WORDS: KATE WEINER
IMAGE: GILES CLEMENT (ABOVE) & JENAH SMITH (BELOW)
With Thanksgiving just a few days away, it feels fitting to celebrate the upcoming release of Loam's Harvest Issue with a profile of the kickass cranberry farm Starvation Alley (and yes, kickass is an appropriate adjective for this crew of passionate farmers, juicers, and thinkers). Starvation Alley is a reminder that there are so many creative communities working in this world to build a more just and sustainable food system. For that, I'm very grateful.
Several months ago, I tried a sample of cranberry juice from the Starvation Alley stall at a small farmers’ market in Portland. The shot of pure cold-pressed juice was tart and fresh and redolent of blustery autumn days. Eager to learn more, I reached out to Starvation Alley’s Alana Kambury—Director of “The Garnet Gospel” and a passionate advocate for sustainable businesses—to talk all things S.A. Over coffee, Alana shared photos with me from Starvation Alley’s most recent harvest. As she scrolled through images of cranberry bogs glowing red against grey October skies, of farmers wading through knee-high waters, I realized that I knew next to nothing about these tart fruits.
For most of us, cranberries conjure static Ocean Spray ads of bright red bogs and the standard Thanksgiving glob of sauce. We don’t have much of a choice: Ocean Spray controls over half of the market. The company’s dominance and lack of support for organic growers means that there is not only little room for sustainable farmers to thrive, but also for alternative products to circulate. Those of us hungry to taste a cranberry as nature intended—unsweetened and organic—would likely have to take a helluva long trip to the coastal cranberry bogs that bookend the continental U.S to find some.
Enter Starvation Alley, Washington’s first certified organic cranberry bog and a committed B corporation that supports fellow farmers and nourishes sustainable agriculture. As an emerging power player in the alternative agriculture movement, Starvation Alley’s team has made it its mission to share the Garnet Gospel across the Pacific Northwest (once you’ve tasted their cranberries, you’ll want to get in the choir too). Theirs is a story of the little cranberry bog that could.
After working in community gardens in Ohio, founders Jessika and Jared returned to Long Beach, WA to take over the cranberry bog adjacent to Jared’s family house. Scientific experts and local farmers were adamant that organic cranberry farming just wasn’t going to work: it wasn’t economically viable and organic practices would threaten production. In spite of this, Jessika and Jared figured that changing the market was contingent on taking a risk. There isn’t a whole lot of literature on organic cranberry production and so many of the farm’s first few cycles were an exercise in trial and error.
Five years in, Starvation Alley is still learning—and luckily, more and more farmers are eager to learn too. The transition from conventional to organic farming is by no means easy. During the three-year transition period, most farmers can expect unpredictable profits and unreliable yields. Starvation Alley is currently working with three other farmers—two in Long Beach, Washington and one in Bandon, Oregon—to share their organic growing methods. Starvation Alley is also helping to support these farmers by buying their fruit at a premium and selling it under the brand as "Local Harvest" transitional fruit.
More recently, Starvation Alley has connected with juice bars, holistic wellness centers, and restaurants to build the market for organic cranberries. At Pickathon 2015, Starvation Alley collaborated with Sean Hoard of The Commissary to create the cocktail for this sustainably minded music festival. During a humid weekend in Happy Valley, OR, the S.A. crew worked with Hoard and The New Deal distillery to serve up 75 gallons of cranberry concoctions to the crowds.
Like any emerging company, Starvation Alley is a work in progress. Starvation Alley’s willingness to take risks and accept setbacks, to embrace experimentation and cultivate collaborations, is part of the 10-acre farm’s surprising beauty. This lush cranberry bog is as much the site for understanding the particulars of organic cranberry farming as it is an unconventional laboratory for generating a new approach to how we produce, consume, and connect through food. Theirs is a story that is just starting to get written.