Along a winding country road beneath the shadow of Mt. Rainier lies a blueberry farm fondly known as Canter-Berry Farms. To the unknowing tourist, the farm appears to be an idyllic and tranquil spot to bring one’s family and spend time together gathering and grazing on blueberries. While this description is all true, what most don’t know is that Canter-Berry wasn’t always the farm’s name, nor was it always a blueberry farm. There is a rich and vibrant history to the landscape which lives on through the current owners, Doug and Clarissa Metzler-Cross.
As I made my way to the farm I was greeted with the smell of lilacs on the wind and the sound of chickens softly clucking in the distance. I was elated to have the farm to myself for the day to listen to the stories Doug and Clarissa eagerly had to share with me. As I walked onto the property, I couldn’t help but take a second glance in every direction in order not to miss out on a single view of the immaculate landscape bursting with color. I was quick to learn that the Metzler-Cross’ are passionate gardeners as well as full-time blueberry experts with a strong passion for sharing the stories of those who have come before them.
As the three of us began our conversation, I was curious to learn that the farm’s name, “Canter-Berry” is a combination of the two largest parts of Doug and Clarissa’s passion: horses and berries — American Saddlebred Horses, to be exact. Starting in 1976 they raised, bred and sold American Saddlebred Horses, training them in the very barn that sat within view. They retired from showing the horses after 35 years and now only have one horse, Quincy, who resides on the property. The word “canter” refers to the type of gait that some American Saddlebred horses have, hyphenated with “berry” to incorporate the fact that they are blueberry farmers.
History of the Homestead
The land where the blueberry farm now resides was originally acquired from the Northern Pacific Railway company and eventually cleared before a man known as S.A. Crisp built the barn in 1879. Shortly thereafter the land was purchased, beginning the story that has led to Canter-Berry Farms existing today.
The Paumel family, Emilien and his wife, Constance, immigrated in the 1860s from Southern France to America as Emilien was in search of work in the coal mines. They first settled in the Newcastle area near Coal Creek. After residing there for a while, they moved to the valley where they purchased the homestead and began their family. Each morning, Emilien would saddle his horse and head toward Black Diamond to begin his long day in the coal mines, kicking his horse on the hind end to head back home, as the story goes.
Constance and her two daughters, Gabrielle and Norine, supposedly planted the now flourishing fruit trees on the property, including an old King Apple tree, a plum tree, a Gravenstein tree and a pear tree. As the fruit grew, the women would harvest and sell it on the side of the road to make extra money while Emilien was away. While residing on the property, the Paumels built a two-story log cabin, of which remnants can still be found today. Clarissa herself has found old charred wood from the historic structure along with remnants of multiple other buildings.
As time passed, the Paumel daughters grew up and married off to men in the area. Gabrielle moved to Enumclaw and married a judge while Norine married a local man and stayed on the homestead. While they resided there, the homestead was mostly tenant farmed and at one time housed pigs, was used to grow lilacs and served as a dairy farm. The couple had a son, Tom Rainey, who, once old enough, went on to sell the farm to the Metzler family due to his nephews having no interest in it once they came of age.
Before the Metzler’s purchased the farm, in 1947, Tom began the process of turning the homestead into a full-blown blueberry farm. Tom had a slat house (a pre-greenhouse) and would grow his blueberry starts in cans to get them rooted. He then transplanted them out where they originally covered most of the property. Many of the plants were eventually moved or taken out, leaving the lush location with its row of blueberries that are enjoyed today.
Metzler’s Green River Blueberry Farm
The Metzlers originally resided in the South Seattle area. This all changed once Clarissa’s father, Fred, flipped through the classifieds section in his newspaper and came across an ad for the farm. He turned to his wife, Edith, offered the idea of moving to a blueberry farm in the valley, and the rest is history. Once they arrived on the farm, Tom Rainey described wanting to keep 10 acres for himself, which the Metzlers happily complied with. The blueberry farm took up approximately 60 acres of the 110-acre property. The Metzlers eventually divided up and sold the land, creating the different properties that exist in the area today. The original 110 acres ran all the way up to the Green River, a part of the property the Metzlers felt inclined to protect since it was a popular sight for Steelhead fishing.
Clarissa’s father was on the King County Parks board at the time and, due to his desire to protect the area, was able to have the land recognized by the county as a public park in the late 1970s, calling it Fred Metzler Park. The tranquil area on the riverbank still exists today and is a beloved escape to many who live in the area.
Clarissa recalled the blueberry bushes being as big as she was when her family first arrived. The Metzlers knew little about caring for blueberry plants and originally intended to turn the chicken coop on the property into a summer cabin for them to use. They ended up transforming the coop into a livable space and decided to make the farm their permanent home. Tom lived on his 10-acre portion of land neighboring the Metzlers until he passed in 1964 — not without teaching the Metzlers everything they wound up knowing about blueberry farming. Clarissa recalled getting off the school bus each day and running over to Tom’s house where he would tell her stories of the Indian Wars and show her his collection of muskets and arrowheads. He was her best friend as a child.
