After a February Lewis County Board of Health meeting cast doubt over the adequacy of housing and water hookups at a blueberry farm on Wildwood Road in Boistfort, the farm’s owner, Jeff Rauch, explained the farm’s processes and called the business, Dr. B’s Berry Farm, an “open book.”
In a meeting with a reporter from The Chronicle, Rauch wanted to clear up concerns about the farm’s operations after a story headlined, “Mystery Shrouds Boistfort Blueberry Farm as County Questions Housing Setup,” from late last month because, as Rauch said, “We’re proud of what we do.”
The farm, with over 1,000 acres, can pack more than 6,000 pounds of blueberries per hour, according to a YouTube video on its equipment. Running part of the farm organically and partly through conventional grow methods, Rauch said, the berry farm sells to Dole, Walmart and many other large brands that scrutinize all processes.
Six residences, he said, house full-time employees and their families at no rental cost. Rauch was proud of the farm’s culture, saying he and other owners and managers helped bring one full-time employee through substance abuse struggles.
In the Board of Health Meeting, Lewis County Public Health & Social Services Director Meja Handlen was using Dr. B’s Berry Farm as an example of a greater concern. Because it hires migrant workers with H-2A visas, it falls under state and federal purview and the county does not have the means to ensure adequate water hookups, among other things, for satisfactory housing.
Environmental Health Manager Kristen Wecker said at the time, “Lewis County does not see these building permits, so we do not know when the housing units actually come into our county.”
Handlen added she felt it was imperative the state and county communicate on this issue to ensure no vulnerable workers be taken advantage of.
At the Boistfort farm, beyond the six full-time residents, Rauch said during peak harvest, the farm employs 30 local community residents to pick, uses picking machinery and hires a consulting group which brings in more migrant workers during the day. Previously, he said, the farm would pay for workers to stay in hotels. Now, he said, he’s not sure where the firm has people put up overnight.
Rauch said the business previously went through a violation and fix with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife over a bridge on the South Fork Chehalis River — the farm possesses water rights from both the South Fork and Stillman Creek, and is a shareholder of Boistfort Valley Water, a private nonprofit water corporation.
At the time, Rauch worked with current County Commissioner Scott Brummer to bring the bridge up to snuff for the state. Brummer said he had no knowledge of the housing situation on the farm at the time and that he knew little else about Dr. B’s Berry Farm, noting it was in the district of his seatmate, Commissioner Lindsey Pollock, a previous resident of the Boistfort community.
According to Rauch, the farm uses drip irrigation, which ensures the smallest amount of wasted water, and slows watering early in the season so berries don’t burst from oversaturation.
Rauch emphasized many times that Dr. B’s was an “open book” and added they provide blueberries to local schools for free and supply product to the Boistfort Store.
Wecker was scheduled to meet with the state Department of Health on the matter earlier this month, but the meeting was delayed. Whether the county will pursue changes to the current housing regulations for migrant worker farms remains to be determined.