Tart & Soul
The town of Long Beach, Washington, sits at the southern end of a 28-mile peninsula that locals claim to be the world’s longest drivable stretch of sand. That strip of dunes, just north of the Oregon border, is also known as the Cranberry Coast, 650 acres of bogs that have been commercially grown since the mid–19th century. Today, a pair of entrepreneurial millennials is endeavoring to transform the region into something more: a model for sustainable farming.
“We set out with a goal to help restore the ecosystem through organic cranberry production,” says Jared Oakes, 36. He and his partner, Jessika Tantisook, 30, took over a 35-acre bog in Long Beach in 2010, named their juice- and sauce-bottling operation Starvation Alley—in a nod to Long Beach’s Depression-era road where migrant farmers banded together to help one another through lean times—and, in 2015, became Washington state’s first certified organic cranberry farmers.
“Industrialized agriculture is massive in this country, and as an industry, it’s among the worst polluters,” says Oakes, who met Tantisook when she was working on an organic farm and he was running a wine shop. “As we got older, we became more and more interested in the food industry and the massive harm it can do. We realized that to do the most good in the shortest time, organic farming was the best option.”
That mission felt particularly urgent on the Cranberry Coast, where commercial farmers have resorted to phosphorus-based fertilizers and pesticides to do battle with weeds, fungi, and insects that have evolved over centuries amid the bogs’ dank conditions. At the end of each harvest, chemical-laced bog water is pumped through a series of dikes back into local wetlands—systemic pollution that, because of a loophole, isn’t regulated by the EPA’s Clean Water Act. Oakes and Tantisook realized that for each acre of bog they turned organic, they could keep 100 pounds of synthetic chemicals out of local waterways every year.
“We’re on a tiny peninsula half a mile from the Pacific Ocean, half a mile from the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge,” says Tantisook, referring to the neighboring ecosystem of tidal flats and salt marshes—a refuge for bald eagles, great blue herons, and such endangered species as the brown pelican. “We’re surrounded by the most pristine parts of the Northwest. It’s part of our mission to keep pesticides and herbicides out of those waters.”
Equally troubling about nonorganic cranberry farming is the fact that those chemicals don’t always wash off the fruit; a 2008 study by the Organic Center (a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that advocates for a more sustainable and secure food system) found that cranberries ranked the highest in the Dietary Risk Index of all fruits grown in the U.S., due to the toxicity of their pesticides. What’s more, one bottle of Ocean Spray’s cranberry juice cocktail has 36 grams of sugar, more than a can of Coke—and as much as the maximum amount the American Heart Association says should be consumed per day.
The growing awareness of nonorganic cranberries’ harmful effects on health and the environment has helped Starvation Alley find a niche in a region known for its eco-consciousness and interest in artisanal health foods. Since going organic in 2015, Starvation Alley has found devotees in culinary hot spots across the Pacific Northwest, from Ava Gene’s eatery in Portland to Tom Douglas Restaurants in Seattle. High-end grocers like Puget Consumers Co-op Natural Markets have also picked up the bottles for distribution while regional mixologists have started using the juice. Angel Teta, the bartender at Ataula, a tapas joint in Portland, won the prestigious Tales of the Cocktail competition in New Orleans last year, beating out more than 400 other drinks with her interpretation of the Moscow Mule featuring Starvation Alley cranberry juice. The company’s output has grown accordingly: Production rose from 3,500 gallons in 2015 to 4,700 gallons last year.
Tantisook, who has an MBA from Pinchot University, in Seattle, ascribes that success to the farmers’ business acumen. “There’s this romantic vision of farmers,” she says. “But here’s the thing.Three members of our core team have MBAs. We work hard. That’s our plan: Do things that are hard in your 20s and 30s, and hope it works out.”
Despite their efforts, Starvation Alley’s output remains a mere drop of the 859 million pounds of cranberries cultivated in the U.S. last year, and Oakes estimates that there are fewer than 15 organic cranberry farms in the country, totaling 350 acres—compared with about 40,000 acres of nonorganic cranberry farms.
The couple is hoping to close that gap by expanding their business via e-commerce. Since the fall of 2016, selling directly to consumers online has increased their margin, which in turn has freed up funds for them to pursue their original goal. “We want to help other farmers go organic,” says Tantisook.
Organic certification is a three-year process; to ease the transition for farmers forgoing pesticides, Tantisook and Oakes buy neighboring farms’ fruit at a premium, paying 75 cents per pound at a time when the market rate is less than 25 cents. So far, they’ve gotten four Cranberry Coast farms on board, and they hope to expand that number to 20 by 2025.
“At first, when we were the only organic farm on the Cranberry Coast, it felt like we were on an island,” Tantisook recalls. “Now we’re sharing resources and equipment with neighboring farms.” The movement is also starting to take hold more broadly. In February, working with the Washington State Department of Agriculture, Starvation Alley hosted its first annual Organic Cranberry Conference, a bogside gathering of 35 farmers, as well as regulators, investors, distributors, and buyers.
“We want to make going organic easier by sharing knowledge,” says Oakes. “How to feed your plants, how to prevent them from being destroyed by weeds, disease, and insects.”
Their budding network of organic cranberry growers might not rival Ocean Spray, the Massachusetts-based agricultural co-op whose 700 growers supply 60 percent of the nation’s cranberry juice market, but their ambitions could make a significant dent. As Tantisook puts it, “Our goal is to make organic possible for farms across the Pacific Northwest.”
Grand visions of cranberry market domination aside, the couple still carries a sense of childlike wonder come harvest season each October, when the farm pulsates with the sound of pond water swishing against boots and buoys. Wet harvest, as the method is called, involves plugging the sides of the marshy grounds where cranberry vines grow and flooding the basins with fresh water. Oakes, who leads the farm’s staff of six in the day-to-day operations of the bogs, drives across the ponds with a tractor that thrashes the vines, leaving a wake of hardy berries that turn the bogs into an undulating quilt of crimson and pink. “The harvest season’s a pandemonium,” says Tantisook. “But it’s also just amazing.”