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The Capital Press: Strawberry Consumers Seek Out Venerable Hoods

Connoisseurs say taste sets Oregon variety apart

DAMASCUS, Ore. — Terry White, who works at her son-in-law’s berry stand in this rich farming area southeast of Portland, sees it all day long.

Customers step up to the counter and announce they want to buy strawberries. But not just any berries. They want Hoods.

Never mind that the display counter is filled with pints of big, firm, bright red Totems or Tillamooks, Seascapes or Albions. They want Hoods, a cultivar that’s been around since 1965.

And if White doesn’t have any left to sell? “They’ll walk away,” she says, raising her eyebrows. “People who know Hoods, want Hoods.”

It’s a scene repeated at fruit stands across the region as strawberry season rolls out. Hoods are the only berry people ask for by name. If a farm stand has Hoods, you can bet they’ll say so on their sign.

“They’re the Cadillac of strawberries,” said Kathleen Sala, who stopped at the Olson Farms stand where White works. “There are so many varieties now, and they’re all good. But they’re not quite Hoods.”

Down the road at another berry stand, Paul Xiong points out mounded rows of young Hoods planted in February by his son, Alan, who runs the operation.

“My son said people are asking for it,” the elder Xiong said, “so if he plants more he’ll get more customers.”

Jeff Fairchild, produce director for Portland-based New Seasons markets, said the upscale chain has contracts with four or five growers to meet the demand for Hoods.

“That’s the variety we want at the height of the season, and that’s what people are asking for,” Fairchild said.

The Hood mystique dates to a time when strawberries were big in Oregon. The state had 19,000 acres of strawberries in 1957. Tap a native Oregonian baby boomer and it’s likely he or she picked strawberries for school clothes money. Hoods were among the last varieties released by Oregon State University horticulturist and berry breeder George Waldo before he retired in 1965.

But strawberries faded over the decades as other berries, especially blueberries and Marionberries, proved to be more commercially viable, easier to harvest and ship. By 2013, strawberry plantings had slipped to 2,000 acres. Production peaked at about 100 million pounds annually; it was below 20 million pounds last year.

But when June rolls around and Oregon berries come on, people still ask for Hoods by name.

Why? They’re smaller than some of newer varieties, spoil quickly and are more susceptible to disease. Growers are unlikely to get more than one or two years of production from a field of Hoods before having to replant. Other varieties produce for three or four years.

The reason is taste, OSU breeder Chad Finn said. Hoods are exceptionally sweet — they’re loaded with sugar — but it’s balanced by the berry’s acid content. Varieties such as Tillamook and Totem taste fine, but the flavor can’t compete with Hoods, berry to berry.

The one thing Hoods aren’t good for is breeding new varieties, Finn said. He’s tried crossing Hoods with other varieties “a bazillion times” but it hasn’t worked. “There’s very few things I’ve found that are worse parents than Hoods,” Finn said.

“To have a berry as high-yielding as Tillamook but have the taste of Hood — that would be the perfect thing in my world.”

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