Staff Writer, The Packer Newspaper, June 9, 2003
A decade ago Tom Wood heard little encouragement, but he persevered and expects a payoff soon.
Inside one Washington grower’s hothouse is a veritable rainbow. Ranging from red, yellow and orange to purple and black, what it’s not is a garden variety floral operation. But what it is has defied convention and left one man seeing green.
Tom Wood, owner of Centralia, Washington based Raspberry Rich has helped pioneer the budding hothouse raspberry industry and ranks among only a handful of large scale commercial growers nationally.
What started off as the solution to a seasonal problem has become a year-round success. “Orders are so high right now, we can’t meet them,” ” Wood said. “Even in peak season, when competition is high, our price doesn’t change. People are willing to pay for the quality”
Wood, who founded the company in 1993 to supply fresh raspberries during off-season winter months by growing them indoors, started by producing 10 half-pints a day in his 8,000-square-foot facility. Five years later, with improved technology and methods, it had become a year-round operation producing 20 times as much fruit in the same space. Since then he has expanded and now picks 500 half-pints per day in his facility that totals about two-thirds of an acre.
Washington growers harvested 9,500 acres of traditional red raspberries in 2000.
515 Hemlock St.
Centralia, WA 98531
Growing an Industry
Wood said he has always loved a challenge. He got just that in 1992 when he wrote Washington State University’s department of horticulture asking for advice on growing hothouse raspberries. “It can’t be done,” they replied.
It was while working on a farm and growing flowers that a customer asked him why he never thought of growing raspberries inside. A business was born. “Everyone kept saying that you can’t do it. There was so much negativity surrounding us all the time, but we did it anyway. We grew around problems that came up, found what people wanted and made a market,” Wood said. “Now we’re five years ahead of everyone.
Since 1993, Raspberry Rich has tested 70 – 80 varieties of raspberries to find the one with the best combination of shelf life and taste. Some wouldn’t grow at all, and some had no taste. Today, Raspberry Rich grows several raspberry varieties that aren’t domestic, including forms from Australia, Poland and Korea.
Back at the farm
Wood is up by 3 a.m. every day to check on his berries. Today is no different, and it looks to be a long day. In Olympia, Wash., a 100-gram container of his raspberries sells for $3.50, primarily out of grocery stores and farmers markets. With no hothouse competition, Wood controls the market.
While most of the raspberries are sold locally, Wood sometimes travels to Seattle to market them. It appears his reach is spreading. He said that in Seattle, he can sell in two hours what it takes a day to sell in Olympia.
Everything is done personally here, from sales to deliveries. Unless we expand (to new locations), it will stay local. I won’t ship our raspberries unless I am sure the quality won’t suffer,” Wood said.
Locally, he has a head start on other raspberry growers. Whereas most Washington growers yield around 4 ounces of raspberries per square foot, Wood’s hothouse facilities can produce 15 ounces in the same area, thanks largely to plant spacing, he said.
The whole process, from planting to picking, takes about six weeks. He grows his fruit just like any other hothouse crop, he said, using fertilizers made specifically for greenhouses.
“Some people try to use traditional growing methods and materials inside, but it doesn’t work. We started in greenhouses and use a different process. We’re greenhouse people,” Wood said.
End of the rainbow
Aside from growing raspberries of various colors and sizes, Raspberry Rich also grows strawberries, blueberries and Marion blackberries, all within greenhouses.
Wood said that his system will work anywhere in the country because it yields year-round harvest, whereas traditional domestic production usually starts in mid-April and continues only through October. The company has entertained ideas of franchising to Georgia and Ohio, but has no immediate plans.
However, Wood said he hopes to open more greenhouses and increase production to 600 flats per day by next spring. He’s counting on there being a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow.
“Every dime we’ve made, we’ve put right back into the business. If demand in a city with only 50,000 people can keep us busy, just imagine if we were in New York or Seattle. It is gonna pay off one day—big time,” Wood said.