The Fruit of their Labor
The Soltes family keeps a 70-year-old farm thriving
STORY BY CAROLINE FERGUSON
PHOTOS BY HARLEY SOLTES AND MANDY TURNER
Edison, Washington, population 133, is impossibly still in the winter. The farms that sustain the area are at rest for the season, and just a few tourists mill around the downtown strip, which has become an unexpected culinary and artistic destination over the past 10 years. Frosty patches dot the edges of Edison Slough, which tangles its way alongside and under Bow Hill Road all the way to a blueberry farm that has stood for nearly seven decades.
On this misty off-season day, the farm’s five acres of bushes are bare and their branches have turned a deep crimson. Recent rains have flooded the slough, rendering many of Harley and Susan Soltes’s Jersey blueberry bushes inaccessible. Their corgi mix, Douglas, is enjoying free run of the fields that are off-limits during the growing season. His squat legs barely clear the farm’s rich compost furrows, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
Though the fields are dormant, the Soltes family is far from it. Blueberries have a brief eight-week peak season in Washington, but Bow Hill Blueberries does more than enough business to keep its owners busy all year round.
It’s been this way since 2011, when the Solteses bought the acreage from the Anderson family, who had grown blueberries on the land since 1947. Susan and Harley owned the nearby Samish Flats Farm and had no plans to expand — but once Bow Hill Blueberries became available, they found the well-appointed farm hard to resist. The processing facilities, water rights, and heirloom bushes were all there; all they’d have to do was move in.
Well, almost all. Samish Flats was certified organic, and the Solteses knew that they’d want to convert Bow Hill Blueberries to the same — a notoriously long and tedious process. They obtained a transitional organic certification, a label that would qualify them to sell to certain co-ops.
There’s a strong culinary focus at Bow Hill — after all, it’s just down the road from Edison, a veritable food destination.
A transitional organic certification “sets you up to move seamlessly to fully certified,” Susan explains. But the three years of fully organic operation required to move past the transitional phase can be tough.
“It’s kind of a sacrifice for three years,” says Harley. “We bought the compost, we took the risk of organic farming, but we weren’t legally selling anything organic yet.”
Still, they worked tirelessly to establish the farm, including a substantial rebranding effort. To make a living without selling to big-box stores — and thus having their beloved berries relabeled as Kirkland Signature or Kroger brand — Harley and Susan knew their product would need an artisan identity to match its higher price. “When people are paying more for organics, we want them to feel good about it: the health of it, the taste of it, the feel of it,” Harley says.
Their daughter, Amelia, a designer, created a new visual brand for the farm, including stylish new labels and a sleek website. The Solteses commissioned a logo from local artist Jessica Bonin: a plump blueberry with a full calyx, a sign of a berry’s heirloom provenance. They also asked artist Mandy Turner for a sign to hang in their farm shop: “Did you know Twinkies are $10.29 per pound?”
Alongside the farm’s artisan makeover, Harley and Susan decided to turn Bow Hill Blueberries into a community center of sorts. About 10 percent of their crop goes to U-Pick customers, who number in the hundreds at the height of growing season — all while the Soltes family continues to manage the farm and retail business. “It’s like running a farm and an amusement park at the same time,” Harley says.
Thankfully, they have Pablo Silva, who manages the farm’s field team and picking operations. While picking may seem easy, there’s real skill involved in handling Bow Hill’s delicate, high-quality organic fruit. And Bow Hill pays a premium for it, up to $35 per hour for a talented picker. Most people can’t keep it up for more than an hour or so, but according to Harley, Pablo and his team are the best of the best. “They take ownership of the field and the farm,” Harley says. “They take on the needs of the farm as their own.”
The Solteses also hire youth picking crews and interns, some of whom have gone on to work in the farm store and kitchen. Day campers pick berries in the field and make crafts in the historic shed, where the farm’s former owners raised mink until World War II.
“When people are paying more for organics, we want them to feel good about it: the health of it, the taste of it, the feel of it.”
The Bow Hill Blueberries community even got its 15 minutes of fame this past October, when friend of the farm Ryan Ross filmed her opening segment for the Food Network show Chopped at the mink house. Chef Ryan went on to win the competition.
There’s a strong culinary focus at Bow Hill — after all, it’s just down the road from Edison, a veritable food destination. About 50 percent of Bow Hill’s annual blueberry crop is frozen, and some of that is used to make pantry products: blueberry marinade, pickled berries, dried berries, even a blueberry ice cream created in collaboration with Lopez Island Creamery.
Each pantry product uses one of Bow Hill’s blueberry varietals to its best advantage: thick-skinned Jersey berries hold their color well in ice cream, whereas sweet, tiny Stanleys take best to pickling. With the help of family and friends, Susan creates recipes that put their berries to good use, from salmon with pickled berries and creme fraiche to blueberry sabayon. They’re also testing a bottled juice product, which they hope to see on the shelves soon, but there are no big expansions on the horizon. “We’d like to have fewer products and focus,” Harley says. “We’ve done a bunch and are seeing which are really floating to the top.”
While U-Pick and pantry products have proven successful for the farm, fully 80 percent of their berries are sold through the Puget Sound Food Hub. The Hub connects institutions like Microsoft, UW Medical Center, and Bon Appetit Management Company directly to farmers to purchase sustainably-farmed food. In fact, Bow Hill Blueberries has become an essential part of the food hub since the Solteses took over in 2011. Finding themselves with extra cold-storage space, Harley and Susan now host a pick-up and drop-off point for Skagit Valley Food Hub members.
Though Bow Hill Blueberries may seem to be at rest on a cold winter day, activity buzzes beneath the stillness. Frozen berries are being sent far and wide, jars of jam are bubbling away in the kitchen, and Harley, Susan, and Pablo are preparing for another growing season — a season that will draw the community together once more, out of the cold, to share in the fruit of their labor.