Berry Farming in Washington

  • By Eleanor Boba
  • Posted 9/06/2021
  • Essay 21282
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Berries have long been woven into the fabric of Washington food ways and agriculture. Before and after European settlement, Native tribespeople gathered wild berries, a significant part of their food culture. Non-Native settlers planted strawberries and blueberries, first in home garden plots and then as part of mixed-crop market gardens. Beginning in the twentieth century, Japanese immigrants turned strawberries into a cash crop, until their forced relocation during World War II. Filipinos and Native Americans, as well as First Nations peoples from Canada, were called upon to bring in the harvests at mid-century. A community of Finnish immigrants farmed strawberries near the Columbia River until the 1950s. In the 1940s and beyond, blueberries took off as a desired crop. Later, white, Japanese, and Sikh berry farmers in Skagit and Whatcom counties brought in migrant labor from Texas, California, and Mexico. In 2021, the vast majority of Washington-grown berries are shipped out of state to be turned into processed products such as jams, juices, and frozen concentrates, while most fresh berries at grocery stores come from California and Mexico, where varieties with longer shelf lives are grown. U-Pick berry fields, roadside stands, farmers' markets, community gardens, and festivals make locally-grown berries available to Washingtonians on both sides of the Cascades.

Berries in Indigenous Culture

Berries have been an important part of the culture of the Indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest. Native Americans gathered wild berries for food, teas, medicines, and trade long before "America" existed. These practices continued well into the twentieth century. Muckleshoot elder Louis Starr (1898-1991) described the uses of huckleberries in an oral history:

"While the men hunted, the women and children picked huckleberries, dug roots and gathered herbs for teas and medicines. Huckleberries were picked into large baskets and laid out in the sun on large cattail mats for drying. Huckleberry leaves were picked and dried for making tea" (paraphrased in Tollefson).

In addition to wild huckleberry, tribes foraged for what historian Vine Deloria Jr. called "a seemingly endless variety of berries" (Deloria). These included both true berries and pseudo berries (berry-like small fruit), including salmon berries, salal berries, service berries, and trailing blackberry. Aside from the last, these fruits never caught on with settlers who preferred the familiar berries of their native lands: strawberry, blueberry, and raspberry.

Berries and European Settlement  

Berries were grown and propagated in Washington in the very early days of European settlement, including the period in which control of the territory was disputed between England and the United States. Employees of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), a British trading concern, had access to seeds and perhaps young plants brought by ship from abroad or from the East Coast. Pollen analysis shows that several species of blueberry were grown at Fort Vancouver during its active period (1825-1860), including the popular highbush variety. Berries were grown at another HBC operation, Fort Nisqually near Olympia. Chief Trader (and later Chief Factor) William Fraser Tolmie (1812-1886) wrote in the fort's Journal of Occurrences: "Edwards with two Indians transplanting raspberry bushes from Old Fort into new garden" (Dickey). Tolmie, an amateur botanist, was fascinated with local flora, sending samples of native berries to the director of the famed Kew Gardens in London.

As American and European settles arrived to take up residence in the territory, many brought seeds with them. In many areas, it was common for homesteaders to plant a strawberry patch in their garden and perhaps sell a portion of the harvest to neighbors. Clarissa "Clara" Colman (1843?-1910), whose husband was the victim in a famous murder case, mentions strawberries often in her diary of life on the sparsely populated eastern shore of Lake Washington: "Miller is not out of jail yet. Many of the seeds & plants came. Strawberries, fruit trees, etc." (Colman Diaries, February 9, 1888). "Dane & Nellie Murphy came down again to day for more strawberry plants. I was out working again to day spading ground for strawberries" (Colman Diaries, February 22, 1888).

Early farmers did not hesitate to experiment with their berries. In 1909, Henry Perry of Richmond Beach won a prize at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle for his huge Richmond Beauty strawberry. And on Vashon Island, the Greider family developed the Olympic berry in the 1920s. This large, soft berry was a cross of native blackcap raspberries and the Phenomenal berry hybrid of plantsman Luther Burbank – a hybrid of a hybrid. The berry became highly popular locally; Frederick & Nelson department store bought up quantities for its specialty desserts. But World War II, with its labor shortages, claimed the family farm and the Olympic berry faded away. Rumor has it that some remnants can be found on Vashon and Maury islands.

Japanese Take the Lead

As the twentieth century progressed, garden plots gave way to home farms and home farms turned into truck farms, as subsistence farming gave way to market farming. Japanese immigrants began to arrive just before the turn of the century, bringing experience in intensive farming practices -- including fertilization, irrigation, and crop rotation -- that had stood the test of time in Japan, where arable land was scarce and most farms were tiny. In short, Japanese farmers knew how to make small plots of land productive. In addition, the Japanese cultivated a work ethic that assumed all members of the family would pitch in with farm work, thus saving labor costs.

