Oregon strawberries are big. In fact Oregon ranks third in the nation in terms of production. Only California and Florida grow more.
But Oregon’s strawberry production is a long way from the boom time of the 1980’s. And as Pete Springer reports, this year the season was dramatically shorter than usual because of the weather.
Larry Thompson runs Thompson Farms in Damascus. His farm was started by his parents in 1947 as a five-acre strawberry patch.
Larry Thompson: “My parents started farming, taking everything to the canneries and that’s how I was raised. I used to drive a cannery truck at 14 years of age on the road taking loads to the canneries in Gresham. That’s what we did back in those days.”
Thompson now grows 27 acres of strawberries on his farm — all without insecticides or pesticides.
Larry Thompson: “My berries aren’t protected by artificial means, by chemicals. I’m more susceptible to adverse weather extremes, that’s what nailed us this year.”
The Oregon strawberry season usually runs about six weeks. This year, it was only two.
Thompson says a cold, wet spring followed by a weekend heat wave shortened the season.
Larry Thompson: “That happened to us and then the Sunday night of that hot weather, we had a half inch of rain in ten minutes here, that is absolutely deadly on the crop. And that spelled the end of the strawberries was that — it was a very quick end, it was all weather related.”
But it’s not just the weather affecting Oregon strawberry production — in 1988 more than 100 million pounds of strawberries were grown on about 8000 acres in Oregon.
This year, there were about 20 million pounds of strawberries on about 2000 acres.
Philip Gutt is with the Oregon Strawberry Commission. He says Oregon strawberries have a much shorter season than berries from California, and that’s one reason strawberry production here is down.
Philip Gutt: “Those varieties only are harvested you know, just June and a little in July and they’re done. Where as some of these California varieties, you can harvest into September, even October.”
But Oregon strawberries do have one advantage over California varieties — they taste better.
A 2004 Oregon State University study found more sugar, citric acid and anthocyanins in Oregon berries compared to California varieties.
Those substances can improve the flavor.
And that’s why Haagen Dazs ice cream uses Oregon strawberries, says Gutt.
Philip Gutt “You know, it’s a premium ice cream and they feel that a premium ice cream commands a premium flavor and that’s what you get from Oregon strawberries and you really can’t find it anywhere else in the world.”
Bruce Pokarney: “The berries that have been developed for Oregon are grown primarly for the processing market.”
Bruce Pokarney is with the state Department of Agriculture.
He says Oregon strawberries are used not just in ice cream, but in yogurts, baking mixes, and any other food product where taste is important.
That taste is what Oregon strawberry growers are banking on, says grower Larry Thompson. He keeps track of strawberry breeding programs in both Oregon and California.
Larry Thompson: “Their number one priority there is ship-abililty and storage- ability. That’s what they look at. Taste of California strawberries is number five on their list of desirable traits. Oregon, taste is number one in the breeding program.”
Many Oregon strawberry growers are now trying to brand their product as a high-end, quality berry worth the extra cost.
Grower Larry Thompson says even with these efforts, there are some Oregon strawberry farmers who are starting to grow California varieties because of the longer harvest.
Larry Thompson: “So I’m nervous that, that if a lot of growers keep doing this, that eventually people will get used to that, that the California flavor is how strawberries are and I’m afraid we could literally destroy our own market, our unique market that we have and that’s a big concern of mine.”
Competition from Mexico is another big concern for growers looking at the future of Oregon strawberries.
And while no one expects Oregon strawberry production to return to the glory days of twenty years ago, they do hope niche marketing for Oregon berries will resonate with consumers who want the best tasting berry.
And for now anyway, that's still the Oregon strawberry.