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Cranberry challenge: Starvation Alley overcomes obstacles of growing cranberries organically

By Luke Whittaker

The Daily Astorian

Published on November 8, 2017 7:07AM

Jessika Tantisook and husband Jerod Oakes are pioneers in organic cranberry farming, an operation that requires work and experimentation to avoid use of man-made weed killers.

Photo by LUKE WHITAKKER

Jessika Tantisook and husband Jerod Oakes are pioneers in organic cranberry farming, an operation that requires work and experimentation to avoid use of man-made weed killers.

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How did you first get interested in farming?

“My interest in farming stems from my interest in food systems. I had a really great college professor who taught me to appreciate food and cooking. That experience led me to ask for questions about the food system — Where is it coming from? How is it grown? Who are the people that are behind it? It wasn’t necessarily cranberries that popped out to me, but more of a desire to learn more about growing. I started off interning at another farm on the Peninsula and then I met my partner, Jared. We had the opportunity to manage a cranberry farm and I thought it would be fun if we got to grow them organically.”

When was your first harvest?

“In 2010.”

You mentioned a college professor, did you have formal training?

“I didn’t have formal agriculture training. I’ve had more business-related education than food and farming.”

Is there seasonality to your sales?

“A little bit. Just the nature of cranberries, we sell more in the fall. We are trying to make it where cranberries are less about Thanksgiving. We make cranberry juice for example that can be drunk any time of year. It’s more of a versatile product compared to sauce where people only buy it in the fall.”

How does the cranberry juice process differ from concentrate?

“Usually what concentrate implies is that you’ve cooked it and reduced it somehow. Ours is really just the squished berries. It’s pure juice. It’s very tart so it tastes like concentrate. It also functions like a concentrate. We call it an ‘ingredient product.’ You don’t just open it and drink it but instead mix it into a glass of water, orange juice, smoothie or a cocktail.”

Who have been your biggest customers?

“It’s been a mix. We’ve done a lot of farmer’s markets and food service, cocktail bars and restaurants. We’ve also been in some retail grocery stores like New Seasons Market and PCC (Community Markets).”

How does business today compare to your first season?

“My role in the business has changed a lot. In the beginning, I was out in the field every single day pulling weeds and looking at the plants. Now, most of the year I’m not on the farm. This is the time of year when I’m actually in the bogs and harvesting. But most of the time, since we have all our value-added products, we’re working on sales, marketing, product development, managing the team and doing our accounting and bookkeeping. Now, I’m in the office more.”

How supportive has the community been?

“Overwhelmingly supportive. It’s definitely hard to do something new in a small town but they’ve been supportive. We’re part of the cranberry community. We work with a few other organic growers.”

What part brings you the greatest satisfaction?

“I like doing things that are difficult and making change. We learn a lot each year. It gets easier in some ways but we always have new challenges that we face. It’s been fun to work on something that seems like a worthwhile project. If it was easy then people would have already done it.”

What’s the biggest challenge of growing organic cranberries?

“The biggest challenge of growing the fruit is probably the weeds. As a small farm, we need help with research, or else we have to do the research ourselves. If we only have 10 acres and we’re using a lot of it to try out new techniques of growing, it sacrifices our bottom line, which is really tough for a small farm. It would be really great if we had more research and information (on growing organic cranberries). Weeds wouldn’t be as big of an issue if we had university or other research institution behind it that could afford to dump half a million into how to deal with weeds organically, but that doesn’t exist.”

How does the cranberry crop look this season?

“Jared has only taken fruit off of two of the bogs, but he thinks it about the same as last year, which is good.”



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