25 take a tour of fields and a processing plant Monday

LYNDEN ­— Raspberry growers had the ears and eyes of policy makers, or at least their representatives, plus would-be office holders, on Monday in a bid to advocate for the future of their industry.

The Raspberry Issues Tour took about 25 participants to three spots of growing, harvesting and processing of raspberries. The 2019 harvest started last week.

Against foreign competition enjoying lower standards and lower costs, growers ask, “Is there a future for our raspberry industry here in the Northwest?” said Henry Bierlink, administrator of the Washington Red Raspberry Commission, as the tour group convened.

About 85 percent of North America’s red raspberries for freezing are grown within a 25-mile radius of Lynden, including lower British Columbia, he noted.

The price return to growers has dropped for the past four years — reducing the number of operations to about 71, from almost 100 — and the industry is considering what to do to fight unfair imports of berries and build up markets as well, Bierlink said.

There was plenty of basic education on the tour about how growers do their job, facing challenges.

Randy Honcoop, who grows entirely the long-running Meeker variety, spoke of how he deals with insects and disease in plants, weather variables, buyers’ preferences, quality of soils and decisions about replanting. All of it involves time and money.

“Times are tight and challenging,” he said. “As farmers, we’re out in the real world. It can look easy from the road.”

Honcoop has long allowed a test plot on his land for Washington State University plant breeders to try out various cultivars of raspberries. Machine harvestability is a big factor for raspberry growing in Whatcom County, so that “only the fully ripe ones come off.”

It’s hoped that more of WSU’s research and assistance can be brought right to Whatcom County, but that will cost the commission millions of dollars.

Not using pesticides is almost impossible in berries, and where organic is claimed often what’s used instead contains heavy metals, said grower Jon Maberry on the tour.

As to how all the factors combine for a view of the future, Honcoop said, “I’m thinking about that very seriously. What about that next generation, going forward? Will that blessing be there of producing a top-quality product for customers around the world?”

Still north of Lynden close to the border, the tour went to a Rader Farms field and saw a mechanical harvester in operation. The variety of berry here was the newer Wakefield. 

Brad Rader said just one new harvesting machine can cost $170,000, but it can last for more than 20 of the six-week harvests.

He spoke of the value of crop rotations — harder in berries than in annual field crops — and of having a powerful market name in a commodity, like Honeycrisp is in the apple realm.

Rader Farms will employ hundreds in the course of a year, so labor and food safety and handling issues become important, and Rader “knocks on the door of” buyers who see that as important too.

This is all about the sourcing of American fruits and vegetables, he said. “Do we really want all of our food supply coming from offshore?” That is a “scary” prospect to him, he said.

Water supply is sufficient in a powerful aquifer 28 to 40 feet below ground level and stretching into Canada, Rader said, and in Whatcom County it’s a matter of managing water for the demands of different times of the year.

In the afternoon, the group went to a Maberry farm processing plant.

Those on the tour included: people in county government and several candidates for county positions, some from the Washington State Department of Labor and governor’s office, and aides for federal and state representatives. Two were with a marketing firm helping the raspberry commission.


The early word on the harvest


How does the early harvest look?

Five days in, “fine,” said Honcoop. 

He hopes that rain will hold off — farms supply plants all the drip irrigation water they need — as well as any humidity. 

Although Meekers are typically susceptible to winter damage, raspberries are a remarkably resilient “compensating plant,” Honcoop said. So possibly damage from extreme February’s cold will be less than feared.

Rader called the harvest “slow,” adding, “It’s starting to warm up.”