17 April 2014

Bogs, Mire & Berries

For some, when they find themselves in a hole, just keep digging. When Starvation Alley finds IMG_20140301_094805themselves in a hole, they grow cranberries. While a cranberry bog isn’t a metaphorical hole, rather an acre or so of land, set just above the water table reinforced by earthen dikes, there should be some analogy akin to lemons and lemonade. If only cranberries were better understood, it would work as a trope better.

When people think about cranberries it revolves around two uses: If you are a traditionalist, cranberries, particularly relish, serves as an anchor of the holiday table. For the pluralistic, urban living populations, cranberries mean Cosmopolitans, in this case, the cocktail; possibly some other cocktail. Even with the average consumption up to 2.3 pounds per citizen, mostly in the form of juice, cranberries could use a higher profile, Starvation Alley is here to help with that.

IMG_20140120_160114In 2008, John and Debbie Oakes purchased 60 year old cranberry bogs on the Long Beach Peninsula, just across the Columbia from Astoria. In 2010, the Oakes’ son, Jared and his partner, Jessika Tantisook, took over management of the farm. Beginning with the 2011 growing season, Oakes and Tanitsook began the three year transition resulting in the farm becoming the only certified organic cranberry farm in Washington State and the closest organic grower to the Portland Metro Area.

The organic certification is just part of a new way of approaching a very old crop in the pacific NW. Starvation Alley doesn’t sweeten their product. Their cranberries are frozen, unthawed in small batches and cold pressed. This method allows for tangy, nuanced flavors to shine through, making what Starvation Alley’s Alana Kambury calls, “Garnet gold; a product that stands on it’s own without sweeteners, juices or diluting.”

On the business side, Tantisook and Oakes recently filed paperwork to become a Social Purpose Corporation. So few people grow cranberries organically there isn’t a large repository of knowledge, data or best practices. Starvation Alley is working to change that, along with the SPC designation, they’re helping with two area farms transition to organic methods and they’re teaming up with Bainbridge Graduate Institute, where 3 of the Starvation’s team members earned MBAs in Sustainable Systems. These partnerships allow the enterprise to share their knowledge, failures and successes; providing information so farmers can, according to Kambury, “improve their livelihoods while helping them make more environmentally and socially minded farming decisions.”

YarrowSince so little is known about cranberries, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the crop is not hydroponically grown. Cranberries develop just on land, the evergreen shrub the berries grow on actually needs moderately acidic soil to thrive, not water. Bogs are usually flooded for harvest, but not always, growers can dry harvest berries using an Edward Scissorshandsish rake. This method is highly labor intensive and not as photogenic – As a flooded bog is a photo composition waiting to happen: The berries are crimson, set off against opaque water and autumnal browning, the setting is the agricultural equivalent of a super model – just point and click and everything around the lens looks better. Starvation Alley employs a wet harvest. At Starvation Alley the fields are flooded twice, once early in the season for pest control and second time for harvest – ripe berries float to the surface where they are harvested.

So far their efforts have been well received. Edible Portland have nominated the farmers as Food Heroes. Starvation Alley’s juices can be found on the cocktail lists of many of the NW’s hotspots (keep track of where to get that pluralistic, urbane cocktail here) and with their appearance at the PSU Farmers Market (and soon the King Market), they’re able to share their passion and creative approach to cranberries with thousands of food lovers every week.