Oregon is rugged coastline and sandy beaches, sand dunes, timber forests, snow-capped mountains, high desert and dry open ranch land. It’s also the soil-rich flatlands and green valleys of farm fields, orchards, nurseries, and vineyards—land that makes up Oregon’s food-growing, agricultural industry.
Agriculture plays a huge role in the Oregon’s economy, as well as in the state’s recreation and travel industries. Oregonians love their home-grown produce and food products. Knowing where our food comes from is of growing interest to us all. How is our food grown? Where is it grown? Who is growing it?
I attended the 2016 “Berry Camp” with nine other journalists in an effort sponsored by the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission (ORBC). Venture into Oregon’s berry industry with me.
Oregon Blackberries and Raspberries, By the Numbers
Oregon agricultural figures for 2015 show that 51,250,000 pounds of blackberries were sold for a total of $38,036,000.00 and 4,825,000 pounds of raspberries were sold for a total of $7,099,000.00. Berry season in Oregon runs from May to October.
The Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission
The ORBC was formed in 1981 to serve the needs of cane berry growing farmers, including blackberry and raspberry growers. (Blueberries are also a cane berry, but have their own commission, the Oregon Blueberry Commission. Strawberries are served by the Oregon Strawberry Commission. The three organizations work together in some capacities.)
There are nine Commissioners in the ORBC, with seven positions for growers and two for handlers. The ORBC Commissioners serve approximately 200 Oregon berry farmers; mostly small, multi-generational family farms.
Each grower contributes 1% to 2% of profits to the Commission each year. The Commissioners use the funds for marketing and research. The Commission’s budget from growers for the 2015-2016 fiscal year was $402,959.00.
Oregon Berry Commissioner and National Sales Manager for Columbia Empire Farms, Linda Strand says, “We’re a medium-sized industry. Growers face all kind of challenges beyond issues related to the actual growing of the product. We want each other to succeed and we know we have to work together.”
Commissioner Julie Schedden of Schedeens Farms has been growing berries in Boring, Oregon since 1977. She says, “I think you have to give back to the industry.” She points out that the Commission does not work alone, that a lot of people are involved in many capacities.
ORBC Marketing Director Darcy Kochis echoes this sentiment. “We work with a lot of groups and individuals. For our Berry Festival, an example of our marketing efforts, we find ourselves working with groups like PR Women for Agriculture and the Future Farmers of America program. The festival is a great way to let people meet growers, try some of the products made from Oregon berries and appreciate what we do.”
Research for Changing Industry Needs
The bulk of ORBC funds go toward research. They worked closely with the USDA and Oregon State University’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center (NWREC).
USDA Research Geneticist, Dr. Chad Finn, gave our group a berry field tour of the Center in Aurora, Oregon. Dr. Finn leads us up and down rows of berries, urging us to have a taste as he tells us about some of the varieties grown.
There’s a great deal of variety in berry flavor and plant growth. The breeding program he leads looks to improve berries grown, with an eye to different purposes and different needs.
Dr. Finn said, “It helps that our breeding program is right in our berry growing region. Processing is moving toward quality specialty products. That could mean several different things, but flavor will remain key.”
Improve growth factors of cane berries without thorns? Higher yields? Longer growing seasons? Varieties that don’t require the protection of next year’s cane growth to machine harvesting easier? Sweeter varieties or more complex flavors? Fewer seeds or larger seeds? Aromatic varieties grown for berry essences? Disease-resistant varieties? These are just some of the issues explored, with research in both the field and in the lab.
Dr. Bernadine Strik is a Professor with the Department of Horticulture and the Berry Crops Research Leader at the NWREC at Oregon State. “The Commissioners talk with the industry, and find out what growers need. They create a list asking for proposals. I make proposals and the Commissioners decide which projects to fund. Sometimes I come up with an idea and try to ‘sell’ them on it. Trellising blueberries is one example of our work. We found trellising improved yield by 5-8% and allowed for higher density of plants. This made a huge impact on the industry.”
In her 29 years as a researcher, “One of the most rewarding part of my work is knowing that our work has improved the industry. I love working in this industry and helping family farms, big or small. I get to see family farms passed down, and get to teach that next generation.”
“Ours is a premium product. Our frozen berries are not a by-product, made with less quality fruit. A lot of what we grow is fruit best for processing, picked at full color, full flavor. But it goes much further. We’re known as an ideal for sustainable farming. Because of our weather, our clean water, our rich soil, we grow with fewer diseases and insect issues, less spraying. We’re on the cutting edge of growing practices.”
