Raspberry farm takes a hit: Mile Post 19 looks to future after plants die

Two years ago this month, Michele Lynn and Jerry Raitzer were over the moon with anticipation. Their Whidbey Island dream had come true. Today, however, the dream has been altered dramatically — but they insist it’s not dead.

The married couple, both career Seattle City Light employees, had just closed escrow on Mile Post 19, a raspberry farm just outside Coupeville that had become very well known in only a few years. The farm had been started by Kim and Jerry Jaderholm in 2008, and it quickly became famous for its tasty fresh raspberries and giant peonies each summer and the many varieties of jams, sauces and condiments it sold year round, as well as its iconic red barn looming just off Highway 20.

When the Jaderholms put the farm up for sale, Lynn and Raitzer didn’t hesitate long before deciding that Mile Post 19 was exactly what they were looking for. They had already planned to leave their jobs within a couple years and move to Whidbey, and the farm would be the change they were seeking.

“I was raised on a farm and I wanted something that would involve working outdoors,” Raitzer said. “And we both are interested in the local food movement, cooking and healthy living.”

But things don’t always turn out as anticipated, as Raitzer and Lynn have sadly learned. By spring 2014, Raitzer and Lynn were splitting their time between work in Seattle and watering, weeding and caring for their beloved berry vines. The field had never seen pesticides or chemical fertilizers, and they intended to keep it that way.

“I noticed a few bare spots and some plants that weren’t thriving, but I didn’t think too much of it,” Raitzer said. But their harvest that summer was only 2,500 pounds of raspberries, about half what it had been.

That fall, they hired an experienced farmer to tie up the canes, the shoots that produce the fruit, to get them ready for winter. He broke some bad news to the new owners.

“He said the field looked tired and if it was his, he’d rip out all the plants and start over,” Raitzer said.

Shocked, Raitzer and Lynn called in experts from WSU’s Extension program. The news was even worse: a soil-borne fungus was spreading through their field, preventing the raspberry plants from taking up enough water even though the field had drip irrigation. WSU’s advice was the same: rip out the plants and start over.

“It happened so fast and we just weren’t ready to make a big, costly decision like that,” Lynn said. “We were both still working full time in Seattle, so we decided to limp through one more season with what we had and then make a plan for the future.”

Last winter, the field actually looked pretty good, they said, with the canes neatly tied up and ready for the next year. But then a bigger disaster struck.

Early November had been unusually warm, but by mid-month a very cold snap lasted for several days ­­— with temperatures dropping well below freezing. Then, in early spring about the time vines usually begin to leaf, Raitzer noticed something very wrong.

“I told Michele I think all the plants are dead,” Raitzer said. “I couldn’t find any green buds on the canes. Only a few ever leafed out.”

Eventually, WSU figured out what had happened. The cold snap hit before the canes were fully dormant. The freeze killed most of them.

“The berry harvest we got last summer filled about one bowl,” Lynn said. “It really hurt and it was depressing.”

It also occurred at a particularly stressful moment in their lives. That spring, both had left their City Light jobs, put their Seattle home up for sale and were in the middle of moving to a home in Coupeville — eagerly anticipating full-time life as part of the Whidbey community.

“We had made this huge change in our lives and then this big disappointment happened,” she said.

Mile Post 19 sits in a highly visible spot. People in the community drive by it all the time. By April, some folks were asking why nothing was growing.  “We knew we weren’t going to have berries, but we really didn’t know how to answer questions,” Lynn said. That lack of candor, of course, touched off inevitable rumors in a small community.

“We heard them all,” Lynn said. They didn’t know what they were doing, they didn’t water enough, they watered too much, they sprayed with a bad herbicide, somebody dumped poison in the field, or maybe even Navy jets dumped fuel on it. None of that was true, of course.

These days, Raitzer and Lynn are over the shock and looking to the future.

“We’re in the throes of making a farm plan for next year and beyond,” Raitzer said. “We will plant some things this spring, nothing too big. We’ll experiment to see what works.”

They won’t likely replant raspberries, however, because the soil fungus cannot be completely eradicated once it gains a foothold and raspberries are particularly vulnerable to it. There are other varieties of berries that could make sense, they said, and they may try some.

“We came here with a plan,” Raitzer said. “We always thought we’d diversify and try other things at the farm over time. But the future was supposed to be much farther away than just one year.”

As “therapy” to get over her disappointment, Lynn has engrossed herself in her passion for baking, and her scones and gluten-free cookies are so delicious they’re now sold at the Local Grown coffee bar on Coupeville Wharf. The farm’s giant peonies are still doing fine and will be available as always next spring.

And the couple has a big inventory of canned jams, sauces and condiments that they’ll be selling for a long time to come at the Mile Post 19 store and at the Coupeville Farmer’s Market.

To show the community that they’re still here, they will open their farm store on Nov. 21 and Dec. 13 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for holiday shoppers seeking Mile Post 19 treats for themselves or as gifts.

“We know how much the community has loved and supported Mile Post 19, and we love having people here at the farm. We’re thinking about some creative uses that can involve others,” Lynn said. “We appreciate all the encouragement we’ve received from the local farmers and others, and we want to be part of the food community here for the long haul. We need to find a niche that fits with what’s needed and what people want.”

Raitzer and Lynn encourage anyone with ideas about what they think should be next for Mile Post 19 to contact them through their web site, www.milepost19farm.com