Many accounts tell of Japanese women toiling endlessly in both home and farm. A Japanese immigrant to Canada's Fraser River Valley, a nearby berry-producing area, described women's work in a memoir:

"The distinctive feature of labour on the Japanese berry farm is the women's share in it. The picture bride worked with pick and shovel with her husband when they cleared bush land to plant strawberries. Then hoeing and cultivating the berry patches beside[s] her house chores. She would get up very early in the morning and go to bed at eleven at night. During the berry picking season, she picked the berries or packed them, from dawn to dusk, taking very little time for the household chores. After the berry season was over some of them would work in the fruit cannery or hired out as domestic worker[s]" (Ayukawa).

Beginning early in the twentieth century, Japanese farmers took the lead throughout Puget Sound in berry production. Largely prevented from owning property by race-based exclusionary laws, Japanese families found creative ways of acquiring the use of land, from informal arrangements with white landowners, to cash leasing, to placing ownership title in the name of American-born children.

The interconnected White River, Kent, and Puyallup valleys, Bainbridge and Vashon islands, Bellevue, and Skagit County saw many Japanese families cultivating berries, either alongside other crops or as single-crop concerns. Mukai Farm on Vashon Island and Sakuma Brothers in Skagit County were among the more lasting businesses. Like the white-run truck farms, most produce was sent to Seattle or Tacoma distributors or sold directly at Seattle's Pike Place Market.

Farther south in Woodland, straddling Clark and Cowlitz counties, George and Akira Tsugawa established the Tsugawa Brothers Farm, growing strawberries and raspberries, following the war and internment. The Tsugawa Nursery garden center still operates.

Finnish Strawberries

Early in the twentieth century, Finnish immigrants along the Columbia River began strawberry farming in the small community of Cloverdale outside Kalama. At its height in the 1940s, 40 small family-run farms produced as many as 700,000 quarts of berries. Finns from both sides of the river showed up for the harvest, enjoying Finnish coffee and breads during their breaks. Farmers banded together as the Cloverdale Cooperative Berry Association and ran their own processing plant. The Kalama Strawberry Festival, held from 1939 to 1951 with breaks for the world war and the 1948 Vanport Flood, boasted the world's largest strawberry shortcake. A strawberry blight, along with changing demographics, ended the era in the 1950s.

Bellevue Berries

The metropolis of Bellevue, across Lake Washington from Seattle, was once an agrarian landscape abounding in small family farms. Many of these were run by Japanese, so many that the young town was sometimes given the stigmatizing name "Jap Town." In fact, Japanese-run farms were found throughout the Eastside, from the lakeshore at Yarrow Bay, Hunts Point, Medina, and Newport, to Mercer Slough and east to Lake Sammamish and Redmond.

Strawberries became the crop of choice for these immigrants, though often raised alongside other crops – vegetables, greenhouse flowers, and holly -- in a seasonal rotation. The berry fields were planted where once had stood virgin timber. Indeed, Japanese men were often hired initially to clear logged-off land for farming, a dangerous and back-breaking job. Early on the berries were ferried across the lake to distributors in Seattle. Later, farmers took advantage of new refrigerated train cars to ship berries and other crops eastward. A group of enterprising Japanese farmers formed the Bellevue Vegetable Growers Association in 1932, purchased a rail car that could be used for cold transport with the addition of ice chip insulation, and set up a warehouse adjacent to a Northern Pacific railroad siding.

Great Depression Hits Hard

The Great Depression took a toll on Washington's berry farmers, as it did on many agriculture sectors across the country (think Dust Bowl Oklahoma). In response, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal agenda attempted to establish price controls on many commodities. In Washington state, a Berry Marketing Agreement was established in 1934, in accordance with the federal Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. Like the federal legislation, the berry agreement was controversial, calling for minimum pricing and the disposal of surplus crops. A petition by strawberry farmers asked that strawberries be exempted from the "All Berry Code" and that they be granted "freedom of action in the marketing of our surplus on the fresh market without the restriction of the minimum sale price for fresh berries" (Petition). Opposition from such groups, as well as lack of enforcement, caused the agreement to fizzle within a few years.

The state Department of Agriculture, established in 1913, took a hand in berry affairs, first by offering technical assistance to farmers whose crops were plagued by pests, viruses, and other problems. The department instituted certification programs for various crops, essentially guaranteeing the health and genetic purity of individual farm stocks. A strawberry certification program began in 1929 when 8.5 acres were certified. Soon nurseries began offering certified berry plants. And today the department certifies organic crops.

