The Berry Best
Washington farm finds success with fresh
Photo courtesy of hotblack/morguefile.com.
In Whatcom County, Wash., only a handful of miles from the Canadian border, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone interested in fresh berries and produce who is unaware of Boxx Berry Farm(www.boxxberryfarm.com) and its fresh-market farmstand. The Boxx farm and its market have become, over the years, a local "must-visit" during the growing season. Founded as a small commercial berry farm selling to local processors, the Boxx operation has grown to become a regional attraction, allowing several families to make a living from agriculture.
According to Mike Boxx, co-manager of the farm's operation in concert with his brother Roger, serving the fresh-market end of the business is filled with significant challenges not faced by the farmer growing crops for processing or wholesale. Despite the additional challenges, Boxx says the farmstand has been well worth the effort in terms of the personal satisfaction gained by serving the public with a superior product.
Variety is the spice of life for a farmstand store. The Boxx operation grows and sells landscape plants, flowers and a variety of vegetables in addition to the berries that make up the heart of the operation.
Photos by Jack Petree unless otherwise noted.
He explains that Boxx Berry farm was founded "about 1960, when Mom and Dad [Charlene and Bill Boxx], two transplanted Missourians, began to grow a few berries, mostly strawberries for processing, on about 20 acres of land," to supplement income from an off-the-farm job. By the late '80s, Boxx recounts, the makeup of Whatcom County's crop production had changed. Strawberry acreage was in precipitous decline; raspberries had become the dominant commercial crop.
Charlene Boxx has had success with flower sales.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MIKE BOXX.
The public will seek out fresh fruit and produce
"That's when Mom and Dad began to notice something interesting," he says. "We were farming the berries commercially, with most of the raspberries being machine-picked, but people were regularly driving in off the road, asking if they could buy some fruit. In the '80s, no one was really talking about agritourism as it exists today. If you could sell a few things, that was nice, but there wasn't much thought about how to get people to come out and enjoy your place. But on a farm you're always adapting to change, so a little roadside structure on skids was built to fill the demand for fresh berries."
The roadside stand was successful enough to justify some expansion, and over time a permanent building was installed so more variety could be offered, including ice cream and some fruit purchased in eastern Washington. The you-pick idea was also gaining in importance.
As time passed, Boxx says, his parents began to express an interest in slowing down a bit. A variety of approaches to transitioning the business were tried as Boxx and his brother gradually began to take on more responsibility. Eventually, the Boxx Berry Farm Market Store and Shortcake Shack of today evolved as a way to provide the economic structure needed to support additional families. "It's been great," Boxx says, "but it's also meant we all have to wear a lot more hats than we had to before."
The Boxx family grows about 8 acres of strawberries.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MIKE BOXX.
The challenge of location
A special challenge for Boxx Berry's farmstand is location. The Boxx farm is located on a minor road far from most of Whatcom County's population, yet the farm is, especially during the height of the berry season, a major local attraction. That popularity has come about, Boxx contends, because the family has overcome the challenge of location by carefully cultivating a reputation for the freshest produce, the freshest berries, the tastiest varieties of those berries, and a concern for customer satisfaction. Boxx says the effort pays off, as return customers demonstrate that a well-run facility appealing to the needs of a local clientele with superior product can be economically viable even in an area with a small population and not much drawing power in terms of the larger agritourism industry.
"Nearly all our customers live within a few miles of our store," he says. "They seek us out because we consistently provide them with the freshest and tastiest fruit available anywhere in the state."
Aside from the usual challenges inherent in transitioning a business from one generation to another, Boxx says a smoothly running fresh-market operation requires close attention to a broad variety of issues due to the increased complexity running a farmstand brings.
Mike Boxx says, "If you are growing great-looking and great-tasting berries, people will search you out to find that great quality."
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MIKE BOXX.
He says, "Roger is a far better farmer than I am. I like the challenges of trying to develop sales and things like that, while Roger prefers being out there on a tractor or doing all the other things necessary to grow the crops. We complement each other well." Bill and Charlene also remain active in the operation. Most recently, Boxx points out by way of example, his mom began to experiment with flower sales. "She's become very successful at that," he comments. "She's selling into the major markets in Seattle and is doing quite a lot of business here as well."
Fresh berries are key
Boxx notes that even with the other ventures, the heart and soul of the farm's success is berries. About 100 acres are farmed today. "We have about 8 acres of strawberries, 8 acres of raspberries and about 8 acres of blueberries. We grow about 25 acres of sweet corn, and the balance of our acreage is vegetables and a few rows of blackberries," he says.
