parents are both commercial fishermen by trade, so his dad and sometimes his mom spend quite a bit of time up in southeast Alaska, where they work a number of different fishing seasons. They bought these bogs because they were right between their house and where Jared’s sister lived at the time. It was mostly land security: Oh, we’ll just buy these bogs, we’ll farm them in our free time, and see how it goes. So they did that for, like, a year and a half before they realized: it’s hard to hobby-farm a big-ass piece of land.
They needed someone to manage it, but five acres is too small to pay someone else to manage. They bought another five acres in 2010, while in talks with Jared and me. We were living in Ohio at the time. I was working for an affordable-housing developer as a community garden coordinator, and Jared was working at a small organic vegetable farm. It wasn’t like, We really want to do cranberries! and were going to go out and find cranberries somewhere in the U.S. The opportunity presented itself.
We said we would definitely be on board if his parents would let us convert the bogs to organic. It was very clear from the beginning that it was not going to be an easy road, and we got a lot of pushback from experts: “You can’t grow cranberries organically” and “It’s not possible.” We’d call extension offices, or this and that, and they were just like, “Can’t do it.” We asked, “Well, why not?”
Nobody had a great answer. His parents were like, Um, you guys don’t know anything about cranberries, and people who know a lot about cranberries are saying that you cannot do this. But we asked them to let us try.
For us, it comes down to values. If someone’s advice stands in the way of your values, don’t take it. “Experts” are often the keepers of conventional wisdom—and therefore, listening to your internal compass might be more reliable than listening to external opinions. On the other hand, even if you are doing something that’s never been done, you don’t need to reinvent every system. Look to similar problems that have already been solved and, by all means, listen and learn.
It was May when I visited, so rather than the flooded fields I was picturing, the bogs looked like giant fields of moss. A tangled floor of thin maroon vines was dotted with the pale pink of cranberry flowers and the evil green of weeds. We stood on raised paths and leaned over irrigation ditches to inspect the flowers.
Cranberry vines grow in mats, and in those mats the vines are either runners (which shoot out to the sides) or uprights (which shoot up). The uprights produce about an inch or so of new growth each year, and from the upright is where you’ll see the flowers—and, if all goes well, berries. Cranberries start budding in early spring—if it’s really warm, the cranberry buds will start to break as early as March. A tight little ball forms at the top of an upright, and then you can see what’s new growth and what isn’t. When a bud breaks, the upright shoots up about an inch and it flowers. If the flower is pollinated, it turns into a berry. Cranberries started off being called “crane berries” because their flowers look like little cranes.
Right now, some of the bogs are at full flower, and some of them will probably be in a month. Ideally, they’ll all get pollinated and produce berries. We have honeybees that we are getting from Bee Local [a Portland honey company]. They came out with their crew at two in the morning and we unloaded bees with forklifts. Angry, angry bees.
We bring in bees, and we’ve also gotten funds from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to build up our native pollinator habitat. The idea is that these plants should bloom when the cranberries are not blooming, so then the pollinators, the native bees or wasps or whatever, have food to eat when the berries are not in bloom.
The berries will ripen throughout the end of the summer into fall. We’ll usually start harvesting in September, potentially into the beginning of November. We’ve done harvest a couple different ways, but it’s possible we could do all of it in one week. It’s a busy week, always a bit crazy around here. Lots of people come to help—well, some of it’s help and some of it’s distraction, but it’s really fun.
At harvest, we clog up all the corners of the bog with PVC and wood blocks, and we pump water from this lake, Tape Lake, into the bogs. It takes a day or two to flood them. Depending on the height of the bog, it’s about one-and-a-half to two feet of water. Then we drive through with a tractor called a beater, which has a wheel on the front. It runs through and knocks the berries off the vines, and then the berries float, because there are little air pockets in them. It usually takes about a day to drive around with the tractor and get all the berries off, and then you don’t really want them to be floating around in the water more than half a day, so you have to corral them all up. You know how you see people in their waders in the bogs? We get in the bogs and corral them all over to the side and then they go up this machine called an elevator, which has little paddles on it, and it picks the berries up and they either go into a tote or the back of a dump truck.
After that you’re just kind of cleaning up, making sure everything is ready for the winter. Then the cranberries are dormant from the end of November into March, and the cycle begins again.
