Only mid-May, and Woodland farmer George Brereton is already worried about his berries.
On a recent Thursday the sun was high in the sky, beating down on Brereton and his few employees who were in the dirt helping build an irrigation system on the 2-acre farm that produces more than 10,000 pounds of fruit a year.
“The blueberries are dreading it,” Brereton said of the pending weekend heat wave, with 90-degree forecasts and bone-dry conditions. “They’re thirsty. They get heat stressed.”
He grows about 2,000 pounds of blueberries a year, he said, and they are his most valuable crop. The last several summers in the Pacific Northwest have been particularly hot. Climate change and global warming are impacting farmers here, as outlined in a 2018 study, the Fourth National Climate Assessment.
“The record-setting 2015 drought and above-average temperatures were a challenge for agriculture,” reads apart of the chapter on the Pacific Northwest. “The reduced availability of water for irrigation coupled with heat stress impacted production and livestock health.”
“It damages the blackberries and the blueberries just need a lot more water,” Brereton said as he walked the grounds of his Gifts of the Planet Farm, looking at the plants. “I’m a little worried about this heat spell we’re having right now because I watered real good on Monday, then we trenched, and I don’t have water out here now because we had to break the mainline. We’ll get the tractor sprayer out and at least cool the berries down tomorrow a little bit and try not to heat stress them too much. Because if they get heat stressed they’ll drop their fruit.”
Gifts of the Planet Farm
Location: 42117 N.W. 34th Ave., Woodland.
Number of employees: Around four; himself, one regular employee and a few part-time or contract workers.
Revenue: George Brereton said he’s never turned a profit owning the farm thus far.
Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Outlook: There will be little to no change in employment of farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers between now and 2026. “Over the past several decades, the efficiencies of large-scale crop production have led to the consolidation of acreage under fewer but larger farms,” the BLS reports. The bureau doesn’t report wages specific to this region of Washington, but state data show that the annual hourly wage for farmers is $44.66 or $86,640 per year.
By the Numbers
Clark County farms: 1,978
Clark County farmland acres: 90,737
Farms by size in Clark County
1 to 9 acres: 953
10 to 49 acres: 776
50 to 179 acres: 179
180 to 499 acres: 63
500 to 999 acres: 2
1,000 acres or more: 5
Source: 2017 Census of Agriculture
The small crew had dug trenches to lay 450 feet of mainline piping, snaking through the rows of berry bushes, and apple and pear trees. The pipes will hook up to a valve, spraying water through 3,000 feet of black dripline that runs along a white rope that closely hugs the fruits. The dripline has a hole every 12 inches that will drop a half-gallon of water an hour for three hours minimum, twice a week, Brereton said.
“In these hot, dry summers, I’ve been watering five to six days a week; I’m lucky to get a day off,” said Brereton (pronounced “Brer-it-in”), 68, who started the farm in 2007 after a lengthy career as a ship captain for the Alaska Department of Transportation. The new irrigation system will help so he doesn’t have to go out as much on his own or find employees to do the work of watering and later, picking the berries. He also opens his farm up for U-pick later in the year (in which the public can walk onto the farm and buy his fruits and berries directly) and is trying to spruce up the farm for visiting families.
Brereton said he used to depend on labor from a group of Mexico-born employees through the federal guest worker program called H-2A that enables agricultural employers to legally hire foreign workers if there are insufficient numbers of local workers available. There were 12,081 H-2A workers in Washington in 2015, mainly concentrated in Central Washington, according to a 2017 report by the Washington Farm Labor Association.
The report doesn’t show how many were in Clark County. Brereton said the workers haven’t been back in three years, and places blame on President Donald Trump and his views of immigrants. Despite Trump’s views on immigration, The Washington Post reported in February that the administration has touted the H-2A program and that it has grown.
For now, Brereton has his loyal crew of locals.
“I think I’m going to take a breather the next couple days,” said Sterling Shaver, 39, of Woodland, who found a reprieve in the shade while Cody Mertens, 25, of Woodland, and Izaac Lozier, 18, kept shoveling. The men had been at work for two days. Brereton hoped that the system would be good to go within the next four or five days. Shaver has been working with Brereton for around a decade as a contractor, he said, and Mertens more than five years. Lozier will soon be graduating high school.
“As long as you go by his directions,” said Mertens of Brereton. “He’s got a lot of ways he does things. I think that came from being a ship captain.”
Brereton grew up on a 40-acre farm in the 1950s and ’60s in California’s Sacramento Valley. Back then, he couldn’t wait to get off the farm, he said.
“I always wanted to have a little piece of property but I thought I would just farm enough to get a tax write-off and not do anything, but I find the more I’m here the more I plant,” said Brereton, sporting a dusty pair of Wrangler blue jeans. “I’m kind of that way, I just keep going. Most of my peers at my age aren’t working anymore. I still work 40 hours a week.”
He found his way to the Pacific Northwest after his ship visited Portland.
“Because I grew up having fresh fruit, the difference between that and what you buy at the store,” he said, adding that he doesn’t like the way big factory farms handle their crops. “I wanted to grow some good fruit again. So I looked for some place that had an old orchard on it, and I found it.”
He added, “I made a whole career out of (working on a ship), 38 years at sea, then I came right back to a farm.”
WORKING IN CLARK COUNTY
Working in Clark County, a brief profile of interesting Clark County business owners or a worker in the public, private, or nonprofit sector. Send ideas to Lyndsey Hewitt: email@example.com; fax 360-735-4598; phone 360-735-4550.