Wagon rides are one of the attractions at Boxx Berry Farm's festivals.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MIKE BOXX.
Despite the disparity in acres dedicated to the various crops on the Boxx farmland, Boxx explains, "The reality is, on our farm the berries pay the bills because they are worth so much [more] per pound compared to other products. We do not sell the same varieties the commercial growers plant. We have chosen varieties that work best for the farm-fresh market. My dad has always been emphatic about quality. If it doesn't taste good or look good, we don't want it. If you are growing great-looking and great-tasting berries, people will search you out to find that great quality. Quality really is the key to attracting customers."
A nice facility sets the image
Keeping a close eye on the bottom line is an ongoing challenge to an operation like Boxx Berry Farm. Many farmers start the adventure leading to a full-on farmstand operation in the same way the Boxx family did - selling some produce along the road - but more is required to take the stand to the next level.
At a certain point, people come out to shop, maybe have some ice cream and stay a while, Boxx says. Once the stand goes beyond simply selling a flat of berries to passersby, sanitation, customer comfort and a good selling environment become issues. "The building of the farm store was a whole lot about getting services," Boxx states. "People are coming out here for a high-quality product, so they are staying longer. That means they want to go to the bathroom. You point them to a porta-potty and they kind of turn white. A nice facility says something about the quality of the product you are offering people, especially when it comes to food. About seven years ago, we decided that if we were going to take this business to the next level, we needed to step up and build the facility we have today, despite the economic challenges. Like any other farm operation, it seems as though we are always working on a tight budget. We cut corners everywhere we could. We did much of the work needed to build this building ourselves."
In addition to strawberries, Boxx Berry Farm grows raspberries, blueberries, pumpkins, sweet corn and vegetables.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MIKE BOXX.
Similarly, the brothers do all the machinery maintenance on the farm, "keeping a variety of old junk machinery we've [dragged] in here working in order to shave costs," he adds.
Maintaining quality without wasting product
Boxx points to another serious challenge a farm-fresh operation must address: maintaining quality without wasting product.
Boxx says, "We really take care of our you-pick people. It is an important part of our operation. In the old days, you-pick got the leftovers after the fields were mostly picked for processing. Today we give our you-pickers the prime, pristine berries to pick and they can't believe it. You-pick has become a huge part of our business."
Visitors to the farmstand are presented with the best of the best in terms of the berries. Boxx says, "We don't run out of stuff; we take pride in not having to turn people away, so we don't want to be out of stock. To hit that perfect amount you can sell, we overplant. Berry-wise you have to keep the field clean, so every two or three days you have to get that field cleaned off."
To provide variety in the store, Boxx Berry Farm processes fruit into jams, jellies, syrups and other products. Boxx says that due to costs, processing is hard to justify for small quantities, and the return on a pound of berries is small compared to you-pick or sold fresh. To control processing costs, Boxx Berry Farm has teamed up with another small producer that processes berries. "We may do our own processing someday, but that is in the future," he concludes.
According to Mike Boxx, the ability to keep old machinery running is an important contribution to keeping a farm and farm store operation profitable. This Allis-Chalmers Model G tractor, built in the early 1950s, is one of five Boxx and his brother Roger maintain in working order.
Despite the challenges, the effort involved in a farmstand, farm-fresh approach to marketing agricultural products can be rewarding, both personally and economically. "Once you've done it for so many years, you don't always have to reinvent the wheel," Boxx points out. "You look at what worked last year and use that knowledge this year."
New challenges on the horizon
Even with the farm's success, there are still obstacles to overcome. Boxx says that figuring out how to promote the farm is an ongoing issue, and more recently, government, especially in the form of health-oriented initiatives, has begun to impact the farmstand operation.
Festivals have played an important part in building public awareness for Boxx Berry Farm, but he says the value may exceed the return. "We began doing some festivals [strawberry, raspberry/blueberry and pumpkin] many years ago, and it has grown into a huge event for our farm today, but we currently focus on our strawberry festival simply because festivals are a huge consumer of time, resources, labor and money," he explains.
Health and safety regulations are having an increasing effect on farmstands. As just one small example, Boxx points to you-pick regulations now requiring cleaning stations where pickers must soap up and wash up before being allowed into the fields. Health and safety issues also impact how the farmstand/store is operated, how food can be displayed, and what can be sold in the stand.
The Boxx farmstand store is on a remote road with low traffic counts, so an attractive location is important for drawing customers.
Still, he says, "I think, given a choice, you wouldn't find anyone in the family who would really want to do anything other than what we are doing today."
The author is a longtime freelance contributor to Moose River Media.