The Wonders of Whatcom

Posted in Farming on Monday, June 06, 2022

The Wonders of Whatcom

Raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries, oh my! Washington state is a leading red raspberry producer in the United States, with over 45 million pounds of raspberries grown in 2021. The vast majority of Washington-grown berries are turned into processed products such as jams, juices, and frozen concentrates, but every summer, U-pick berry fields, roadside stands, and farmers' markets highlight the freshest, locally grown berries. Whatcom County is the epicenter of raspberry growing in Washington, producing 99 percent of all raspberries grown in the state. The county’s amazing berry harvest is a testament to the rich agricultural history and the hardworking growers that make it all possible. 

Long before Whatcom County was discovered by Europeans, it was home to Northwest Coast Peoples—the Lummi, Nooksack and Skagit indigenous tribes. Native people foraged for delicious wild berries like salmonberries, huckleberries and trailing blackberries to use as food, medicines, teas and trading goods between tribes. When Europeans arrived, traders and settler preferred the berries of their homeland: raspberry, blueberry and strawberry. 

The first historical evidence for raspberry growing in Washington was in 1833 at Fort Nisqually near Olympia. Chief Trader William Tolmie wrote about “transplanting raspberry bushes from Old Fort into a new garden,” in his Journal of Occurrences. Hudson’s Bay Company, the British trading service, brought the berry seeds and, perhaps, even young berry plants to the West Coast from New England or Europe.

As expansion continued throughout the West, the need for building materials increased. Bellingham Bay had plentiful Douglas fir trees for lumber, and settlers moved north to current-day Whatcom County. A lumber mill was established in 1854 along an impressive, strategically located waterfall referred to as What-Com—meaning noisy, rumbling water in the Native language—creating the new, permanent town of the same name. With the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad’s western terminus, Bellingham Bay boomed with miners, lumber mills, settlers and, of course, berry farmers.

For the rest of the 1800s, most raspberries were grown on small farms owned by European settlers and sold right from the source. Strawberries and blueberries were also popular crops and often led to experimentation, creating more delectable and sought-after varieties through the turn of the 20th century. Small-scale farms and garden plots gave way to commercial market farms into the 1950s, establishing Whatcom County and Puget Sound as a berry-grower’s paradise.

Throughout the next few decades, blueberries, strawberries and blackberries became widely available in the state, and red raspberries finally took center stage in the 1980s. In the Pacific Northwest, berry tourism has become increasingly popular, including the Northwest Raspberry Festival held in Lynden in Whatcom County every year. Today, many Punjabi Sikh immigrants from British Columbia are prominent raspberry farmers in Whatcom County. The region celebrates a diverse heritage of farmers from Dutch, Punjabi, Canadian and other cultures.

During the first decades of the 21st century and beyond, Washington raspberry farmers have addressed new challenges. Results of climate change like drought, wildfires and heat waves create hazardous working conditions, and in 2021, almost 40 percent of Whatcom County’s raspberry crop was destroyed in a record-breaking heat wave. Disputes over water rights, the use of fertilizers, disease and pests, and labor shortages are all stretching berry farmers thin. Despite all of this, farmers remain positive, and red raspberries from Washington state continue to out-do the competition year after year. When you’re in the area, don’t miss the chance to enjoy the local berries and celebrate the unique experience of this region’s culture!

The Northwest Raspberry Festival

The 33rd annual Northwest Raspberry Festival will be held July 15 & 16 this year. Lynden and the surrounding area are the No. 1 producer of red raspberries in North America, and the festival celebrates the crop and the economic impact it has on this area.  Roughly 25,000 people attend the two-day event who experience three on three basketball, live entertainment on two stages, street market, kids’ zone, and the Razz and Shine Car Show, to name just a few.

The event features many raspberry delights, including baked goods; fresh raspberries, blueberries and marionberries; pancakes; chocolate; wine; cider; and ice cream. They serve up to 7,500 bowls of the famous, locally made ice cream topped with raspberries during the festival for only $2.

On Saturday of the festival, the Razz and Shine Car Show brings a large number of visitors, and they often have over 300 vintage cars that fill up the tree-lined streets of Lynden.