In the foothills of Sumas Mountain, the sound of excited children on a family outing filled lush rows of ripening blueberries at Breckenridge Blueberries, a certified organic farm in Everson.
Owned by Shawn and Mariah Butenschoen, the five-acre farm overlooks a valley floor generously lined with conventionally grown blueberry plants stretching to the horizon. This place offers both a glimpse of the past, when small family farms were the mainstay of American agriculture, and a vision of the future.
Breckenridge Blueberries is a true family operation: while Shawn spends most of his time tending to the blueberries and the day-to-day operations on the farm, Mariah uses her talent as a writer, storyteller, and blogger for marketing the farm’s u-pick and we-pick operations.
Even the Butenschoens’ two sons are active farm operators: eight-year-old Bo shows visitors around, giving tours and bringing snacks to the family, while ten-year-old Owen uses his math smarts to aid the business. “I usually do the calculations of the pounds. I’m the money man reporting for duty,” said Owen with a flair.
In addition to the five acres of variety blueberries, the farm also boasts a quiet watering hole—Probably Shouldn’t Distillery—which is owned and operated by the Butenschoens.
It was on a warm summer afternoon that Shawn and Mariah greeted some customers—a married couple—in the distillery’s new 18 by 23-foot event room that Shawn renovated himself. Using recycled corrugated metal roofing and cedar trim, Shawn has turned the once modest storage shed into a now welcoming and rustic gathering place that hosts parties and samplings of the distillery’s craft fruit brandies, liqueurs, Single-Malt whiskey, and Old-Tom gin.
“Oh! This is really good,” approved the couple, savoring mini-shot glasses of premium raspberry brandy.
“Perfect for a Raspberry Mule,” inserted Mariah, right on cue.
Utilizing hundreds of pounds of unmarketable and overripe blueberries that would’ve otherwise rotted was the genesis of Probably Shouldn’t Distillery, according to Shawn.
But, after installing and operating his Bain Marie-style double boiler still with an 80-gallon capacity, he realized a fundamental, and perhaps fatal flaw to his business model.
“The distillery started getting busier and busier and the stills operate on electricity, so it’s basically 80 gallons of blueberry liquid and it takes so much energy. I ran it every day for a solid month to get caught up, nearly 10 hours a day. Our power bill was stupid expensive and I thought—hold on a second—this isn’t going to work,” ruminated Butenschoen.
It was then and there that the Butenschoens started looking into ways to save money for their business, and they landed on an innovative practice: making the switch to clean energy.
Those deliberations led them to a sunlit evening in May 2019, when Shawn took a break from chores to put on a safety harness and climb a ladder to the roof of the distillery as workers from Bellingham’s Ecotech Solar finished installing a 10 kW solar array that will mean an estimated savings of nearly $1,200 annually.
The solar array was facilitated by the Rural Energy Development for Washington Program and made possible by a REAP grant from USDA Rural Development, which covered 25% of the cost of the Butenschoens’ project.
Shawn hopes the solar power will be a breakthrough for the family business come late August or September when he fires up the still and Mariah and the boys go back to school.
“I haven’t gone back to work turning wrenches, so thumbs up, if you know what I mean. I don’t really care what happens as long as we can continue doing this. Right now I’d be working 16 hours a day for someone else, with my wife dealing with the farm. That’s pretty tough. If you are your own business that can sustain itself, that’s all that matters.” said Shawn.
While Shawn touts the financial benefits of solar, Mariah believes the family’s solar array will boost the business in other ways, too: “Those panels will be good for our business, and for our clientele, it will be awesome! I think our customers will be really pleased.”
The Butenschoens, proud in the work of their farm and business, humbly add: “We’re thinking about our environment, our world, and our community.”