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Saturday, March 28, 2020

Whatcom berries, courtesy of Serbia

Farms in Whatcom County are struggling to stay afloat this year as the raspberry market is flooded with imported berries.

By Maks Moses

The year is 1978. Young, bright-eyed Ajaib Chauhan sets forth alone to the United States, leaving his family in India with the goal to continue his family’s tradition and deep roots in farming. Alone, he has to build the business relationships and acquire the means to create a farm, literally, from the dirt.

Now, Chauhan runs a 60-acre farm, A J Berry Farms, in Lynden with his right-hand man and unofficial member of the family, Manjit Gill. This year, after decades of growing, developing and preparing for a new generation, the entire future of the farm may be at risk.

Chauhan is struggling to stay afloat in a raspberry market that’s being increasingly outsourced to other countries in Eastern Europe and Central America.

So much so that his son, Tej Chauhan, a Western alumnus with a degree in finance, resigned from his job as a financial professional to help save the farm.

“I had to do that for my parents. They paid my whole tuition and I owe them,” Tej said. “I hope to work for my dream job when I’m older, but I can do this now.”

Whatcom County is responsible for over 90 percent of all domestic raspberries being sold in the U.S. at an average of 70 million pounds of berries each year, according to the Washington State Red Raspberry Commision.

This year, the U.S. berry industry saw a massive spike in imports from outside countries, twice the amount of previous years, which is leaving little room for Whatcom farms to have a stake in the market.  

Raspberry bushes in Lynden, a hub for the Whatcom industry, which supplies about 90 percent of U.S domestic berries. // Photo by Jessica Vangel

In a July newsletter, the commission said, “We don’t need to tell growers how tough raspberry markets are this year. A deluge of imported raspberries has weakened the market for our fruit and left some growers without a place to pack their raspberries.”

“Unless something happens real soon, I feel like a lot of farmers are going to be ripping up some raspberries,” Ajaib Chauhan said.

The spike in imports happened just weeks before Whatcom’s harvest season, which begins in early July.

“It’s very nerve-racking for all involved,” Henry Bierlink, executive director of the Washington Red Raspberry Commission, said. “When the farmers and employees are counting on picking over the next months and the buyer tells you a week before harvest that they are not buying domestic raspberries because they can get imported berries cheaper, that leaves everyone in the lurch.”

Jonathan Maberry, president of the Washington Red Raspberry Commission and field manager of Maberry packing, said 25-50 million pounds of raspberries have been imported this year. These berries can be sold at much lower prices than those that are locally grown, he said.

According to farmers, the problem doesn’t lie with the consumers or even the buyers.

Ajaib and Maberry both say the problem is the lack of federal regulations on imports, which drive domestic farms out of the market when they are unable to compete with foreign countries that have a lower cost of production and less strict environmental regulations.

“Prices [are] often a third of what would be considered break-even for our market,” Maberry said. “So, it’s next to impossible to compete with the prices.”

Edgar Franks, civic engagement program coordinator at Community to Community Development, an organization that represents farmworker rights, said many farms in the area are beginning to use machines to pick berries because they can’t afford to pay for labor.

I personally think it’s a risk when you have an entire economy relying on one crop, in this case the berries. Now, because of relying on a commodity crop the whole agricultural economy is in danger,” Franks said in an email.

Maberry said changes in regulations have to be made in order to ensure domestic growers stay alive in the market.

“We need to ask the retailers why, in the county that produces 90 percent of the domestic raspberry supply, do we have raspberries from Bulgaria, Serbia, China, Poland or wherever else,” Maberry said. “It’s actually really hard in our county to even find raspberries from the U.S.”

Workers at Maberry Packing in Lynden stand on a berry picking machine on July 31. // Photo by Jessica Vangel

According to the commission, they are working with state representatives to create solid legislation that can protect domestic farmers.

“We will be watching closely that our foreign competitors obey trade laws,” Bierlink said. “But if they do and can produce cheaper, our only hope is that our quality food assurances, labor practices and environmental standards will make buyers more prone to purchase our berries.”

Maberry said he’s still hopeful for what the future holds for raspberry farmers in Whatcom County.

“Politically I think we have a good shot,” Maberry said. “That’s something I think we can all agree on, the farmworkers, the farm owners, the consumers and even our buyers. What we would like to do in the future is partner with other groups and put some pressure on the retailers to start buying domestic.”

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