Coast Chronicles: Sustainable farming, the cranberry challenge

By Cate Gable

Published on March 31, 2015 12:59PM

Jared Oakes and Jessika Tantisook are the visionaries behind the mission to produce organic cranberries and juices and support their local farmer-partners.

Giles Clement photo

Jared Oakes and Jessika Tantisook are the visionaries behind the mission to produce organic cranberries and juices and support their local farmer-partners.

The Starvation Alley crew begins the October cranberry harvest on their five-acre organic bog, the first in the state.

Giles Clement photo

The Starvation Alley crew begins the October cranberry harvest on their five-acre organic bog, the first in the state.

You’re young, you were born and raised on the Peninsula, you’ve been away for awhile getting some experience, you come back wanting to put some sustainable and social conscious values into practice — what do you do? Become the first ever organic cranberry grower in Washington state, of course.

What, really?! You’re turning over the established apple — ahem — cranberry cart and going against decades of the “this is the way it’s been done around here” mentality? Well, why not give it a try? Especially when you team up with, out of the blue, a woman with the interest and smarts to join you in life and in the effort.

Meet Jared Oakes and Jessika Tantisook.

Young, smart

and inspired

It started in 2010 when Jared’s folks, Debbie and John Oakes, purchased five acres of cranberry land on the Peninsula. Jared had come back to his hometown after kicking around a bit and Jessika got to the Peninsula from Nashville, Tennessee as a helper at Larkin Stentz Green Angel Gardens. Jessika loved the landscape and the feel of the place, but, “There was not much to do,” she said over a bowl of polenta, garlic and cheese at the home she shares with Jared in Ilwaco. “And where do you go on the Peninsula to find friends and community?”

Larkin suggested a part-time job at the coffee shop but they weren’t hiring at the moment, so Jessika wandered into the old Cafe Akari, owned by Jared, his sister and brother-in-law (Tiff and Brady Turner), and was hired. “I guess they thought, ‘Well she looks smart enough to wait tables.’ I had to promise not to leave until the summer was over,” Jessika said.

So inevitably she met Jared, and — well, that’s another story. However, flash forward and Jessika has earned her MBA at Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI) — founded by Gifford III and Libba Pinchot — the first place in the nation to deliver a degree in sustainable and socially-conscious business. (Her undergraduate degree was from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.) And she and Jared had put their talents together to develop a business plan to grow organic cranberries.

“Of course we were told it couldn’t be done,” said Jared, “We’d be killed by fungus without pesticides. The berries wouldn’t get enough nitrogen. We started out in 2010 and it takes three years to become organic. Maybe two years into that we knew it would be hard but that we were going to reach our goal.”

“If anyone wanted to try to do what we’ve done the last few years, they’d have to be crazy,” Jessika adds.

“We’re very close to proving this can work,” says Jared, “We’ve been in a start-up mind-set the last two years and haven’t hit every market. Our farmers are getting paid a premium and the next big step will be to operationally break even in our juice sales.”

Cranberry business

But let’s slow down for a moment and dive into the business side of cranberries. As we’ve discussed, we Americans are spoiled by unrealistically low prices for food based on monocultures and Big Ag. Not only has industrial agriculture strangled family farms but it’s been bad news for our soil. Over fertilizing the land leads to a boom-and-bust growing cycle in which crops are blasted with nitrogen. This unnaturally boosts their growth and kills most of the micro-organism, so the next crop needs even more fertilizer to beef up depleted soil.

It’s true that current agricultural practices have doubled or tripled production, but this has also led to lowered water tables and aquifers at a time when, because of global climate change, many regions are receiving less water; or too much water all at once which causes erosion and carries away even more topsoil into our rivers.

Understanding how to grow things is part science and part heart. And, let’s be honest, most of us have no idea how we would support ourselves without farmers providing us with produce, fiber for clothing, meat, poultry and grains.

But school-book learning about growing food and getting your hands dirty are two very different activities. As Jessika says, “Empathy for farmers has been one of my major learnings so far. More than spreading the ‘Organic Gospel,’ our goal is to support farmer livelihood.”

Jessika and Jared realized, after stumbling through their own trial and error methods with little help, that if they wanted to increase their product volume and make a bigger difference they would need to share their knowledge. That’s when they hit on the idea of encouraging and coaching other farmers to transition to organic.

Most conventional growers make 10-30 cents a pound on their berries. “We paid our first transition farmer 75 cents a pound while we helped him make the three year transition to organic growing. This past year we paid over $1.15 a pound,” said Jared. “And now we’re working with a second grower.”

Starvation Alley

The business is called Starvation Alley (SA), an ironic name for a food production business. “It’s a historic depression era Peninsula name given, endearingly, to what’s now Birch Street,” says Jessika. “It’s where laborers for the oyster and cranberry industries used to live, and we’ve kept the name as an ode to people still working hard for food.”

The SA business team includes Jessika, Jared, John and Debbie Oakes, and Alex Mondau, a BGI classmate who lives in Seattle. As well as producing organic cranberries, they have had to create a market for their product. “I’m the starter and Jessika is the finisher,” says Jared. “We make a nice team. Our original market was the cocktail and bar scene — and that’s been really great. That segment of the population doesn’t mind paying for good ingredients.”

But the longer term plan includes the sale of organic juice directly to consumers. And, believe you me, you can’t imagine how much tastier fresh organic cranberry juice is than what you may be used to getting in grocery stores. “I know it sounds funny, but I never liked cranberry juice before,” says Jessika, “When it’s cooked, it tastes flat.”

The SA team will be using a cold pasteurization technique which doesn’t affect the taste. Raw juice is placed into a chamber and hyperbaric pressure is applied for several minutes; this kills any bacteria, virus, yeasts or molds present extending its shelf life and guaranteeing safety. The first of May, they’ll be opening a tasting room Wednesday through Saturday at 203 Bolstad Avenue, Long Beach from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Whether it’s Columbia River Coffee Roasters, Fred Johnson’s Homegrown tomatoes, or Starvation Alley juices, the challenges involve re-envisioning how our food is grown and produced so that farmers get a fairer share of the pie. That means creating a locavore food network of efficient local farmers and savvy consumers who are willing to pay for healthy, tasty local food.

Jared and Jessika will be telling their story at the Fort George Brewery, April 9th from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. as part of the Astoria-sponsored Beers to Your Health series. Be part of the ongoing story. Support local food producers.

• • •

This is part of a series featured in Coast Chronicles exploring the issues of organic, local food and how we can support the farmers who grow it. Stay tuned.


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