In our next installment of The Uncommoners: Exploring the Other Side of Ordinary, Lindsey heads to Long Beach, Washington to get her hands dirty and learn what it means to farm with a Social Purpose.
When I accepted an invitation from Starvation Alley Farms to join their cranberry harvest last month, I didn’t know what to expect. Perhaps, an idyllic Ocean Spray commercial or another episode of Dirty Jobs. (Yes. Mike Rowe visited a cranberry farm.). But what I found was hard work, laughter, great cocktails and a deep sense of community with people who were passionate about food, family and local farming.
After a few cranberry cocktails, I sat down with farmers, Jessika Tantisook and Jared Oakes, to learn how this small family-run experiment expanded into a corporation with a unique uncommon product and an even more uncommon purpose.
OTG: How does one come to own a cranberry farm?
Jessika: About six years ago, my partner’s parents, who are both commercial fisherman, had purchased five acres of cranberries and were hobby farming them at the time. There happened to be a 60-year-old, five-acre cranberry farm that went up for sale next door. At the time, Jared and I were at a transition point. We both had been working across the food supply chain for a while because we really enjoy food and the food community. It was the perfect opportunity for us.
What makes your cranberry farm so special ?
We are the first organic cranberry farm in Washington State. We got our certification on October 11th.
Congrats! Getting organic certification is no small feat. Is organic cranberry farming a lucrative business?
Depends on who you ask. Right now the press is saying that the cranberry business is heading downhill because of an oversupply issue, but we’re experiencing a huge demand for organic cranberries because no one provides them.
So what does your average day look like?
We’re a start-up, so it looks different every day. For example, this morning at 2AM Jared was in our freezer where we store all of our berries. Somehow, the forklift was stuck. On other days, I’m on my computer setting up meetings or sending emails and running the business. As we get more established things will get a little smoother, but right now we’re just learning.
There seems to be this romantic vision of farming and then there’s the reality of farming, which is that it is really f*cking hard work.
Some people think it’s all hard physical work, but you also have to be business savvy. You have to know how to manage your finances and know where potential markets are and how to reach those people. You have to do all of your distribution and schedule your production. We spend a lot of days in the kitchen making cranberry juice, bottling it and labeling it.
Let’s talk about that. If you’re not dumping 15,000 pounds of cranberries on the open market, what are your avenues for distribution?
When we were part of the Ocean Spray coop that’s exactly what it looked like. After our November harvest, we put all of the cranberries in a dump truck and literally drove it down the road and didn’t have to think about it anymore. Now we keep it all, so we’re in charge of all the cleaning and sorting. And since we’re organic, we have to drive the fruit to Portland because it’s the closest plant that is certified for organic processing. Then we drive it back, store it, juice it and bottle it. We do this many times a month.
That’s a lot more work than just selling it to Ocean Spray. Why the hassle? Is it a bigger profit margin?
Ocean Spray doesn’t currently have a market for organic cranberries, and therefore they don’t offer to pay farmers a premium for organic fruit. Anytime a farmer can move their crop from the commodity market to a place where they value add their fruit in house, they can get a higher price per pound. But it’s also exciting to be on the forefront of a changing cranberry industry. It’s really difficult to make a difference in commodity crops. As part of the cranberry community, part of our mission is to increase the livelihood of farmers, but it’s a balance between supporting farmers where they are at and taking a stand on organic or other sustainable practices. That’s why we’re a registered Social Purpose Organization with the state of Washington. Our Social Purpose is “increasing the well-being of farmers while decreasing the negative impacts that farming can have on communities and the environment.” So, we put a social mission before a profit mission.
But mostly, we love food, and we love the community we work with.
Not to mention cranberries have many medicinal properties. You’ll probably never have to go to a urologist.
That is true. And you can quote me on that.
To learn more about Starvation Alley Farms, visit their website.
Words by Lindsey Morse.