Dan Murphy: Blue Mood on the Farm

What was once a dairy farm in Washington state is now a blueberry farm. ( Farm Journal )

This is a story that’s both encouraging and optimistic, as well as sad and sobering.

It concerns the evolution of local agriculture in a positive direction, as well as what can best be interpreted as a warning sign that needs to be heeded.

Regular readers of this column — hopefully, there’s a few of ya’ll out there — know that I’ve written dozens of commentaries over the years on land-use issues, particularly the preservation of ex-urban farmland and farm operations. Reason being, not only are opportunities for specialty farming linked with proximity to population centers, but the fact is that many major cities in America were originally settled by homesteaders seeking the best locations to clear land and start farming.

We pave over some of our best farmland at our peril.

Not only that, but if anyone is serious about dealing with the aging of America’s farming families, there needs to be multiple ways for young people to enter the profession — other than inheriting a couple thousand acres from the older generation, that is.

It’s just not possible to acquire a working farm capable of sustained profitability on which only corn, soybeans or wheat is grown.

The acreage, the equipment, the working capital needed to succeed in modern agriculture are beyond the reach of all but a small slice of the population — and the folks with the financial wherewithal to do so generally have far more attractive ideas for investing their money than putting in the 12- and 16-hour days required to raise crops, and then hope commodity prices don’t tank right around harvest time.

Thus, the importance of specialty farming opportunities for relative newcomers operating on smaller farms, even if it takes breadwinners working outside jobs to pay the bills.

This is one such story, a tale I’m confident applies to hundreds of other families around the country.

It’s positive, it’s uplifting, and yet it’s ultimately a sobering story for anyone in animal agriculture.

Making the Switch
As published in The Herald newspaper, which covers Snohomish County in Washington state, the article began with the following lead:

“The dairy cattle Spencer Fuentes tended to as a boy have been replaced by blueberries. Lots and lots of blueberries.”

The article profiled the Fuentes’ farm near Silvana, a small town of about 2,000 people some 50 miles north of Seattle and a couple stone’s throws inland from the shores of Puget Sound. According to the story, Spencer, his wife Karen and their three children aged 15, 13 and 9 annually harvest up to 75,000 pounds of blueberries on their 10½-acre farm, as well as hazelnuts, hay, wheat and barley.

That’s an impressive harvest on acreage that would represent maybe one one-hundredth of the size of a typical Midwest farm. Granted, blueberries wouldn’t be the ideal crop for a farmer in Indiana or Iowa, but they’re incredibly well-adapted to western Washington’s maritime climate of wet winters and cool summers.

As the article noted, the Fuentes family markets fresh and frozen blueberries, organic blueberry jam and syrup, blueberry soap, blueberry ice cream made by a local creamery and even blueberry salsa, which I didn’t even know was a thing.

It’s great that the family can keep a flourishing farm alive on such a small footprint, one that, while some distance from the urban center of Greater Seattle, is nevertheless in the crosshairs of future development in a county that some demographers predict could experience the influx of 700,000 additional residents by mid-century.

However, the operation used to be a dairy farm, and now is no longer.

Spencer Fuentes purchased the farm from his mother in 1998, but as he told the reporter, he had “no interest” in maintaining the dairy.

“There were a lot of pros to growing blueberries as a crop,” he said, noting that the soil and climate in the Stillaguamish Valley where the farm is located are ideal for berry production — and sustainable, since blueberry bushes can produce commercially for up to 50 years (another fact of which I wasn’t aware).

Spencer’s rationale for abandoning the dairy operation was unusual but plausible.

“Cows all have personalities,” he said, “and you have to deal with a whole bunch of cows.”

He didn’t mention it, but I’m certain that dealing with the provision of feed, housing and veterinary services, in addition to the preferences of his family members, all figured into Spencer’s decision to sell off the cows and invest in blueberries.

The family is able to sell the berries in local stores and farmer’s markets or directly to people who make their way out to the farm to purchase them fresh or as u-pick, which I guarantee provides a more enjoyable experience for a suburban family or city-dwelling Millennials than visiting a working dairy barn would be.

It’s great that a small blueberry farm can serve as a local food source, keep farmland in production and allow a family to stay in the business of agriculture.

But it will be a sad day if a drive throughout a lush green expanse of land, such as the area where the Fuentes family is farming, reveals not a single farm animal in sight.

Man does not live by blueberries alone.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.