Berries play tasty, vital role in Whatcom County life

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 3, 2013 

Whatcom County was made to grow berries. Cool cloudy days keep berries from dehydrating in the sun, and each spring maritime breezes move moisture out of the fields, reducing the chance for mold to spread before harvest time. And, a bountiful slice of the county boasts dry, sandy loam atop a layer of gravel. The gravel, laid down by the Nooksack River over hundreds of years, provides a well-drained foundation for growing the jewel-tone fruits.

"The ledge that Lynden is on provides the perfect sandy base from Halverstick Road into the Bertrand (Creek) area," says Henry Bierlink, executive director of the Washington Red Raspberry Commission.

Today, raspberries are king among fruits in Whatcom County, with the prized beauties growing on more than 8,000 acres, mainly in the northern half of the county.

In 1959, Whatcom County ranked 11th in the country for growing strawberries, and in 1961 the county produced its largest strawberry crop, 12 million pounds. Strawberries ruled the county into the 1960s, and today farmers are growing more blueberries than ever.

No matter the variety, berries are part of Whatcom County's history and part of the culture, with Lynden's annual raspberry festival celebrating the yearly economic boom from the harvest as well as the friendships and traditions that grow each year in local u-pick fields.

If you grew up in the county and are of a certain age, your summers were likely spent with red-stained fingers and mud- stained knees.

Picking strawberries in the 1950s and '60s was the summer job-of-choice for many kids. Before she made it big in Nashville, even country music star Loretta Lynn spent time in the strawberry fields when she lived in Whatcom County.

Linda Haugen, who grew up in the Lynden area, remembers being picked up with dozens of other local kids by yellow school buses for their summer jobs in the strawberry fields. Often, Lynden school teachers made extra money as field managers, keeping an eye on the kids and making sure there was work, not play, going on.

"When we were growing up, we earned our school clothes with the money we made," Haugen says. "Or we would save up for a new bicycle. It taught us a great work ethic. We would tithe 10 percent, save half and spend half."

In 1980, Haugen's husband, Rolf, transformed his family land on Pole Road into a raspberry field. Most of their raspberries were processed, frozen and sold to food manufacturers for ice cream and jams. But people kept stopping by asking if they could venture into the fields and pick fresh berries.

Today, Haugen's Raspberries & Blueberries is one of the longest-operating u-pick raspberry farms in the county. The Haugen children help to operate the u-pick side of the operation while Rolf grows berries for processing and manages a processing operation for some of the largest commercial growers in the county.

The Haugen's raspberry u-pick is like a yearly gathering of friends. Customers have seen the Haugen children grow up, and often ask how they are and what's going on in their lives. And the Haugens have watched toddlers who once ran through the raspberry fields come back as teenagers to help.

BERRIES THROUGH HISTORY

While native strawberries can be found in the low foothills of the Cascades, the first berries planted in the county likely were strawberries brought by a group of mainly Dutch Missouri families who moved to the Lynden area in the early 1900s, says Troy Luginbill, director and curator of Lynden Pioneer Museum.

Luginbill says the initial crop was small, perhaps 10 acres, grown and picked for local markets. It wasn't until the 1950s and '60s that strawberries were grown on a larger scale. In the mid-'70s, work restrictions on children made it unfeasible to keep the hand-harvested strawberry crop profitable.

While some raspberries were grown in the county as early as the 1920s, the raspberry boom arose in the 1980s. At the time, Serbia led the world growing raspberries. But war devastated the country and left Serbian farmers unable to harvest their crop, let alone send processed berries to food manufacturers throughout the world. Enter Whatcom County.

Local farmers, including, second- and third-generation dairy farmers, strawberry farmers and some people new to farming, seized upon the worldwide demand for red raspberries. At the same time, mechanical harvesters lessened the need for hundreds of workers during harvest.

In the 1980s, as Whatcom farmers began growing raspberries, the county's egg-and-poultry industry was collapsing, leaving dairy farmers as the county's agricultural mainstay. If dairy farmers had a bad year, so would most of the agricultural economy here.

"I don't want to say raspberries saved Whatcom County agriculture," Luginbill says, "but it stabilized it."

Today, Whatcom County grows the most red raspberries, processed and frozen, of any county in the country. Last year, Whatcom's processed berry crop amounted to 57 million pounds.

This year's crop could be even big- ger, as farmers closely watch their canes, which were cut, curved and tied to wires this winter. Farmers such as Linda Haugen wait for spring's warmth, when the canes wake from dormancy and explode into lush, verdant plants.

"I always say that only God could make them turn into green, leafy bushes and berries that are good for us," she says.

BY THE NUMBERS

• Berries — raspberries, blueberries and strawberries — are Whatcom County's second largest agricultural product. Dairy milk and powdered milk, together, rank first.

• The red raspberry crop is worth $50 million to $90 million a year, depending on the volume and quality.

• Whatcom County grows 79 percent of the state's red raspberry crop, on 8,200 acres.

• There are 307 acres of strawberries grown in the county. Whatcom farmers continue to expand blueberry acreage. There are about 2,600 acres of blueberries, which make up 48 percent of the state's crop.

Source: Whatcom County Farm Friends

Ericka Pizzillo Cohen is an Ohio-based freelance writer and former reporter for The Bellingham Herald.

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