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New owners taking over Coupeville's Milepost 19 Farm dream
By Harry Anderson
Kimberly Jaderholm remembers well that first raspberry harvest five years ago at Mile Post 19 Farm near Coupeville. A former Nordstrom vice president and lifelong city dweller, she and her husband Jerry, a computer leasing executive, had chucked their stress-filled, fast-paced lives to become farmers on Central Whidbey.
“I became a pioneer woman!” she recalls. “That first summer, after picking berries, I brought home all the dirty linen and hundreds of plastic picking bins to wash. I thought, ‘I’ve gone from Nordstrom and business meetings and hosiery and makeup to this.’”
From that humble start in 2009, the Jaderholms built a successful business selling fresh and frozen raspberries as well as a growing array of raspberry products from syrup to jam that has in short order established Mile Post 19 as a known local brand.
Then, last August, following a carefully mapped-out business strategy they set up five years before, they sold their berry farm to another big city-Baby Boomer couple with an urge to become Whidbey farmers – Michele Lynn and Jerry Raitzer.
“They were perfect,” Jerry said. “If we had interviewed people to pass the baton, I don’t think we could have selected a better couple.”
Today, the Jaderholms are enjoying the spare time they haven’t had much of at their beachfront home overlooking Saratoga Passage.
Next summer, instead of harvesting raspberries, Kim plans to work on her art and tie her rowboat to their buoy and read, while Jerry drops his crab pots.
But another Whidbey business “adventure” isn’t too far off.
“There is another start-up in the future and it will definitely be here on Whidbey,” Jerry said. “We might develop another piece of property; it might be agricultural or residential.”
They’ll also be consulting and advising the new Mile Post 19 owners as needed, at least for a while. But, “whatever our next business adventure is, it won’t be raspberries,” Jerry added.
As for Lynn and Raitzer, the future definitely includes raspberries. They both have worked for years at Seattle City Light – Lynn on environmental policy and compliance issues and Raitzer on improving energy efficiency of new and existing buildings.
They bought a weekend spot on Penn Cove about six years ago and instantly fell in love with Whidbey.
They’ve hiked and camped all over the island, sampled all manner of local food, and taken long walks with their dog Izzabella, a five-year-old border collie-springer spaniel mix. A couple years ago, they stopped by Mile Post 19, picked some fresh berries to eat and met Kimberly. They loved the place.
Both had been thinking about “doing something different,” and when they saw the real estate listing for Mile Post 19 last summer, something clicked.
“I had been doing some networking, trying to think about what we might do next,” Lynn said. And when Raitzer emailed her the listing, “It sounded right from that second,” she said.
They made an offer within a few days and became the new owners in a few weeks.
To the Jaderholms, that all sounds like an echo of their own experience several years before. They lived in Medina, but had a weekend spot on Whidbey for almost 20 years, using it to get away from the stress of careers and city life. In 2005, they left all that and moved to Whidbey permanently.
“People think we retired when we came up here, but we just left that lifestyle,” Jerry says. “We wanted something calmer, something smaller.”
Despite his high-tech business career, Jerry had dreams of being a small farmer since he helped on his grandfather’s farm near Bellingham as a boy. At their home in Medina, he grew raspberries and flowers as a hobby, and loved the soothing effect it had on him.
The wheels in his head began to spin. Not long after they moved to Whidbey, they bought 8 acres of fallow farmland near the intersection of Highway 20 and Patmore Road.
It had been used for farming for nearly 150 years, and at one time was known for high-yield wheat crops and later for corn and hay. They had the soil tested and found it to be as fertile as ever.
“A consultant even told us the top soil was so good we should consider selling it instead of farming, but we weren’t interested in anything that wasn’t sustainable,” he said.
They were struck by the cooperative spirit and adaptability of Whidbey’s farmers. They tried a couple of crops on a small scale, but Jerry’s dream was focused on raspberries. Almost as soon as they bought the farm acreage, he drew a sketch of how he’d plant 9,000 feet of raspberry rows on the property, drill a well, build a barn and even add solar panels to make the place energy self-sufficient. But it remained only a dream until Kimberly got tired of just hearing about.
“I told him this (dreaming) was getting really annoying, and you either need to do it or stop trying to convince me to do it,” she says. So, one fateful day in early 2008, they purchased 3,600 raspberry plants from a commercial grower in Puyallup. Over the next few weeks, they planted them in 41 rows.
“Thirty inches apart,” Jerry said. The barn, the well and the solar panels followed over the next three years.
And the name Mile Post 19 Farm?
