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The Yakima Cherry Man

Marine Corps veteran supplies U.P. families with farm-fresh produce

Marine Corps veteran Steve Byerly brings farm-fresh produce to University Place all summer long. Photo credit: Cari Schindler

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Marine Corps veteran Steve Byerly is on a mission -- a mission to bring fresh farm-to-market produce to the South Sound. All summer long, from the beginning of July until around the end of September, Byerly makes the trip twice a week from Yakima to University Place and back again to Yakima.

A little more than a decade ago, Byerly had an epiphany while working at a Yakima cherry cannery. "I knew I could make money selling the produce," said Byerly. So he loaded 200 boxes of cherries that had been classified as too small for the cannery into his truck and sold them from roadsides in Chinook Pass, Packwood and Chehalis. By the end of the day, all 200 boxes were gone, and Byerly knew he'd stumbled upon a great idea.

Twelve years ago, with the help of his dad, James D. Byerly, Steve's truck became a regular feature at the Saturday Starlight Drive-in Swap Meet in Lakewood, where he quickly became known as the "Yakima Cherry Man." When operating within the city of Lakewood became too costly, Marine Corps veteran Ron Sanders, Byerly's friend and mentor, suggested he try the University Place Farmers Market instead.

Byerly's stand at the U.P. Farmers Market was so successful, that he began adding more farms and more types of produce to his weekly run. By the time the U.P. Farmers Market ended, Byerly had a loyal customer base in the South Sound. The following summer, he managed to secure a spot on Cirque Drive just west of Bridgeport Way, and the twice-weekly trek began.  

For the next five years, Byerly operated his produce stand Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays for most of the summer and on into the fall from the lot on Cirque Drive. As word spread, more and more people became regular customers, depending on Byerly for fresh corn on the cob, vine-ripened Yakima tomatoes, and the freshest direct-from-the-farmer peaches, all at bargain prices. And over the years, those regular customers became friends.

Last summer, Byerly was forced to move to his current location on the east side of Bridgeport Way, across from 33rd Street. It didn't take long for the regulars to find him. They come by -- some of them several times a week: immigrants speaking broken English, senior citizens on fixed incomes, young moms trying to stretch that grocery budget and still feed their families well, and neighbors from all around the South Sound. They buy his produce to make their dinners and preserve for the winter months ahead. Sometimes they bring back samples of their efforts for Byerly and his co-workers to enjoy: cookies, pies, and treats of all sorts.

It's a grueling schedule, this driving back and forth across the mountain twice a week, picking up produce on the east side to sell on the west side. Why does he continue to do it, year after year? "It's the people," he says, tearing up a bit. "People here in University Place appreciate so much what I do. They don't realize how much that means to me."

When asked if he had any final words to pass along, Byerly simply replied, "Just be kind to one another."  

Steve's Produce, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, through September, Bridgeport Way and 33rd St., University Place, 509.594.7320

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