A conversation with Jessika Tantisook, Farm Keeper and Co-Founder of Starvation Alley Farms.
We’ve got to know - where did the name Starvation Alley come from?
Jessika Tantisook: Starvation Alley was a term coined during the Great Depression. It was the name of the road on the Long Beach Peninsula, where we live, that housed many of that era’s hard-working farming families. Now, it’s where we work on our cranberry farm. We kept the name as an ode to those that came before us and see it as solidarity with those still working hard for food, however that may look.
What motivated you to jump into the world of cranberry farming?
JT: My partner Jared and I moved back to Washington State from Ohio in the fall of 2010. Jared actually grew up right next to the bogs, but didn’t know a thing about cranberries until we decided to farm them five years ago. Before that, we’d done a bit of everything food-related, from opening and managing a cafe to vegetable farming to fishing. We decided to start our cranberry adventure at a point where we had some flexibility with other life commitments and were excited to keep working in the world of conscious food. The cranberry industry had potential for big change and everyone we asked about growing them organically said, “You can’t do it.” So, of course, we had to try.
What can you tell us about the process of transitioning Starvation Alley Cranberry Farm from a conventionally run operation to an organic one?
JT: Cranberries are perennial plants and when we started in 2010, the farms we bought were already planted and in production using conventional practices. The process to transition away from conventional to organic methods takes three years and there’s a number of possible organic certifying bodies to choose from. Starvation Alley is certified with the WSDA [Washington State Department of Agriculture] and our inspector comes out once a year to physically observe operations on the farm - checking sheds, reading labels, looking at the land. Over the three- year process, we saw a significant loss in yield. Some of this was of course due to changing the inputs that the plants were used to, but honestly, I believe that most of the loss was due to us being new farmers. The last two years we’ve seen gradual increases in production and feel like we’re just getting the hang of things.
What has been the most challenging part of this process?
JT: Unlike most commercially grown crops like apples or kale, very little research exists on growing organic cranberries. This makes it extremely hard for small farmers to consider transitioning because they can’t risk the potential loss of yield from doing in-house research and development. We have a dedicated cranberry extension office in our small town, but the urgency doesn’t seem to be there for researching and supporting environmentally sustainable growing, even though the industry (which is 99% conventionally grown) is currently facing serious oversupply issues.
What has been the most unexpected reward?
JT: Definitely the span of collaborations we’ve been a part of! We’re now working with two of our neighboring farmers who are in transition on advancing organic production research. We’ve also greatly benefited from many other small Northwest businesses who are willing to share best practices and develop delicious cranberry co-labs like cider and mustard! And of course, our friends and family across the country who are endlessly providing their talents to the bogs and the business are our constant rewards. These relationships support and inspire us to keep working hard to make the food system better.
We heard that you encountered a great deal of skepticism regarding this transition to organic from the outset. What kept you working toward your goal?
JT: We are doing something really important. Of the 40,000 acres of cranberries produced in the US (around a $2 billion industry), only a little over 300 acres are produced organically. In the four short years we’ve been in business, we’ve seen a change in what people think is possible. It seems like semantics, but hearing experts go from saying “you can’t grow organically” to “growing organically is hard” is a huge step forward.
Has the cost of organic certification impacted your business?
JT: Not significantly. Our farm’s cost of inputs has increased a little. We’ve had to invest money in some new equipment and staff time in creating compliant record keeping systems, plus annual certification costs of around $1,000 (though there’s a cost-share grant that covers a small percentage of the fees for qualifying businesses). Otherwise, it’s not too scary.
What else sets your product apart from other producers in your industry?
JT: Cranberry for Concoctions is the only raw, unsweetened, undiluted cranberry juice you can find (unless you happen to be juicing your own berries). We’re really proud of that because cranberries are so often covered in sugar, which negates many of their beneficial health properties, or cooked to the point that they lose their bright, fruit-forward flavors. It’s not concentrated, but acts like a concentrate. An ounce or two of our juice mixed into a glass of soda water or your morning smoothie is delicious!
What can you tell us about the second branch of your business, especially the choice to establish it as a social purpose corporation?
JT: Starvation Alley’s business is divided into two parts - the farming and the juice production. When we decided to start the second branch, we became a Washington State Social Purpose Corporation (SPC). For all tax purposes, an SPC functions like a corporation (C Corp). It’s different, however, in that it allows a corporation to make decisions for itself and its shareholders based on more than just a financial bottom line. It allows a business to put a social purpose (such as helping reduce the negative environmental impacts of farming or increasing the livelihood of farmers) above the purpose of making a profit.
What advice do you have for young, entrepreneurial farmers or food producers?
JT: Meet people where they are. As I say that, I think it sounds like the opposite of all of our company values (commitment to environmental sustainability, testing conventional wisdom), but what I’ve learned through this journey so far is that food is a very personal subject to almost everyone. Empathy will move us farther than an attachment to what’s “right.” Keep asking yourself why you are making each decision and trust the process.
Where would you like to see Starvation Alley go in the next five to ten years?
JT: I hope our business is a model for sustainability at scale. We’ll stick to conscious growth of both berries and bottles of juice sold. We’ll be transparent in our processes and be committed to educating consumers about the importance of their choices to buy local and organic. The other thing I’m excited about is continuing to build a business that respects and encourages work-life balance for employees and owners - cranberries might not benefit from the climate in Thailand, but I sure do.
Photos: Starvation Alley