Commissioner Linda Strand led us on a tour of Columbia Empire Farm’s processing facility on the Sherwood farm. It’s here that the company prepares their jams, sauces, confections, nuts and other products for market. I’ll admit; I was surprised to see that they’re able to do so much in so little space—about 500 square feet—and with so little equipment.
On the day we’re there, they’re making their most popular product, Marion Blackberry jam.
We watch as the jam is poured into jars, sealed and labeled, then packed into cases, and stacked onto pallets. Finally, the pallets are shrink-wrapped and out the door they go via forklift.
Beyond Jams and Preserves
The berry season is relatively short and there’s only one crop per year. Oregon berries are picked at their prime ripening times, which means the flavors are optimum. But while the flavors are at their peak, the product is also more fragile than other produce , berries grown in other areas of the country, or berries picked before they’re ripe.
Regardless of their popularity and strong following, Oregon simply grows too many berries to sell only fresh from the farm to consumers through the many U-Pick farms, farm stands, farmer’s markets, and local stores. And wide distribution of fresh berries just isn’t possible given their fragility.
Oregon entrepreneurs have made great strides in creating “value-added products” from the berries. It’s exciting to see how berries are used today in products other than in traditional jams and preserves. (Take a look at our story on the Oregon Berry Festival here for more.)
Chris Sarles is the CEO of Oregon Fruit Products, a business that’s been in his family since inception in 1935. The company still sells their original canned berries in the original black labelled cans that many Oregonians grew up with. But the company continues to thrive because they’ve also diversified and created new products as well. Sarles said, “Agricultural business has a strong impact on Oregon’s economy. We’re proud of what we’ve done in the first 80 years of business and look forward to the years ahead as we diversify, while still respecting the heritage of the company.” One of their new products is Pourable Fruit, a versatile fruit puree that ships frozen and was used to make a killer cocktail at the Oregon Berry Festival’s Gala Berry Dinner.
Portland’s always innovative Salt & Straw ice cream produced an entire line of berry ice creams, sorbets and sherbets during berry season this year—with very unique flavors and local ingredients. A few of these were Portland Creamery’s Goat Cheese Marion Berry Habanero, Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper, Wild-forged Berry Sorbet, Gin-spiced Blackberry Jam with Chocolate Chips–all fabulous!
It’s this originality that has helped their success. The company is looking forward to moving into larger processing space soon. (I wonder if they’ll continue to hand-label their containers.)
The thriving Oregon beer and cider industries have also made good use of Oregon berries with popular seasonal and year-round varieties.
Culinary tourism is here to stay, as visitors taste their way through Oregon, providing opportunities for chefs to make use of fresh and frozen Oregon berries.
The Berry Festival opened this year with a al fresco Plate and Pitchfork dinner at Smith Berry Barn.
Chefs created innovative dishes, such as a berry tart with cured pork appetizer, salads featuring fresh berries, and a cured and grilled duck with roasted berries and bitter chocolate entrée.
Fresh ingredients and the scenic pop-up location made the Gala Berry Dinner extra special, but throughout the state, chefs make use of in-season berries.
Until Next Year
The last of the blackberries in my yard have dried up, but the new canes are coming in strong and promise good picking next season. I consider putting a line or two of raspberries in the yard, as I used to have when my kids were younger, and look forward to our annual blueberry picking. Learning more about where our food comes from lends appreciation for what we eat and just naturally has us make better food choices.
Linda Strand says, “I see good things ahead for this industry. From a consumer standpoint, know your food. Know where your food comes from.”
- Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission, https://www.oregon-berries.com
- North Willamette Research and Extension Center, https://oregonstate.edu/dept/NWREC/
- Berry Crops, North Willamette Research and Extension Center, https://oregonstate.edu/dept/NWREC/berry-crop-production-systems-breeding-bernadine-strik
- Plate & Pitchfork Dinners, https://www.plateandpitchfork.com/
- Smith Berry Barn, https://smithberrybarn.com/
- Columbia Empire Farms, https://www.columbiaempirefarms.com/
- John Barleycorns, https://www.mcmenamins.com
- Salt & Straw, https://saltandstraw.com
- Oregon Fruit Products, https://oregonfruit.com
– All photos by Nancy Zaffaro.