The first couple of years Clarissa’s family ran the farm, her father, Fred, would encourage his work friends to come visit the farm, enticing them with talk of fishing for the men, blueberry picking for the women and the promise of a piece of homemade blueberry pie at the end of the day. Edith, Clarissa’s mother, would take phone orders from people interested in buying pounds of blueberries and would make deliveries of the product in the Burien area, leaving them on the porch like a milkman. As time went on and the children grew up, Fred and Edith decided they wanted to sell the farm. They had one serious potential buyer who eventually backed out, leading to the handoff of the farm to Doug and Clarissa.
The two initially met in the third grade and reconnected when they attended the same university and studied Political Science. Doug cleverly proposed to Fred that if he let him marry his daughter, he would take over the blueberry farm. After a moment of astonishment, Fred complied, and so began what they thought would be a yearlong adventure that turned into 45 years worth of fun.
Clarissa and Doug formally changed the farm’s name to Canter-Berry Farms in the 1980s and were on their way to becoming much more than a blueberry farm on a historic homestead. As aforementioned, they bred, raised and sold American Saddlebred horses, all while accomplishing more than most do in a lifetime. From 1983-2014 the couple made and sold their own blueberry products (including jam, syrup, vinegar and chutney) down at Pike Place market, being the first value-added products to sell at the market, as far as farms go. In this, they broke the barriers by not only being grow-crop farmers with fresh berries to sell, but by also selling them in bottles and jars. They were featured numerous times for their unique products and Julia Child was even quoted saying their chutney was “marvelous.” Their product was sought after to the point of their mail order list being over 10,000 people strong and ranging throughout all seven continents. To this day, they still receive calls from customers who have just run out of their last jar of chutney, leaving many disappointed to hear they no longer produce their renowned blueberry garnishing.
If you are to find yourself at Pike Place Market anytime soon, you’ll be sure to see Doug and Clarissa’s names carved into a wooden pole that entails a list of all of the Senior Farmers the market has seen over the years. This is an honor awarded to farmers who have worked 30-plus years at the market — a goal of theirs that came true by a year — leading them to finally end that chapter of their lives in 2013. One year, between them both, Doug and Clarissa spent 252 days at the market while running the farm, making the products, and working five American Saddlebred horses, all at the same time. Talk about successful entrepreneurship. The couple added blueberry wine to their list of accomplishments and sold the delicate drink from 2010-2019, having sold their last case this past spring. The wine may have been the final act in terms of blueberry products, but the U-Pick portion of the farm is still thriving and is as popular as ever.
All About Blueberries
A blueberry bush is considered mature between 7-12 years old, producing anywhere between five to seven pints of fresh fruit each summer. These berries are rich in antioxidants and originally derived from the state of New Jersey. They thrive best in acidic soil and most states in the US have found ways to create a soil mixture that enables the plants to flourish in numerous climates. Soil is an essential component in blueberry farming, for it has an effect on the taste of each variety of blueberry — so much so that if the same variety is grown in a different soil the berries will more than likely have differing flavors.
There are about 20-30 different varieties throughout the US with each having a different flavor and process in maturing. Washington is the largest blueberry producing state in the nation, producing around 130 million pounds annually. When it comes to the berries at Canter-Berry Farms, 70% of their selection is made up of Jersey blueberries. They offer eight varieties in total that are ripe for the picking anywhere from early June to late October.
A Day on the U-Pick Farm
On a typical day of picking, with Covid-19 safety measures implemented, berry pickers of all ages are warmly greeted by Doug and Clarissa. Berry pickers make their way to the tables set out on the side of the barn to grab a thoroughly sanitized bucket of their choosing. There is a rope attached to the gallon bucket so that it can be tied around or hooked onto the waist if desired. Masks are required during your stay at the farm to ensure the safety of all who are present. Signs are set out to remind everyone of social distancing guidelines.
During a picking season without a pandemic, people coming to U-Pick typically enter into the sales room inside of the barn to grab their buckets and get ready to pick. Once everyone in the group is geared up, Clarissa walks the party to the best bush of blueberries she has to offer. Picking looks a bit different at Canter-Berry Farms than on most because they uniquely utilize regulated picking, meaning that before moving to the next bush, the initial bush of blueberries must be picked clean. Once done picking, everyone is asked to wash their hands at the handwashing sink provided next to the barn, which has surprisingly been the highlight of many people’s stays at the farm since it is fun and unique to use.
Doug takes care of the sales room which houses the cash register, utilizing a thick layer of glass to separate himself from the customer for Covid-19 safety measures. A menagerie of Polish Pottery, local honey and chocolate are for sale, and a whole host of memorabilia and history are displayed on the walls of the barn. Clarissa watches over the fields and guides people to the tantalizing berry bushes throughout the course of the day.
The farm is open from 8am to 6pm every day during U-Pick season, and the sales room is currently open for sales of honey, chocolates and Polish Pottery by appointment. The couple is currently looking to sell the farm to someone who loves and values it as much as they do, leaving them to head into a much-deserved retirement with the assurance that the farm will be well looked after. You can stay in touch and contact them at their website, where updated picking schedules are posted daily as well as links to the Canter-Berry Farms Facebook page and their contact information.
Photos: Emma Burke, Canter-Berry Farms.