A Death Knell for Strawberries

World War II brought major changes to the Eastside of Lake Washington, not least of which was the complete removal of Japanese and Japanese Americans to concentration camps in 1942. This injustice, alongside the war itself, was the death knell for the strawberry farms. Industrial and commercial development came to the Eastside, beginning with shipyards on Lake Washington dedicated to the war effort. At the same time, the Lake Washington Floating Bridge, dedicated in 1940, opened the area to suburban housing tracts.

The effects of the war were not limited to Bellevue. Japanese farmers throughout Puget Sound lost their homes and livelihoods. Relocation in many cases came just before the early summer strawberry harvest; with many young white men now serving in the armed forces or in war industries, the shortage of farm labor was acute. With federal approval, Filipinos and Italian Americans stepped in to manage some farms. Few of the displaced Japanese returned to their farms after the war. As happened on the Eastside, post-war housing development and industrialization ate up farmland in the inland valleys. Berry farming headed north, to the less-populated Skagit and Whatcom counties.

While the war took a toll on family farms, it did provide a boost to home gardening in the form of "victory gardens." Families were encouraged to raise their own produce, including berries, in order to free up agricultural resources for the war effort.

Blueberries, Blackberries, Raspberries

During the 1940s blueberries became the dominant crop in Bellevue. Several blueberry farms sprang up around the wetlands at Mercer Slough, Larsen Lake, and Pine Lake. Nearly all of the farms are now gone from the highly urbanized Eastside; however, the City of Bellevue maintains the Mercer Slough Blueberry Farm and the Larsen Lake Blueberry Farm as heritage sites. The Larsen site has connections to German, Swedish, and Japanese farmers. In the area's early days, homesteaders picked wild cranberries and huckleberries in the wetland. 

Raspberries, which once took a backseat to strawberries and blueberries, came into its their own in the 1980s. Most of the state's red raspberry production (99 percent in 2020) comes from Whatcom County, where Punjabi Sikh farmers are prominent. Many of these farmers immigrated from British Columbia, where there is a long tradition of berry farming.

With both native and invasive blackberries widely available in most undeveloped green spaces in the state, it is easy to forget that blackberries were grown commercially in the Kent and Puyallup valleys as early as the 1950s. Some farmers experimented with producing thornless blackberry plants. Today, blackberries are often grown in the larger berry farms alongside the more popular berries.

Teen Tradition

With the labor shortages occasioned by World War II, teens were called upon to help bring in the berry harvest. In many communities, it became a tradition for teens (and often younger children) to pick berries as soon as school let out. Part summer job, part social outlet, the work was built into the rhythm of summer in many rural parts of the state. One-time berry picker Nancy Dulaney recalls that the farm bus was dispatched to pick up the kids recruited to work at the Tsugawa Brothers strawberry farm in Woodland during the 1970s. Work began at the crack of dawn.

The tradition of berry picking was particularly strong among second and third generation Japanese Americans. For Peter Nikaitani, who grew up in Seattle's Rainier Valley largely outside the Japanese community, it was a revelation:

"You know, I was pretty well integrated [with other races] throughout my early years, to the extent that, when I went strawberry picking at this Japanese farm with all these other Japanese kids from all over Seattle, it was a novel experience for me. So that's why I have fond memories of it. Strawberry picking was fun" (Nikaitani).

Growing into Modern Times

While berries were originally grown for personal consumption or sale at local markets, such as the Pike Place Market, which was founded in 1907, over time the majority of Washington-grown berries were packaged for shipment out of state, where most were processed to create frozen or preserved products. To accomplish this involved more than simply sorting through flats of fresh-picked berries. The fragile fruit had to be preserved and packaged as efficiently as possible for transportation by truck, train, or ship. Canning, barreling, and cold storage facilities sprang up to facilitate the effort. The Port of Seattle established several cold-storage facilities where farmers (and fishermen) could connect with shippers, including the seven-story Spokane Street Terminal in downtown Seattle, completed in 1915.

Fortune favored the farmer or group of farmers who could handle such processing work at or near the harvest site. Several communities established farming cooperatives that could arrange their own storage and shipping centers. Today larger concerns, such as Sakuma Brothers in Skagit County, approach vertical integration in berry production, growing and processing berries at their own facilities, propagating plants, and managing sales. Larger farms have conducted research and experiments with new cultivars, hybrids, and newer technologies, such as expensive mechanical picking equipment. Sakuma Brothers has ventured into the Individualized Quick Freeze (IQF) business, flash freezing that allows berries to be frozen without being mashed together.

