It’s early in the morning, but Greg Proctor has already been at work, judging from the chuff of his tractor in the distance and the scent of freshly cut grass thick in the nose. High above, summer-weight clouds daub the brightening sky.
At closer distance are several rows of young cherry trees, trained along a horizontal wire. And beyond those are rooted peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots and pluots at Morningstar Berry Farm on East Ferndale Road.
This is a “day-off’ Friday, so Proctor is not at work at South Valley Animal Hospital, where he makes the world a better place for kitties and puppies and other critters. As owner of South Valley Animal Hospital here, the veterinarian enjoys a long-established and loyal clientele.
He’s grateful to be outstanding in his field, but he’d rather be out standing in the field. “It would be less frustrating to be able to keep on top of the weeds,” Proctor said after descending from his tractor seat. “But the vet clinic enables me to farm.”
It was 15 years ago that Proctor and his wife, Edie — a full-time elementary school teacher – decided to plant some raspberry bushes. “A few. We started really, really small,” Proctor said with a grin. “When you’re doing it on the side and you don’t know what you’re doing … I’m not going to be arrogant enough to say I’ve made all the mistakes, but I’ve made a large share of them.”
The couple enlisted the help of their now-adult children — “They could tell you horror stories about being forced to slave,” Proctor said — and plugged away, year by year, adding new plants.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s what keeps me sane. When I go home, plants are very simple. If you water and weed them, they grow. If you don’t, they die.”
The family got the concept down well enough to outgrow a “hobby farm” designation three years ago, he noted. “I realized I either had to quit or get serious.”
The Proctors chose “serious,” set to planting more fruit and constructing a large barn, painted the traditional red.
Deciding to start a cherry crop was a no-brainer, Greg explained. “People asked for more than raspberries.” Now six varieties are growing, including the Benton and Regina cherries, chosen to keep the fruit in season as long as possible. “I’m trying to stretch my season, as early as I can get and as late as I can get. We’ve got some peach trees we could be picking as late as October.”
Still, berries, including black and some blue, are the star in the 10-acre Morning Star Berry Farm, Proctor said, leading the way through rows of bushes being vigorously weeded by hand by a trio of workers. His raspberries carry theatrical names, such as Reveille, Prelude, Caroline and Josephine.
Then there’s K-81-6, a very large, firm and late-season berry boasting excellent taste, even with a less-than-exciting name, Proctor said. “Almost all my berries come from the East. They’re berries that can live through the cold. We have a hard time growing marionberry, boysenberry here … they freeze out.”
Those late-onset raspberries are especially in place for the Whitman College students who come by the droves. Those kids seem to love the U-Pick berry idea, he explained. “For some people, this is a way to connect back to the ground, it’s not about money. It’s ‘I want to be involved of being part of my food,’ having a relationship with your food.”
As well, folks plucking for themselves save the Proctors from having to hire as many pickers. “Berries are very expensive to pick and sorting takes a tremendous amount of time. I probably have $18 a flat in berries for picking, handling and processing. That’s not fertilizer, storage or packaging. So then you’re charging $27 a flat and people think that’s terrible,” Greg said. “That’s why we’ve gone to U-Pick.”
Then there’s the pure fun of wandering among the U-pickers, soaking up their excitement over the fruit. “There’s a lot more relationship than just selling someone berries.”
Planning for expansion of what Morningstar Berry Farm produces continues. A commercial kitchen in the red barn, along with cold storage plus sorting, packing and selling stations, are on the near horizon, Proctor said. “I love farming. In my heart of hearts, I’d rather be doing this full time.”
Sheila Hagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8322.