County could become a leader in cranberry production

SNOHOMISH — The largest cranberry crop in Washington could be sprouting from the Snohomish River Valley a few seasons from now if a Canadian berry-grower’s plans take root.

Golden Eagle Farms for more than a year has been buying up farmland, hundreds of acres at a time, in the floodplain south of Lowell-Snohomish River Road.

The company wants to turn most its newly acquired terrain into cranberry bogs, with a few hundred acres set aside for growing blueberries.

While blueberries have long been grown here, cranberries would be something new. Moreover, Golden Eagle’s plans would put Snohomish County at the forefront of the industry statewide.

“We’re excited about it,” said John Negrin, who oversees the renewable energy division of Golden Eagle Farms’ parent company. “This is going to be a fascinating project.”

The words “exciting” and “fascinating” came up a lot Wednesday after Negrin gave a presentation to stakeholders in Snohomish County’s Sustainable Lands Strategy. The initiative to boost farming and fish habitat in local river valleys includes farmers, environmentalists and tribal leaders, as well as members of state and local government.

Many of them liked what they heard about remaking a patch of the valley into productive berry fields, potentially bringing dozens of full-time jobs and tens of millions of dollars in investment.

“It increases land in production, using the land for the highest and best use,” said Linda Neunzig, Snohomish County’s agriculture coordinator.

Before planting, Golden Eagle Farms must convince federal, state and county authorities that it can clear regulatory hurdles.

The company can expect to spend up to a year obtaining required federal and state permits related to water quality and wetlands, said Sheila Hosner from the Governor’s Office of Regulatory Assistance.

“We’re working step by step and working with all the appropriate agencies,” Negrin said.

So far, Golden Eagle Farms has acquired about 1,500 acres in the floodplain between Everett and Snohomish. It paid more than $3.3 million a year ago for the largest piece, 900 acres that has been used for growing poplar trees. Other parcels in the area, which is known as Marshland, have been used previously for growing peas, sweet corn and broccoli, or for livestock pasture.

The areas’s abundance of water and peaty soil — drawbacks for other crops — might benefit cranberry production.

“There’s a huge investment out there in the diking and drainage systems that needs to be utilized,” said John Misich, whose family has been farming in the area since the late 1800s.

Golden Eagle Farms’ proposal would eventually put more than 1,000 acres into cranberry cultivation. The plans include more than 30 bogs of 40 acres each, Negrin said.

To put that into perspective, all current Washington cranberry farms combined total about 1,800 acres, mostly in Pacific and Grays Harbor counties.

“It would be a large farm by any stretch of the imagination,” said Kim Patten, a Washington State University Extension professor based in Long Beach. The Pacific County community is known for cranberries.

Washington’s existing cranberry farms are small and, for the most part, have been in the same family for generations, Patten said. The largest is probably about 100 acres.

Washington’s overall cranberry crop is far smaller than states such as Wisconsin, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Regionally, British Columbia’s production exceeds Washington’s many times over.

“The bulk of the industry in the Pacific Northwest is in Canada,” Patten said.

Growing cranberries is a tricky business. For starters, it takes a lot of money and know-how to get started.

The cost of establishing cranberry bogs runs up to $60,000 per acre, Negrin said. That means investment in the Snohomish County proposal could easily exceed $50 million.

Once up and running, the Snohomish Valley operations would employ an estimated 35 full-time workers, Negrin said. About 100 workers would be needed come harvest time, in September and October. Those figures do not include construction jobs.

Cranberry bogs generally need three to five years to start yielding a commercial crop.

“This is not your average farm production,” Patten said. “There is a lot of very specialized nuance here. You have to know what you’re doing. The learning curve is very steep, so I make it my job to talk people out of the business.”

That said, Golden Eagle Farms is coming to the game with lots of experience — and capital.

It already has extensive, well-established blueberry and cranberry farms in British Columbia. It’s a member of the Ocean Spray cooperative.

The landscape around its farms in the Pitt Meadows area east of Vancouver, B.C., looks remarkably similar to the Snohomish Valley, with view homes overlooking the low-lying agricultural area.

Golden Eagle Farms isn’t likely to have any trouble securing financial backing. It’s part of the Aquilini Investment Group, a multibillion-dollar Vancouver, B.C., conglomerate.

The company was founded more than 50 years ago by Italian immigrant Luigi Aquilini, who now runs the company with his three sons.

Currently, the group’s vast interests include hotels, restaurants and renewable energy projects. It also owns the Vancouver Canucks NHL team, vineyards and resorts.

Pulling off the Snohomish County project won’t come without challenges.

Cranberry production requires flooding the bogs at harvest. More water is needed for irrigation, to ward off frost damage. That means extra regulatory scrutiny, particularly for any fertilizers or pesticides that might wind up in the runoff.

There are economic unknowns, as well.

At current prices, independent cranberry growers struggled to break even, Patten said. If the berry market softens further, many could be operating at a loss.

“Right now, there’s an oversupply of cranberries on the market,” he said. “There’s been a huge planting in Quebec.”

Still, if the project comes to fruition, it could give Snohomish County a real economic boost, Patten said.

Obstacles aside, the prospect of a deep-pocketed agriculture investor who’s willing to bring a new crop to the Snohomish Valley has local farmers buzzing.

“I think everybody should be excited,” said Brian Bookey of Arlington, a member of the Snohomish County Agricultural Advisory Board. “These are folks who have their act together. I hope everybody gives them a fair shake.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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