Fourteen years ago, Rachel Sullivan thought the idea of picking berries sounded boring.
“‘Why would I want to go pick berries?’” Sullivan said to her partner when they brought up the idea. “‘That doesn’t sound exciting at all. Like, I can just go to Haggen and pick my berries there.’”
Sullivan, a Bellingham resident, finally decided to push her skepticism aside and brought her daughter along to Boxx Berry Farm, a local U-Pick berry farm in Ferndale. There, Sullivan said she tried strawberries that were better than any she’d ever tasted, and she had picked them all on her own.
“I was like, ‘Oh! So this is why people go and do berry picking.’”
That first trip 14 years ago turned into a tradition for Sullivan and her family. They now visit Boxx Berry Farm multiple times each year, picking various different types of berries.
With the Pacific Northwest’s berry season fast approaching, many strawberry varieties are expected to ripen in mid-June. Raspberry, blackberry and blueberry plants will be ready for harvest throughout the later summer months. For many farms in the Bellingham area, this means a new chance to welcome visitors of all ages to come and participate in the harvest.
Agritourism in the Bellingham Area — What is it?
Amy Guerra, the Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism Bureau’s director of marketing, said in an email to The Front that U-Pick farms, where visitors can pay per-pound to pick their own crops, offer an exciting and different experience for not only residents of Bellingham but for tourists as well.
Boxx Berry Farm and other businesses that offer U-Pick services are part of Whatcom County’s wider agritourism industry. The National Agricultural Law Center defines agritourism as a crossroads of tourism and agriculture. Agritourism attractions bring people to farms or other agricultural enterprises in order to create another stream of income for businesses in addition to educating and entertaining visitors.
The WA Food & Farm Finder is an interactive map provided by the Eat Local First Collaborative that allows users to find local farms that offer different services like U-Pick, CSA programs and farm stays. According to the map, there are currently 24 farms in Whatcom County that provide a U-Pick amenity.
Maressa Valliant, the marketing coordinator for Sustainable Connections’ Food and Farming program, said that small local farms often have to find multiple sources of revenue and tourism ventures; U-Pick is one of them. She added that although programs like U-Pick support the survival of local businesses, they aren’t just run by farms in order to make more money.
“They’re not really necessarily in it to compete but rather to build community and feed their communities,” Valliant said.
COVID-19 and the U-Pick Scene
Barb Kratht, founder of Barbie’s Berries in Ferndale, said that despite the U-Pick program being a small aspect of her business, Barbie’s Berries still sees a couple hundred visitors on a busy day during the summer season.
Kratht said that last summer, the COVID-19 pandemic drew visitors to the farm.
“There were a lot of people that came out and wanted to be outside,” Kratht said.
For Sullivan, last year’s U-Pick harvest at Boxx Berry Farm was a way for her and her kids to have fun outdoors despite the circumstances of the pandemic. She said they weren’t sure whether or not they would go last year until Boxx Berry Farm announced their COVID-19 response plan, which included social distancing and mask requirements.
“That was fun that we got to, you know, continue that tradition even though it had been modified,” Sullivan said. “To get to go out and have some normalcy was, well, there had been none for a while.”
Bellingham Country Gardens, a U-Pick farm northeast of Bellingham, offers vegetable harvesting as well as everbearing strawberries, a berry variety that produces several separate crop yields throughout the summer.
Sam Grubbs, founder of Bellingham Country Gardens, said that because of the pandemic he planted less strawberry plants — 2,000 as opposed to the typical 4,000 or 5,000 that he usually plants.
Grubbs said he made that choice because he wanted to protect the health of himself as well as the extended family that normally helps him plant. Bellingham Country Gardens also introduced rules to keep both the employees and visitors safe. Precautions such as hand washing stations and switching from reusable baskets to boxes that visitors could take directly home were put into place.
“We were very cautious of [COVID-19],” Grubbs said. “We wanted to try to understand all of the procedures and make it safe for everybody.”
Looking to the future
This year, Bellingham Country Gardens made up for the previous season by planting 6,000 strawberry plants. Grubbs said he feels safer having people to the farm now that he and his wife are fully vaccinated.
“The thing I abandoned last year which was really awesome in previous years is we have a place where the kids can come and play in the dirt,” Grubbs said. “Since we couldn’t have different families, different kids being together, playing in the dirt, we abandoned that this last year.”
Grubbs added that he is hopeful some of the kid-friendly activities the farm had to abandon because of COVID-19 will be able to return now that vaccination rates are increasing and people feel safer.
“I hope to bring Tonka Toys back out and fill up a nice place for kids to play with the dirt again. I hope they’re able to do that again,” Grubbs said.
According to Guerra, there is a strong future for agritourism in Whatcom County. She added that combining agriculture with recreation, such as offering bike tours through farming regions, is one way that more possibilities for the industry are arising.
“[Agritourism] serves several vacation goals in one,” Guerra said. “Scenic drive, getting outside, fun food, good for all ages.”