This year will be Starvation Alley’s fifth since they began the transition to organic, and the second since they were fully certified.
In the beginning, I was thinking, Maybe we’ll try this out for three years or so and see how it goes. But we quickly figured out it was going to be much longer than a three-year process. It’s hard to learn anything in farming in one season, especially with something like organic cranberries, where there’s not a lot of existing research about how to do it.
The cranberry industry is fascinating, especially right now: they’re dealing with a serious oversupply. At the same time, there is a huge demand for the very difficult to grow organic berries, because it’s hard to access the information needed to grow them. If you want to learn about any pesticides and herbicides for anything else, you can just call Washington State University or whoever and they’ll be able to give you the step-by-step: you spray on this day, this is what you’re looking for, this how much to put out, how many times. Organic is just trial and error. And that’s tough, because if you’re a small farm, and you’re also using it as a research farm, you probably aren’t making that much money off it.
Our first year and a half was all of us in trench coats, out on the bog, weeding as many hours as humanly possible. We realized this wasn’t the most efficient way to do this. How could we get that done by controlling some of the other things, like the pH or whatever?
There are not weeds in other [non-organic] bogs. Getting used to looking at the weeds is hard. Growing organically means retraining yourself to be like, Okay, if there are not weeds, there’s just ten acres of one growing, and that doesn’t make sense. Other things need to be there for the plants to be healthy. Cranberries can still thrive if there are other plants around.
To deal with weeds in an organic cranberry bog is to decide which crop is going to win. If you think the cranberries are going to be okay if you leave a couple of things, then it’s best not to walk in them, because if you walk in them, then you’re squishing them. At the same time, sometimes during the season you have to get in there and just pull stuff.
We did a fun experiment with one bog: we inter-planted soybean seeds with the vines. When you’re planting a cranberry bog, you plant them from vine cuttings, so there’s these little chunks of vine. They come in hay bales; you just throw the vines out all over the sand and use a machine called a disker, which pushes them just a tiny bit into the sand. Once we did that, we went out and put soybean seeds on half of the bog, primarily to fix nitrogen. Right before they started to go to seed, we went through with the beater and trimmed them, so all the nitrogen stayed in the roots and was left for whatever else is there. It’s amazing, because everywhere that the soybean seeds were there’s no horsetail, and the soil is a lot more nutrient-rich. It’s fantastic.
One of the general misconceptions about organic is that you just let the plants do whatever they want. But we do lots to build up and amend the soil. Cranberries can tolerate a low pH in soil, and many weeds can’t. Improving the pH, the drainage, making sure that the soil is healthy: all these things will ideally keep weeds down.
The weeding stops as soon as the cranberries start flowering. Then we put out compost tea, ideally once a week or every other week. We have a giant, five-hundred-gallon compost-tea brewer at our other farm. That takes a lot of time, brewing tea and putting it out. It goes out on our bogs eleven or so times a summer.
I ask Tantisook and Oakes what they would recommend to a new farmer starting a cranberry farm. Debbie, Jared’s mother, chimes in first, suggesting it would be best to have a lot of money. “Unlike other crops, it’s an annual crop. You get one shot a year; it’s not like lettuce, that you can replant. Your lettuce gets a bug or something—that’s thirty days. This is a year. If something goes wrong, that year is gone.”
Two years in, our annual yield was down about 70 percent. This was partially because we were new to cranberry farming and partially due to drastically changing the nutrient and pest management tactics from conventional to organic.
This was a really scary time, because we weren’t sure if this was our worst-case scenario manifesting itself or if it was just part of the lengthy learning process of understanding cranberries. The last two years, our yields have been increasing again—and we’re hopeful for this harvest, too.
Specifically in organic farming, I would say you need to be willing to make learning a key part of your life. You need to be a person who’s ready to be your own problem solver, to do your own research, and to reach out to people and ask for help.
I wonder all the time what I’ve gotten myself into, and sometimes I think maybe this, even, is just something way too big for a few excited, idealistic, and under-resourced people to take on. My partner and I talk about failure often enough and remind ourselves to consider our metrics for failure and success. We obviously didn’t sign up for this by asking ourselves, I wonder what’s the best way for us to make some money?