Most of the larger berry farms in Washington have expanded from one-crop specialists to growers of several berries. It is common to find blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries growing adjacent to each other. Hybrid berries have grown in popularity, not only the century-old loganberry and boysenberry, but newer hybrids, such as marionberry and tayberry. Organic berries now account for a significant share of the state's berry crop.

In recent decades, commercial berry farming has expanded up into the Cascades and Eastern Washington, although not as prevalent as the apple and cherry orchards of those regions. The hotter, drier climate of Eastern Washington offers advantages to the strawberry farmer in the form of fewer pests and plant diseases. Blueberries also thrive. Very few raspberries are grown east of the mountains; the fragile berry requires a cooler, moister climate.

The Sixties and Seventies: Back to the Earth

The 1960s and 1970s boosted interest in berries as part of healthy diet. Blueberries, in particular, were proclaimed a superfood. The earthy back-to-the-land movement rewarded smaller farms to an extent, popularizing U-pick farms and home gardening. From these seeds grew the drive for locally grown and farm-to-table produce that prevails today.

Shortly after the inaugural Earth Day in 1970, the first P-Patch community garden was established in Seattle's Wedgwood neighborhood. The P-Patch program has since multiplied throughout the city, attracting upwardly mobile condo dwellers, retirees, students, and refugees from Asia and Africa. Trellised berries are a common sight in these garden plots. Other Washington cities followed with their own allotment programs. Spokane's community garden program began about a decade ago. Many such gardens share their bounty with food banks.

School gardens, farmers markets, and home berry patches celebrate local berries as part of a healthy and down-to-earth lifestyle. Another more recent movement is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which brings fresh produce, including many berry varieties, to your doorstep in exchange for a monetary commitment.

The Eighties: The New Migrants

Berry farming continues to be labor-intensive despite some progress toward mechanization. To maintain profit margins, farm owners must continually seek pools of cheap labor. Beginning in the 1980s, farmers looked southward for their labor pool. Migrant workers from across the Mexican border supplemented the existing pool consisting largely of Mexican-American laborers from the American Southwest and Texas. Like the farmers and ranchers of Eastern Washington, berry farmers were often willing to overlook legal status.

In the last two decades, issues surrounding seasonal labor have given rise to several job actions against berry farmers. A three-year campaign for worker rights directed against the Skagit Valley's Sakuma Brothers Farm ended in 2016 with an agreement to allow the field workers to bargain collectively through a new regional union, Familias Unidas por la Jucticia. The job action included a boycott of the farm's leading distributor, Driscoll's of California, as well as of Häagen-Dazs which purchased Sakuma berries for their ice cream.

Two years later, berry harvesters in Whatcom County marched and protested following the death of a young laborer from untreated diabetes. The target of the protests, Sarbanand Farms, a division of Munger Farms, fired 70 workers after the original work stoppage, inciting further protest.

Much of the discontent in the fields stemmed from inequities in the treatment of workers, both perceived and real. Traditional seasonal workers often received lower wages and inferior housing compared to that of the government-sanctioned laborers of the H-2A Visa program begun in 1986. At the same time, H-2A guest workers were tied to a system ripe for abuse: Complain and risk losing your status permanently. Both sets of migrant workers suffered in comparison to student workers, typically white teenagers who hired on to earn spending money, could quit anytime, and were sometimes given the easier jobs.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic added new hardship to the already grueling work of picking and processing berries. Cramped and often unsanitary living quarters, as well as the close-quarter nature of the harvest, put workers at high risk of contagion. Smoke form wildfires that same year added to the unhealthy conditions.

Berry Tourism

Washington is home to many berry-related festivals, family attractions, and what might be termed berry tourism.  

Several events compete for the title of longest-standing strawberry festival. The Vashon Island Strawberry Festival was first held in 1909; in 1923, 104-year-old Melissa Jaynes was elected festival queen. The fest was held sporadically over the years, sometimes under different names, and continues today. The Bellevue Strawberry Festival, begun in 1923 by a group of leading citizens, ended after the forced removal of Japanese farmers during World War II and the subsequent collapse of the strawberry crop. In 1987, the Bellevue Historical Society, forerunner of the Eastside Heritage Center, re-booted the festival in honor of Bellevue's strawberry heritage. The event then expanded in size and popularity (strawberry shortcake was always a big draw) until it outgrew the resources of the largely volunteer management team. The last festival was held in 2018. Marysville in Snohomish County, still a center of strawberry farming, has held a strawberry festival annually since 1932, though "MaryFest" fell victim to the pandemic in 2021. Smaller festivals, such as the Strawberry Festival at Moran Prairie Grange in Spokane, the Northwest Raspberry Festival in Lynden, and the Blueberry Festival in Mossyrock, also were put on hiatus.

