We take it for granted, but many of the items that we all consider “natural” in the produce aisle weren’t available even as recently as 50 years ago. One such item was the tiny blueberry. First domesticated by a botanist in New Jersey in 1912, the blueberry was previously only found in the wild. It wasn’t until three decades later that the crop was stable enough to be exported throughout the United States. Early adopters included the Anderson clan of Washington State’s Skagit Valley, who cultivated three heirloom varieties in 1947 and founded Bow Hill.
Today, more than 70 years later, those original bushes are still growing on the 6-acre property, but they’ve been joined by 4,500 new plantings. This expansion is pioneering of a different sort, now led by the Soltes family who took over the property in 2011. It’s a family affair in the truest sense. Harley is chief farmer and researcher, accompanied by his wife Susan, who runs marketing and product development. Daughter Amelia designs all the branding and packaging, and son Wylie (the youngest, still in high school) chips in by working summers in the packing shed. During the harvest, they enlist 25 kid and adult volunteers to hand-pick the 60,000 pounds of berries. This small but earnest army has been able to revitalize the soil and care for each individual plant, eventually earning organic certification in 2014.
Watching the operations of Bow Hill, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Solteses are lifelong farmers. The reality is much more complex. Harley and Susan, a photojournalist and director, became interested in farming through a work assignment. Harley’s last project as a journalist led them to the Quillisascut Farm School. Soon, it wasn’t only Harley who was visiting the school—he and Susan were taken by the curriculum. It wasn’t long before Susan enrolled in classes.
Now the family is continuing the story of the blueberry by expanding the farm’s offerings. Pickled blueberries, jam, vinegar, sauces, bon bons, and ice cream... but of course, the Soltes family still offers grazing passes to eat blueberries right off the bush, just as nature intended.