There’s a lot that goes in to growing, harvesting, and freezing raspberries. Aside from requiring specific soil conditions (rich and well drained), and an ideal climate (mild winters, cool summers, and a rain-free harvest season), these incredibly delicate berries demand dedicated, passionate farmers.
We’re kicking off a series on our blog to give you an insider’s glimpse into the lives of our raspberry farmers.
First up, Mark Van Mersbergen.
I first started out as a dairyman with 120 acres of ground. My grandpa was a dairyman and my dad, Marv, was a dairyman as well. In 1997, we decided to diversify our dairy business by getting into the raspberry industry. With the help from the neighbors, we started out with about 50 acres and a couple of machines and started sending fruit for the Individually Quick Frozen (IQF) market to Radar Farms.
One of the reasons we decided to grow raspberries was because of the labor force. At the time, my own kids were teenagers and could use summer jobs (as well as their friends in town), and that’s basically how we started twenty years ago – working with high school kids in the summertime, and we’ve used that formula ever since. Now there are kids of kids working on our farm! My wife, Ronda, takes care of all the workers, trains the kids, and she really loves it. And that means I’m free to farm.
Ronda and I have eight kids (ranging from 19-34 years), six grandkids, and two more on the way. And they all live here in town. It’s fun. Growing raspberries is such a family orientated occupation. When you grow raspberries, you get to work side-by-side with your kids, which is pretty neat.
“Picked at the peak of ripeness” is a definition of an IQF berry, and to me, that means as fresh as fresh can be. An IQF berry will be hit with cold air and frozen within a couple hours of being picked. The “process” of freezing berries means we add nothing – there’s nothing added other than cold air. The result is a 100% pure, whole raspberry.
A raspberry plant needs a lot of water but it can’t stand “wet feet.” [editor’s note: “wet feet” refers to soggy conditions where the roots are in wet soil (as opposed to irrigated and drained soil).] You need a lot of water on them when they’re bearing fruit, but they need well drained soil. In Northwest Washington – where my farm is located—we have that sandy, loam soil and a warmer climate. Raspberries don’t do well in extreme cold or extreme heat; our moderate climate and soil type is why this particular area is one of the largest raspberry growing regions in the world.
Yes, I love to be busy. The month before and the month of harvest are my favorite times of the year. When it gets crazy busy, that’s when it gets fun. At the end of the day, you sleep well. There are not a lot of sheep being counted during that time of year…one or two at the most.
Harvest is also the time when we make our living for the year so we’re certainly focused on doing as good a job as possible. When people ask about sustainable and good farming practices, I sometimes wonder why they ask. The land is our very livelihood— it’s what we use to support our family, and as a provider, you try to do the best for your family. It’s not about shortcuts, it’s about doing the best you can because you’re working for those that you care the most about.
As farmers, we’re so dependent on the weather and we have to embrace many variables that come our way. Working with soil is a true blessing.
This industry is a great group of people. Many of us grew up playing ball with each other and against each other. It’s a special group with a common focus on a common goal. It’s all for one, not one for all.
I like raspberries any way. The Raspberry Glazed Salmon was probably one of the best raspberry recipes I’ve ever had. And you can’t go wrong with a plain ol’ bowl of ice cream with thawed, frozen raspberries.