Capitalizing on the public's thirst for berry nostalgia, a number of berry farms have turned their roadside stands and U-pick fields into family fun parks. Remlinger Farms in Carnation began as a family farm growing strawberries, raspberries, and pumpkins; since the mid-1960s, Remlinger Country Fair and Family Fun Park has offered a full amusement park, complete with restaurant, ice cream parlor, birthday party packages, a small steam-powered train, pony rides, and plenty of picnic facilities. The Biringer family began growing strawberries in Arlington in 1948. Today Biringer Farm has branched out into other berries and the family has hopped on the "agri-tainment" train, mounting a series of family-focused festivities, tours, and U-Pick events throughout the summer and fall. Many other smaller farms and roadside stands throughout the state lure travelers in with bouncy houses, carnival-style rides, baby animals, and picnic grounds.

Washington berries are a big part of the Washington State Fair in Puyallup. Raspberry jam made with local berries complements the famous scones provided by Fisher Scones (formerly Fisher Flour Mills).

Berry Heritage

A handful of sites are preserved to celebrate the state's berry heritage. On Vashon Island, the Friends of Mukai restored and maintain the Mukai Farm & Garden. Founded by the Japanese Mukai family in 1926, the strawberry farm was a mainstay of island life before and after World War II, operating for 38 years before closing in 1968. In 1994, the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Nearby are remnants of the barreling plant where berries from this and other farms were processed for shipment. Nearby, on Bainbridge Island, the Moritani Preserve is a new park on the site of a long-standing strawberry farm. Signage and the artistic placement of farm implements speak to the history of Japanese berry farming.

The City of Bellevue maintains two blueberry farms as heritage sites, and berry farming also made its way to the San Juan Islands. On Orcas Island, a preservation group, the Olga Strawberry Council, acts as caretaker for a strawberry barreling plant that now houses an artists' cooperative and café. Built by the Orcas Island Berry Growers Association, the Olga Strawberry Barreling Plant operated for only a few years before those familiar labor shortages shut it down in 1943.

A bushel and a peck?

Historical comparisons of Washington's berry crops are complicated by inconsistent reporting and differences in units of measurement. According to the crop reports compiled by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Washington Field Office, Washington as of 2021 is No. 1 in blueberry production in the U.S. (more blueberries are produced in British Columbia). Washington also produces more organic blueberries than all other states combined. USDA historical data shows an increase in harvested acres of blueberries in the state from 250 in 1950 to 7,000 in 2011. In the decade after 2011, blueberries experienced phenomenal growth, with some 128 million pounds produced in 2018 alone. Eastern Washington is responsible for about 40 percent of the total crop, much of it organic.

Washington produced approximately 64 million pounds of red raspberries in 2020; about 99 percent of the harvest came from Whatcom County. USDA statistics, beginning in 1942, show harvested acreage expanding from 2,950 to 9,800 in 2011. While estimates vary, most sources have Washington leading the nation in production of the red raspberry.

Strawberries were once the leading berry crop in the state. In 1912 the strawberry yield was predicted to exceed one million bushels. In 1928 the strawberry harvest was calculated at 17 million quarts, valued at $2.5 million, according to the Washington Chamber of Commerce; In 1946, the harvest was 17 million pounds. The heyday of the strawberry was in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the berry farms reliably brought in more than 40 million pounds per year. However, it has long since ceded its primacy to blueberries and red raspberries. Washington is currently the fifth – or maybe sixth -- largest producer of strawberries among all states, far behind California, bringing in 10 million pounds in 2012.

Blackberries were cultivated extensively from the 1940s through the early 1960s, but by 1990 the blackberry had dropped off the USDA radar completely.

Looking to the Future

In the first decades of the twenty-first century, Washington berry farmers faced new challenges. Tensions between owners and field workers continue. Unsafe working conditions worsened by climate change (heatwaves, drought, wildfires) and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the struggle to bring in the harvest while also endangering the crops themselves. In 2021 approximately 40 percent of the Whatcom County raspberry crop was destroyed in one three-day heat wave. In some areas, disputes arose over the fair use of water and the polluting effects of fertilizers. Labor shortages continue to be an issue, as do disease and pests. And, as seems unavoidable in all sectors of agriculture, berry farmers worry about competition from imports, both foreign and domestic.

Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, videos, and curriculum.


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