Four generations of berry growers

From left, Curt, Angie, Matt and Mandi in a strawberry field.

Family farms are a legacy. The legacy of Curt Maberry, who passed away last year, is the Curt Maberry Farm, a nearly 1,000-acre sustainable berry farm in Lynden, Wash.

Maberry’s three children, Angie, Matt and Mandi, are the fourth generation of Maberrys to own and operate the farm. They grow, process and market strawberries, raspberries and blueberries.

The farm

“It all started with my great-grandpa,” Angie says. “He planted a few strawberries.” They thrived in the area’s rich, sandy loam soil, the moist marine air and the warm days and cool nights.

Maberry’s father added raspberries, which turned out to be the key to the farm’s expansion. Maberry took over the farm in 1973. He was always looking to buy more farmland, Angie says, and his ability to expand the raspberry acreage came the next year, when he bought a self-propelled raspberry harvester to replace hand-picking. This helped the farm expand every year after that, from 60 acres of raspberries in 1973 to 600 acres in 2008.

Maberry’s uncle, Jake Maberry, also raised berries in Whatcom County. Both families grow and process their own berries. They market them together under the label M&MBA (Maberry and Maberry Berry Associates).

Land management

They use precision farming techniques to farm as efficiently as possible, Angie says. They employ an agronomist who tests the soil regularly for pH, nutrients and moisture. They use as little fertilizer and other chemicals as possible.

“You don’t want to use more than you have to,” she says. “And, when you don’t use more than you need, they don’t run off into the streams.”

They follow IPM and focus on prevention for pest and disease management, and are always exploring new ways to manage pests. Like many berry growers, they’ve been using noisemakers to keep away starlings, which especially like to feed on blueberries. This year, they’re trying something new: they’re putting up kestrel boxes, hoping to attract the small falcons that feed on insects, bats, mice, small reptiles—and birds.

Although the farm has streams and ponds for irrigation, water conservation has always been one of their goals, Angie says. Microirrigation and drip irrigation help cut the farm’s operating expenses and also help the environment. All their raspberries are irrigated with underground drip irrigation. Blueberries and strawberries are on underground drip and some overhead irrigation. The drip systems allow fertilizer to be applied directly to the roots and leaves.

They manage much of the weed control by hand-weeding. “I think people would be surprised to know how much hand-weeding we do,” she says. They have a crew of 30 to 40 people weeding in the summer after they finish picking. They also use mulch to keep down weeds, especially on the blueberries, and plant drought-tolerant grass between the blueberry rows to keep the fields clean and weed-free.

“We’re growing and harvesting on the land,” Angie says. “The more environmentally friendly we can be, the better for our customers. We want our land to produce the highest–quality fruit for years to come.”

Sustainable farming techniques are also better for the three species of endangered salmon that historically used the creek that runs through the farm. Helping the salmon return to the creek is also part of Maberry’s legacy. He was a volunteer with Farmers Growing Trees for Salmon, a program in Whatcom County where farmers set aside part of their land to grow trees until they’re mature enough to transplant along local streams. The trees shade the stream and lower the water temperature. They also prevent reed canary grass from growing and clogging up the streams.

Blueberries on the bush.

Maberry donated enough land to grow 66,000 trees, Angie says. When they matured, 27,000 were planted along the creek at the farm. The rest were planted along other creeks. Instead of using funds that were available from the government, he used his own equipment and resources to build a fish ladder and remove fish barriers in the creek. There are now two fish ladders leading to two aerated ponds, which are fish-rearing areas.

“My dad was always looking to help projects that protect and sustain the environment,” she says. “He felt it was the right thing to do.”

In 2007, the farm was second runner-up in the Vim Wright Stewardship Award, which honors farmers and ranchers in Washington State whose stewardship practices protect both the food quality and the health of the state’s ecosystems.

Employees

The farm has between 20 and 30 employees year-round. It’s one of the largest berry farms in the county to employ migrant workers, usually about 500 to 600 people during the peak season, which begins mid-June for strawberries, the end of June for raspberries and late July for blueberries. They hire between 40 and 60 people to prune and tie the raspberries and blueberries each fall.

They still harvest strawberries by hand. Raspberries are all machine-picked. Blueberries, which have increased in acreage from 20 acres when they were first planted in 1990 to 180 acres, are harvested by hand and by machine.

In 1986, Maberry built a 40-apartment complex and community center on the farm. About 15 families live there year-round, and summer migrant workers move in for the summer, Angie says. Housing is rent-free during the harvest months.

“We have very good people who work for us,” she says, both in the fields and in the office. “The jobs they do—we couldn’t be where we are without them.”

The strawberries are shipped to companies such as Smuckers and Haagen-Dazs for everything from name-brand jams to premium ice creams.

Fruit processing

As soon as the berries come in from the fields, they’re washed, sorted and graded. Strawberries and some raspberries are processed in the farm’s on-site processing plant. Blueberries and the raspberries that weren’t processed in the bulk plant go through an IQF (instant quick freeze) tunnel for instant freezing. At the end of the tunnel, they’re packed into bags according to the buyers’ specifications. The family has had the processing plant for 20 years, but the IQF is relatively new.

“You have to be on top of things,” Angie says. “We’re always looking for new and better ideas and new technology.”

Every harvest they go through intensive food safety audits in the plant. The AIB (American Institute of Baking) audit ensures that producers are complying with food safety regulations. The NFPA-SAFE audit is carried out through the National Food Processors Association, one of the largest scientific trade associations to represent the food processing industry. It is also an authority of food science and safety for the food industry.

“We have very high standards for fruit quality and safety,” Angie says, “and the voluntary audits benefit the company and the consumer.” Their berries always receive a “superior” grade, which gives the farm a big advantage in marketing.

A worker harvesting strawberries at Maberry Farm.

M&MBA

In 1980, the two Maberry families, Curt Maberry Farm and Jake Maberry Packing, formed M&MBA as a joint marketing operation. Marketing their own products has given both farms many advantages, she says, allowing them to control every level of the farming process.

M&MBA sells most of their berries to wholesalers. Some are sold locally, and some as far away as Japan. They sell their raspberries and blueberries frozen whole and pureed, and their strawberries whole, sliced and pureed. The strawberries are shipped to companies such as Smuckers and Haagen-Dazs for everything from name-brand jams to premium ice creams.

The future

“We’ve all grown up on the farm,” Angie says. “It’s a fun thing to be involved in. You get a passion for it. Hopefully it will continue to pass from generation to generation.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Altadena, Calif.