When Thursday’s farmers market opens on Broadway in downtown Tacoma it will mark another season of selling fresh, organic and locally grown produce for Terry and Dick Carkner.
The couple own Terry’s Berries, a 25-acre organic farm in the Puyallup Valley. On Thursday they will be selling greens and rhubarb. But no berries. “We can only take what we grow,” Terry said last week at her farm on the edge of Tacoma. And what’s in season.
“Last week I had two people come looking for strawberries. I said, ‘Try June.’”
With a farm store, community supported agriculture (CSA) program and regular appearances in farmers markets Terry, 68, and Dick, 72, have evolved along with the farm they’ve spent the past 30 years on.
When the couple and their two young sons bought 20 acres of raspberries in 1983 (they now lease an additional five acres) they envisioned a successful fruit operation. But changes in labor laws quickly made seasonal hiring difficult and expensive.
Today they have five acres of berries and have gone from 100 berry pickers to five. Three of those acres are devoted to raspberries, 1.5 acres grow blueberries and 1 acre produces strawberries.
The Carkners weren’t interested in retail when they first started farming but soon learned that it was a good way to sell their expanding produce line. Plus, her two sons were natural salesmen.
Today the farm grows a multitude of vegetables. “I want to grow what does well in this climate,” Terry said. That includes greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, leeks, carrots, plums and apples. But she’s given up planting more apples.
“It’s very hard to grow apples organically on this side of the mountain,” Terry said.
The Carkners offer their weekly CSA shares all four seasons and include produce from California and other non-Washington sources during Washington’s fallow times. But they include first their produce when available, followed by other Washington sources. Recently, that’s included leeks from Mount Vernon and potatoes from Sequim.
They’ve been able to offer chard, collard greens, rutabaga and parsnips from the farm most of the winter.
The CSA shares come in two sizes: $19 or $30 a box. The farm also offers you-pick apples (plus cider) and pumpkins in fall. But the berries are strictly they-pick.
When it comes to farmers markets the Carkners sell only what they produce. Terry considers it good public relations.
The state has no regulations regarding what kind of produce can be sold at farmers markets. Individual markets come up with their own bylaws, policies and guidelines on what constitutes seasonality, local and organic along with the type of products sold.
Consider this: In April, two produce sellers at Tacoma’s Proctor market were selling what were described as “fresh” apples and pears. Apples and pears ripen in fall, not spring.
“Some of us have differences with our so-called farmer friends,” Terry said. However, she doesn’t frown on cold storage of fall fruits for sale in the following year as long as they are grown by the seller. She does object to farmers market sellers offering produce they don’t grow.
When it comes to fresh produce at farmers markets, April and May are the cruelest months. But spring is beginning to show its shoots at the Carkners’ certified organic farm on River Road. Lettuce in a variety of shapes and colors is coming up along with spinach, rhubarb and purple broccoli. In a nearby greenhouse, fava beans and peas are ready for transplanting into the ground.
Winged animals have a prominent place on the farm. Thirty beehives provide pollination for crops. The honey is sold in the store. Across the farm a heated mobile chicken coop houses 400 young chickens that will soon be producing eggs. The older hens will be fed a daily diet of leftover greens.
The Carkners decided to go all organic in 1989. Before that they used non-organic fertilizer and pesticides.
“My husband would have to put on a moon suit and had to lock up the kids and the cats and the dogs and then go spray,” Terry recalled. “One day he was out spraying and he saw a pheasant run through a field. Later he found it dead.” It was a turning point for the couple.
“We haven’t looked back and we’re still glad we did it. I have little kids running around here and they can pick an apple and eat it and not worry about it.”
The couple uses compost, cover crops, chicken manure and crop rotation to keep their soil healthy and their crops productive. Unfortunately, it’s also a perfect recipe for unwanted invaders.
“Weeds are the biggest problem. We have a very fertile soil.” For the Carkners, organic equals labor.
The biggest obstacle to an increased acceptance of organic produce, Terry believes, is that organic often means a less than beautiful apple or head of lettuce.
“People want organic but they want it to be as perfect as any other apple,” she said. A lot of American produce is wasted, she said, because it doesn’t meet the visual standards set by the agricultural industry.
“Our food industry capitalizes on that. A few holes in the kale leaf isn’t going to hurt you.”
The farm employs four workers year round but that number swells to 15 during the middle of summer.
Last week, as Terry showed a visitor around her farm store, a customer she hadn’t seen all winter walked in. “Can I hug you?” he asked her.
In December, Carkner and her husband were involved in a car accident near Wenatchee as they were headed to a conference on agritourism. Cheryl “The Pig Lady” Ouellette was also in the car. Dick and Ouellette were injured but it was Terry who bore the major brunt of the T-bone accident.
Terry’s liver, spleen and lung were damaged and her pelvis and tibia were cracked. She spent five days in the Intensive Care Unit and another three weeks in a Wenatchee hospital.
The bed Terry used until recently is still set up in the couple’s living room. Healing has been slower than she would like but she attributes her recovery to being in shape before the accident and eating well. Now, “I walk from one end of the farm to the other.”
The accident has focused the Carkners on a transition plan for the farm. At present there are a few ideas but nothing has been set in place.
“It’s very important to us to keep farmland as farmland,” Terry said. “But I’ll farm ’til I’m 80.”