Marysville loses identity as strawberry capital

Bob Graef -
Bob Graef
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The taste of Maryfest 2007 bore a hint of strawberries. Time was when Marysvilles annual festival had everything to do with strawberries. Strawberry fields took up a significant percent of the now-developed acreage surrounding the town and instead of stuffing mattresses, the business at Fourth and Cedar was processing truckloads of strawberries.
Meanwhile, the Lynden area of Whatcom County has evolved into the largest raspberry producing area in North America. How is it that our neighbor became the raspberry capital while Marysville lost its identity as the Northwests strawberry capital?
Three factors entered in: Marysville sits astride I-5 providing a reasonable commute from the areas big employers. It followed that housing developments became the highest if not best use for berry fields. Builders tossed out big-bucks offers that enticed berry farmers into early retirement, all but ending an era when most Marysville kids spent parts of June and July picking berries.
In those days, school calendars had long been set up to release children for fieldwork when May gave way to June. Teachers locked their classrooms and donned jeans for service as row-bosses and drivers of hand-me-down school buses that hauled pickers to fields. Most of Marysvilles fields are gone now and todays schools remain in session well into the berry-picking season.
Another factor was the appearance of California berries in our markets. Genetic wizardry lets farmers north of Monterrey grow berries as large as small apples which they ship to Washingtons markets. While we like to think that smaller local berries have more flavor, those jumbo southern berries are available through more of the year.
Last is the labor situation. Over-zealous child labor laws now keep younger kids out of the fields, leaving all the picking to be done by immigrant and migrant pickers who dont work as cheaply as vacationing school kids once did. And unlike raspberries, strawberries refuse to grow on tall stems where machine-pickers might get at them. Harvesting them will always require the personal touch.
Somewhere between 30 and 40 years ago, someone dreamed up a raspberry picking machine. Capitalizing on the fact that a raspberrys grip on its core loosens when ripe, the inventor figured a way to agitate plants just enough to shake ripe berries free. The fruit falls into a catching device before being conveyed to a chaff-blower that takes care of dust and leaves. Newer berry harvesters may be more sophisticated but the basic idea remains unchanged.
With Lynden the new raspberry capitol, it was natural that manufacturers of the two main harvesters should be located in the PNW. Littau of Stayton, Ore., was the pioneer. Korvan of Lynden became a respected competitor. BEI of Michigan is also in the game but their machines specialize in blueberries. The Joonas harvester from Finland does a fine job with lower growing fruit and is a major player in the international market for harvesters of everything from currants to coffee beans.
If you havent seen one of these machines, they are big, ranging from 4 tons to 6 1/2 tons. At 18 feet long, more than 10 feet wide and 10 feet tall, a Korvan harvester is hard to ignore. What they do is more impressive. Depending upon the model, a berry harvester can pick as much fruit as 40 - 100 human pickers. And theyll work 24 hours per day if needed.
Rumbling through fields at speeds of 2 mph or less, harvesters shake and slap canes to loosen only the fruit that is at the perfect stage of ripeness to fall away when agitated. Handpicked berries typically range on both sides of perfect ripeness so handpicking cant be expected to produce as uniform a product as mechanical harvesters.
I drove north to visit a raspberry estate where machines were in action. Unlike Marysvilles five-acre patches of yesteryear, the Lynden farm I visited harvested between 400 and 500 acres, with picking machines covering it all every two and a half days.
The machines werent hard to find. A heavy rumble of diesel engines drew my eye to a cluster of four workers floating above the rows. Ducking through canes, I caught up with the monster-machine, bridged catamaran-style over a row like an old-fashioned lumber carrier. Its crew, operating 10 feet above the soil, shuffled full and empty flats about while keeping the machine on course.
Mechanized picking raised raspberry production to where output is measured in tons. Uses abound: Cran-Raspberry juice, Raspberry scones, Raspberry wine, Raspberry-ripple ice cream, raspberry yoghurt, raspberry chipotle sauce, raspberry vinaigrette; there seemed to be no shortage of new raspberry products and the Lynden Raspberry Festival offered opportunities to sample them on July 13 and 14.
Marysvilles retreat from berry farming offers one more example of how our region is changing with the times. Fields have given way to housing developments. Five and 10-acre local fields have been replaced by 40 to 500-acre fields elsewhere. Pickers are being replaced by harvesting machines. And according to last Wednesdays Herald, it is now hard-working young Ukrainians, not native-born Americans kids, that bring in Biringers strawberry crop.
The troubling aspect of all this change is our continuing loss of agricultural land to development. Flat bottomland is so easy to develop that it is first to attract developers. Fertile bottomland is best for everything. Long ago, it was the best pasture for wildlife before becoming the past generations wonderfully productive farmland.
With farmlands paved over, we import food. A study of foods bought in our supermarkets showed that, on average, the food we buy travels 1,450 miles from its source to our tables. In Italy, where agricultural land is protected, food travels an average of 26 miles from farm to market. So the loss of so many of our berry fields leaves me with this question.
Can a nation that paves its farmlands survive if forced to rely on local resources?

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