Ingredient Spotlight: Starvation Alley Cranberries

So-called “super foods” are all the rage in nutrition circles, and “super berries” are the crown jewels — their deeply saturated colors indicate antioxidant phytonutrients known to help prevent cancer and fight inflammation. Popular “super berries” like goji and acai berries hail from lands far away, but the Pacific Northwest is home to one of the best crime-fighting heroes available. That’s right: Cranberries deserve some spandex and a cape thanks to all of their health-promoting qualities — vitamins C, E, and K; manganese; fiber; phenolic acids; flavonoids; and triterpenoids (bonus points for knowing what these are for). And the organic cranberries produced by Starvation Alley Cranberry Farms are likely to get their own Marvel movie considering how the farm is engaged in a David-and-Goliath-style struggle against Ocean Spray, the world’s largest juice company, with 90 percent of the cranberry market.

Cranberries are one of North America’s three native commodity fruit crops, along with Concord grapes and blueberries. Of the 40,000 acres planted with cranberries, only 300 are farmed organically — probably because it is hard to farm cranberries without pesticides or herbicides. Consequently, there isn’t much collective knowledge out there to help cranberry farmers overcome the challenges associated with organic farming.

At Starvation Alley Cranberry Farms, Jared Oakes and Jessika Tantisook, along with Alana Kambury and Alex Mondau, are not only farming organically; they are paying other farmers to make the transition by purchasing those farmers’ berries at 75 cents per pound compared to the 20 cents per pound they usually receive on average.

“Our mission is supporting greater farmer livelihood via sustainable agriculture,” says Kambury.

cranberry drink - 425 Magazine

Named in homage to the Depression-era moniker for the area, Starvation Alley began in 2010, when Oakes and Tantisook moved back from Ohio, where Tantisook was managing a community garden, to take over Oakes’ parents’ cranberry farm. Oakes comes from a family of commercial fishermen in Long Beach. His parents purchased the property adjacent to their home, thinking cranberry farming would be a fun hobby. It turns out that growing cranberries is harder than they thought. Oakes and Tantisook agreed to take over the newly acquired farm only if they could farm it organically.

Attitudes in the region were against them. “People thought they were crazy and naïve. They thought it was impossible, and there were bets that they would fail,” says Kambury. But in 2013, they produced their first certified organic cranberry harvest from the 10-acre plot.

Cranberry vines grow in low-dense masses in sandy soil. Neat rows are not part of cranberry farming life, hence the general use of herbicides to deal with weeds that grow up through the vines and are practically impossible to manage by hand. Organic farmers use tea composts instead of petroleum-based herbicides, and fields are flooded to drown pests like black fireworm. Because of the extra plants, like horsetail, often growing in the field, flooding also helps farmers harvest the berries that float to the surface thanks to an air pocket inside each cranberry. “Beater” tractors drive the floating berries to an elevator that loads them into a harvest bin.

Wet berries must be frozen within three days. Each week, Starvation Alley thaws some berries and cold-presses them into pure juice. Cold-pressed cranberry juice tastes light years better than the bitter juices you may have experienced. Starvation Alley’s juice is tart and bright, without the lingering bitterness. Bars throughout Seattle and Portland seek it out for use in their craft cocktails.

Starvation Alley also partners with more than 40 local companies, like Jacobsen Salt Co., Union Wine Co., Molly Moon Ice Cream, and Salt & Straw, to produce collaborative items like cranberry salt, cranberry mulled wine, and cranberry sorbet. These, and other value-added products like sauces and juices, allow Starvation Alley to purchase transitional cranberries at a premium price, which, in turn, gives cranberry farmers the opportunity to get out from under conventional farming practices.

Even though cranberries are harvested in the fall, Starvation Alley is trying to change the berry’s almost-exclusive connection with the holidays. “Cranberries are not just a Thanksgiving Day thing,” said Kambury.

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