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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Commercial strawberry grower establishes following in Yakima Valley

By Joel Donofrio Yakima Herald-Republic

A new early-season fruit has joined Yakima Valley stalwarts such as cherries, apples and pears in the spring and summer marketplace.

Cody Edwards has turned a COVID-year backyard experiment into a full-fledged business, harvesting between 6,000 and 8,000 pounds of strawberries on about 1.5 acres near Toppenish.

With his wife, Megan, Edwards sells the strawberries at local farmstands, to area restaurants and at Ellensburg and Yakima farmers markets through his business, Yakima Berry Company.

“I could probably sell 150 boxes a week at the farmers market if I had them to sell,” Edwards said Wednesday as he walked among his large strawberry patch at Cornerstone Ranches, near Toppenish. “Right now, as much as I can grow, I can sell. It’s the first fruit of spring, and people love to see it.”

Because strawberry plants grow close to the ground, they present different challenges than tree fruit such as cherries and apples, he said. That includes being affected by cooler-than-usual early spring weather, which this year has reduced the early harvest numbers compared to 2021 and 2022.

“We’ve had two pickings so far this year, each one about 110 boxes. Each box contains six pint-sized containers of strawberries,” Edwards said. “That’s down a bit – usually we average about 200 boxes (per picking). Hopefully that will pick up with the warmer weather.”

Strawberries in Washington state

While Edwards said he is one of a handful of strawberry growers east of the Cascades, Washington farmers have been cultivating the fruit for nearly 200 years, reports Wendy Hoashi-Erhardt, who directs the small fruit breeding program at Washington State University’s Puyallup Research and Extension Center.

Washington state has a long history of strawberry cultivation, dating to the 1830s. But during the last 50 years, production of strawberries in the U.S. has largely shifted to California, Hoashi-Erhardt noted in WSU’s summer 2022 report on the fruit.

“The market has changed a lot. Washington and Oregon used to be major strawberry producers in the U.S. Starting in the 1970s, California became the dominant player,” she said.

The Golden State’s strawberry yield more than tripled between 1974 and 1994. Today, California grows more than 90% of the nation’s strawberries, while Washington grows about 1%, Hoashi-Erhardt said.

Still, strawberries remain a high-value specialty crop in Washington and the Pacific Northwest. In 2018, Washington harvested 8.6 million pounds of fruit valued at nearly $9.2 million, she noted.

U.S. consumption of fresh strawberries has nearly doubled in the past 20 years, up from 4.86 pounds per capita in 2000 to 8.5 in 2020. The demand is there, said Hoashi-Erhardt, who has led WSU’s small fruit breeding program since 2020.

“I personally think strawberries have a special place in Washington as a specialty crop,” she added. “Everyone loves strawberries. And we produce some of the best strawberries in the world.”

East side growing conditions

Most Washington state strawberries are produced in Skagit and Whatcom counties, and in general grow well on the west side, which Hoashi-Erhardt said offers an ideal environment for growing the fruit with its mild temperatures in winter and summer.

However, Yakima Berry Company’s Edwards believes the hot days and cool nights of the Yakima Valley bring an extra element of sweetness to his strawberries.

“This creates a sugar level that is unmatched and a taste difference noticed by all after their first bite,” Edwards said.

Another advantage Edwards believes local growers possess is logistics: within a day or two of being picked, local businesses and consumers can enjoy his strawberries, which can be picked a bit later (and with more vibrant color) than those shipped here from California.

“We try to pick them twice a week, as fresh as possible,” he said. “California berries are grown more for shelf life and shipping, so they’re picking them earlier. We wait a big longer for better taste.”

That doesn’t mean Edwards hasn’t encountered many challenges over the past few years. The 33-year-old grew up in the West Valley, where his father worked in the apple industry, so he understands the challenges of weather, finding workers at harvest times and fighting off weeds and pests that can ruin crops.

Strawberry plants are low to the ground, so unlike orchards, weeds must be controlled by hand rather than with herbicides applied below fruit growing on tree branches. “Runners” – vines that shoot out from the main plant in an attempt to spread – must be trimmed back to maintain the irrigated rows of strawberries, Edwards said.

Insects such as lygus bugs can cause pollination problems or create irregularly shaped strawberries with green splotches, Edwards has discovered.

“We’ve learned a lot since the first year, especially about lygus bugs, and we’re still learning. There’s definitely a learning curve,” he added. “There’s an insane amount of labor involved.”

Plenty of customers

Edwards, who serves as the chief financial officer at Cornerstone Ranches, said he planted a variety of berry plants at home during 2020 before deciding to produce strawberries commercially.

“I took a keen interest in strawberries for many reasons, taste being No. 1,” he said. “I realized that fresh-picked berries were 10 times better than anything you can find in a store. A year later we began planting an acre and a half.”

The strawberry plants went on Cornerstone Ranches property that used to be planted with grapes. Edwards thanked Graham Gamache, the fifth-generation owner of the hops, apple and grape producing farm, and manager Danessa Van Wingerden for their support of the new strawberry patch.

Both Gamache and Van Wingerden said they have enjoyed watching Edwards’ new endeavor grow and develop, and admire the work and research he has put into strawberry farming.

“When Cody approached me with his idea to grow strawberries on a commercial scale I was taken aback,” Gamache said. “My whole life and operation have been so focused on apples and hops I couldn’t see the angle – especially when considering that Yakima is not known as a strawberry growing region.

“But Cody’s passion was infectious and we decided to run with it,” Gamache added. “He has brought all of the energy and knowledge to the table for this great experiment. I admire how hard he has worked to develop a knowledge base in an entirely unfamiliar commodity for Yakima.”

Both Gamache and Edwards said the delicious-tasting strawberries have been worth the bumps in the road to establish a commercial operation.

“Growing berries here creates different challenges and our yields are less than the main areas berries are grown. This challenge is accepted by us and our quality makes it worth doing,” Edwards said. “Growing locally reduces food (transport) miles and gives customers the freshest-tasting berries they can find.”

Over the past week, he and a crew of about 15 workers from Cornerstone Ranches picked berries on Monday, and Edwards expected enough berries to be ready for another round of picking Friday.

Those berries are available for sale at Johnson Orchards and McIlrath farms; used in desserts by local restaurants including Crafted in downtown Yakima; and sold by Cody and Megan Edwards at farmers markets. They will be available in Ellensburg this week and at the Downtown Yakima Farmers Market later this month.

Edwards plants ever-bearing strawberry plants, which are productive from May to October, and he hopes to harvest them until the first frost of the fall. Fans of Yakima Berry Company will be waiting.

“Being local is important to us, and the amount of support and love we have received from the community has been very humbling,” he said.