Pickings Get Slimmer for Tacoma, Washington - Area Berry Farms.

July 25, 2003

Angie Leventis
The News Tribune (Tacoma, Washington)

As Ed Erikson hunted through rows of leafy raspberry plants, his memories drifted back nearly 50 years to spending childhood summers picking berries for less than a dollar an hour at Fife farms.

"I've always loved picking because it can be very cathartic," Erikson, 58, said Monday, his dirt-and-juice-stained fingers expertly weaving through the canes. "You get to see the fruits of your labor, so to speak, right away."

Although the farmlands of his boyhood have since been converted to warehouses, Erikson could again feel the dust between his toes and smell fruit juice wafting through the fields at Paradise Berry Farms, one of the dwindling number of farms in the Puyallup Valley that still lets visitors to pick their own berries.

"Less and less farms are surviving, but we appreciate those that still have 'U-pick." I don't know if younger generations can really understand this, since most of your produce just isn't local anymore. But anything you get in the store just isn't as fresh as this," Erikson said, popping a raspberry in his mouth.

About seven farms in the Puyallup Valley have offered U-pick this summer. But seven years ago, recreational pickers could choose from more than 30 area farms, said Jim Kropf, interim director of Washington State University's Puyallup research and extension center.

Erikson, of Vashon Island, is one of the few recreational pickers who still relishes a day in the shade of raspberry canes.

"I remember when people would come out to area farms to pick their own in droves," said Bob Kalbfleisch, Paradise Berry Farm owner. "They don't pick anymore. Not like they used to."

Though Paradise Berry Farms gets about 20 recreational pickers a day, Kalbfleisch said his raspberry and strawberry farm loses money year after year.

"I made $250 last year, including my Social Security," Kalbfleisch said, laughing. "That means I lost money."

He surmised that people are just too busy to pick their own berries. And even when pickers come, the finicky berry business is full of hurdles.

Richard Linbo, owner of Linbo Blueberry Farms, opened his 4-acre crop to U-pickers last week.

"It's certainly not to raise a profit, though," Linbo said. "I'm retired and I only do it for fun because there's no way anyone would get into it for the money."

The unseasonable heat ripened strawberry and raspberry plants earlier than usual and shortened the picking period. Strawberry farms ended the U-pick period in the beginning of July, and the raspberry season is ...quickly culminating as well. U-pick blueberry farms will most likely remain open through August.

Kropf said berry farms hit the sharpest decline three years ago when the area lost its last berry processing plant, Puyallup Valley Processors.

"Most berries were grown to be processed, that's where the money was," Kropf said. "U-pick was more of a fun, side thing. But the money went with the plant."

Terry Carkner, owner of the organic farm Terry's Berries in Puyallup, closed her farm to recreational berry pickers last year because it became too expensive. Small children tended to wreck about 20 raspberry canes a visit and recreational pickers would select only the "prettiest" berries; smaller, lighter-hued fruit went to waste, she said.

Carkner said berry farmers are "constantly at the mercy of Mother Nature," even more so than other farmers. The fragile fruit ripens only once a year and any unexpected cold spells or early heat waves can wreck an entire crop. The persnickety fruit's harvest window is also narrow; berries picked a day late -- or even a half-day -- can over-ripen.

She said she's shifting more of her land to hardier fruits and vegetables.

"You've got to be tough to farm berries," Carkner said. "It's either a labor of love or a love of labor."

On top of the hassles of harvesting, the area's farmland is rapidly vanishing. Although more than 80 percent of the nation's raspberries are grown in this region, farmland from Puget Sound to Oregon's Willamette Valley is the fifth most-threatened in the United States, according to the American Farmland Trust.

Keith Underwood of WSU's cooperative extension program in Pierce County can remember when the Puyallup Valley was almost entirely rural in the 1960s. But the rise of urban development has turned rich farmland into residences, warehouses and paved roads.

Between 1992 and 1997, Pierce County lost 7,882 acres of farmland, about 4.3 acres a day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture census.

Only about 200 acres of berries are farmed in Pierce County today, roughly 10 percent what was harvested four decades ago, Kropf said.

"It's a great concern for farmers, because the Puyallup area has some of the best soil in the world," Underwood said. "There's no soil like it."

Many farmers sell their land to developers for more profit than harvesting it can return. Farmers specializing in one crop are often hit the hardest by poor harvests or low market rates, Underwood said. The result is more berry farms sold -- and fewer opportunities for recreational picking.

That saddens Tina Coley. The 35-year-old Tacoma woman remembers picking berries in Arkansas as a child and has taken her children to local farms for the last four years.

"It's fun, but it's more than that," Coley said. "Your kids have to learn that produce just doesn't appear -- that you have to work hard doing it.

"It's an afternoon that teaches them about fruit and farming, lessons they can't learn just anywhere. It's something that needs to be there for the kids."
Linbo Blueberry Farm
1201 South Fruitland, Puyallup, WA 98371

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