Integrated Green Approach to Growing, Packing, and Marketing Organic Berries in the Skagit Valley
Skagit Valley holds one of the Washington State’s most prolific and notorious food-growing regions. J4 Ranch LLC, an organic berry farm, is among the stars that make the Skagit a bellwether of agriculture innovation and productivity. Tilth Producers of Washington and the WSU Small Farms Team sponsored a farm walk at J4 Ranch on August 5, 2013, attended by 28 people eager to learn about J4’s farm practices, which push the edge forward in habitat management, worker relations, efficiency and precision.
Farmer John Rogers’ mission is to keep green and organic practices at the forefront of all decisions and actions. When they rebuilt the barn on site, he included cupolas so that owls could nest there and hunt in the nearby fields for mice and voles, which damage plants when unchecked. Farm manager Jose Fernandez described how he helps execute operations, which include: worker relations; setting hundreds of traps and monitoring their status; nutrient management; harvest timing; packaging; land management and everything else. Practices guided by Salmon Safe standards enhance habitat areas that create winter nesting for beneficial ladybugs and raptors, and reduce silt and runoff into waterways. John appreciates that Salmon Safe certification adds to what the national organic standards provide.
The barn also houses berry packing facilities, including a variable speed machine that puts blueberries into cartons without using water, and is comprised of a variety of pieces purchased new and used. The raspberries and blackberries are handled entirely by hand. The berries make it from the field to refrigeration within two hours of picking. WSU Researcher Wendy Hoashi-Erhardt added that cooling the berries to 32-34 degrees Fahrenheit kills any spotted wing drosophila larvae that could show up in fruit.
J4‘s entire operation recently has been GAP certified, with the farmers attending workshops and gaining advice from regulators. They found that they were already practicing the standards but needed to add all of the paper work. John reports that they are getting better at it all the time and that GAP certification will be something more of their large, wholesale customers will want over time. Ben Goe, produce manager from the Skagit Valley Food Co-op, shared what he seeks in suppliers: quality product and delivery when expected. The Co-op meets with farmers in the winter to make plans, and the best way to get a foot in the door is to provide a specialty crop that they don’t have a supplier for, like artichokes.
Experienced berry growers from around the Salish Sea region participated, sharing stories, questions and solutions. Terry and Dick Carkner of Terry’s Berries in Puyallup discussed solutions for irrigation lines which can be damaged by pests when on the ground; they now position them above the plants as J4 does. Soil tests are used by many farmers, and J4 tests soil and leaf tissue each fall to assess fertilizer needs for the next season. Application of solution is by hand at each plant base beneath the weed-blocking cloth, completed by June 15 each year.
Berries from bushes laden with fruit were sampled by many, and they compared timing of harvest, size of fruit, pick rates, and strategies to keep birds away. J4 covers much of its crop with nets which work best when custom ordered to fit the rows. In the off-season, nets are rolled up and remain in the field above the rows. The myriad of aspects discussed were evidence of a farm team that considers details as well as the big picture, planning, and thinking out solutions. The J4 Ranch berry success and innovation demonstrates this.
Summary by Jacqueline Cramer
Funding for this farm walk and other Tilth Producers educations programs are funded in part by the USDA Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program.
Farm Walk booklet: HERE