Behind the Farmers Market: Rockridge Orchards

Healthy Eating Tuesday, June 17, 2014 Written by

Wade Bennett of Rockridge OrchardsWe’ve teamed up with the Washington State Farmers Market Association and the Portland Farmers Market to bring you our new Behind the Farmers Market series. Here you’ll meet farmers from around the Northwest who provide the fresh, local and seasonal products found at your local farmers market.

Name: Farmer Wade Bennett

Farm: Rockridge Orchards in Enumclaw, Washington.

Find Rockridge Orchards at the Columbia City Farmers Market on Wednesdays, the Bellevue Farmers Market on Thursdays, the University District Farmers Market on Saturdays and the West Seattle Farmers Market on Sundays.

THE ROCKRIDGE STORY

Wade Bennett is not your typical farmer. He didn’t grow up on a farm, have visions of operating one of the biggest farm stores in Western Washington, or aspire to become one of the most influential growers in King County. But that’s what he’s achieved, and has plans to do even more.

From his first plantings of Asian pears in 1990, Wade has established himself as a pioneer in the farming community, bringing lesser-known, premium produce and artisanal products into the mainstream through his farm, Rockridge Orchards.

Rhubarb from Rockridge OrchardsWhat’s Wade’s secret to success? Adaptation. With a remarkable ability to identify opportunity, Wade has created a successful business model centered on innovation and change, enabling him to develop, sell and create demand for his products.

When Asian pears were still an unknown fruit, he hired two neighbors to help him hand out samples. Within weeks, his previously overlooked crop of pears was sold out. Before heirloom tomatoes were commonplace on market stands, he sold some of the first “ugly-looking” (but delicious) of these rare tomato varieties. When a huge hailstorm damaged his crop of apples, making them unsellable at the market, he ventured into the cider-making business.

Today, Rockridge has grown from a small orchard to a large operation. His apple cider production has expanded into hard ciders, vinegars, and an aged balsamic with a cult following.

Rockridge Orchards cider

“You need a new product every three to four years. That’s about how long it takes for the competition to take over,” says Wade.

Rockridge was also one of the first stands to sell rhubarb, which is now sold at several other market stands. Wade anticipates that eventually, too much competition will creep in, and he’ll be forced to pivot once again.

In addition to adapting to changing market conditions, Rockridge continually adapts their farming practices based on changes in climate and weather patterns.

Rockridge Orchards rhubarb“The area where we first planted our first Asian pears is becoming too wet, and the trees are suffering. That’s what drove us into quince – it does well in the saturated soil,” says Wade.

Wade also takes pride in caring for the land he farms, utilizing sustainable farming practices to “ensure the land is healthy, but also protect the integrity and quality of our product.”

So what’s next for Rockridge? Wade is helping pioneer the “agritourism” movement, bringing people out to the farm to learn and buy directly from the source. Wade envisions their Enumclaw farm will become a destination and is currently expanding the farm store to allow visitors to watch cider production, tour the farm and enjoy fresh samples.

If traveling to the farm is out of the question, you can visit a little piece of Rockridge – and meet Wade – at a Seattle-area farmers market.

MARKET-INSPIRED RECIPES

Once you stock up on delicious rhubarb, cider and Asian pears, here are some great-tasting, healthy recipes to make at home:

Rhubarb for dinner! Instead of sugary desserts, try using rhubarb in your savory dishes. High in vitamins, minerals and fiber, it lends a delicious, tart flavor to salads, sauces and chutneys.

Cider as an ingredient! While apple cider is a delicious beverage, using it in your cooking will add sweetness and depth to braises, roasts, sauces and stews.

Cook with Asian pears! These crisp, floral pears are perfect for eating out-of-hand, but are also great for cooking.  Loaded with fiber and micronutrients, Asian pears add a delicious crunch to salads and slaws, and a natural “sweet-and sour” flair to Asian-inspired stir-fry recipes and sautés.

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Washington State Farmers Market AssociationThe Washington State Farmers Market Association (WSFMA) believes that farmers markets have an essential role to play in developing healthy communities and a sustainable local food system. By providing support and technical assistance to farmers markets statewide, educating the public on the benefits of buying fresh, local farm products, promoting access to healthy foods for all and increasing awareness of the role farmers markets play in sustaining local agriculture, the WSFMA is fulfilling its vision to have a thriving farmers market within reach of every resident in Washington State.  For more information about their work, or to find a farmers market near you, visit www.wafarmersmarkets.com.