“One of the local promotional brochures was being published on a short deadline and they needed our farm name right away in order to include us, and we couldn’t agree on it,” Jerry says. “Things like ‘Sea Breeze Farm’ didn’t sound right. So finally we just looked across the road and saw the Mile Post 19 marker, and we settled on that.”
Because they wanted to be part of the friendly Whidbey farm scene and not directly competitive with others, they consulted with neighbor Juanita Youderian, who has been growing Willamette raspberries on her property down the highway at Welcher Road for decades.
As a result, they planted Meeker raspberries, a variety that matures later in the season and whose harvest doesn’t directly compete with Willamettes.
“Our experience with our garden in Medina had shown us how to plant and care for raspberries,” Jerry said. “They’re basically kind of a weed. They are pretty easy to grow, but the trick is to train them or else you have a massive bramble.”
They were pleasantly surprised by the amount of advice and help available for start-up farmers on Whidbey. The WSU Extension gave them a lot of resources. Farmers in the heart of berry-growing country near Lynden opened their fields for study.
“They hold seminars on pest control and plant problems and on growing techniques for all the small guys,” he said. “It was fantastic.”
The Jaderholms went into the berry farming business with a couple of goals: To be sustainable by not using herbicides and other chemicals, and to sell everything on Whidbey that they grew. And for Kimberly, a former human resources executive at Nordstrom, it was chance to hire and train young local people as “employees,” not just “berry pickers.”
“At first, I had a hard time getting pickers,” she said. “I ran it as an HR operation. I did a lot of interviews, and I insisted that everybody be responsible and arrive on time. No excuses. We paid the state minimum wage ($9.19 an hour); this was a real job.”
Within a few weeks, she did attract a loyal group, mostly Coupeville High School students, eager to make as much as $500 after taxes during the July picking season.
Many stayed with them throughout their high school days and have now gone on to college.
“I had an absolute ban on torn or dirty clothes; we’re all representing a business,” she said. “The kids loved it when I had to dress down the farmer (her husband Jerry) one day for wearing a ripped T-shirt.”
Her favorite part of the farm was working with the kids, she says. “These are wonderful young people, and that speaks highly of our parents, our schools and our community. They would get so bonded that they would hang out in our barn after a picking shift, just chatting.”
After the first harvest in 2009, which was mostly sold fresh at the farm or at the farmer’s market in Coupeville, the Jaderholms began to experiment with products made from frozen raspberries – syrup, jam, vinegar, mustard and more.
The berries are frozen at the farm, then transported to a processor in Oregon that manufactures the products.
“We didn’t know if people would buy a manufactured product, but it has been very successful,” Jerry said.
Mile Post 19 products are currently sold in 14 retail locations throughout Whidbey from the Clinton Market to the Navy Exchange in Oak Harbor.
And now that they have turned over the keys to new owners, how do they feel about the experience?
“We went into this as a business, with a five-year plan, and we stuck to it,” Jerry said. “Farming is hard, but if you want to work hard on this island you can make it in farming. The farmers here have a real work ethic and they help each other, and we treasure the friendships we have made. Nobody could have told us how hard it would be to do this, but there is also no way anybody could have told us how much satisfaction we would get.”
All that sounds very encouraging to Lynn and Raitzer as they embark on their own Whidbey farming adventure.
Raitzer said he remembers growing up in a rural farming community and knowing about his father’s dream to run a small farm after he retired as an engineer – a dream he didn’t live long enough to realize.
“So I’ve been thinking about farming and orchards for a long time,” he said.
For now, they will continue to juggle their city careers and their Whidbey farming life, which they know will be a challenge. They plan to take “an extended summer vacation” from their city jobs during the summer growing and harvest season.
“Our main focus right now is to continue with the great work the Jaderholms did,” Lynn said. “We’ll spend our time getting up to speed and learning the ropes. But we’re fast learners and eager people and we’re full of enthusiasm ... and Izzabella loves being a farm dog.”
They are bursting with ideas they hope to explore once they gradually transition from city life to full-time farm life.
“We both love to cook and eat, and we’re always coming up with new recipes for things we’ve found on Whidbey,” she said.
Eventually, they may expand beyond raspberries to other “foodie” row crops, or they may use the farm as a venue for dinners or meetings.
“We’ll be involved somehow in the local food movement, and that could take lots of forms,” Jerry says.
An engineer by training, Jerry is also considering ways technology can improve the farm operation, such as self-irrigation systems.
“It’ll be irrigating itself and hopefully we’ll be able to monitor it from a distance,” he said.
And they’ve already taken one technological leap forward. They now accept credit cards for purchases. The Jaderholms had always shied away from such things.
“We’re not techies and we don’t even have a smart phone,” Kimberly said. “Michele and Jerry have the expertise and the energy to really take the farm to the next level.”