Changing markets: Grapes, blueberries, hazelnuts replace row crops

May 2014 Posted in Business, Food & Drink

By Melissa Wagoner

Acres of tiny trees wrapped in a white protective shield are just one sign of the change of crops grown in the East Willamette Valley. Where there were once row crops are now blueberry fields and hazelnut orchards. Towering poles strung with wire await the climbing hops.

Blueberries, hops, vineyard grapes and hazelnuts are some of the crops replacing grass seed fields and row crops.

“These are all high value crops,” Marsha Merrifield a former viticulture researcher for OSU and vineyard manager for Eola Hills Winery said. “We don’t have to grow cheap crops. The 45th parallel can grow temperate fruits. We have great soil and a long growing season.”

As an example, Merrifield said the amount of grapes planted in the Willamette Valley has doubled in the last 10 years. Many growers also produce the wine due to the low return for those who sell just the grapes, she said.

“It’s very boutique oriented, producing minimum $20 bottles of a pinot noir that get 95 or above (in scoring) and is comparable to French wine,” Merrifield said.

However, it is quite expensive to produce wine and the vines don’t always grow well on lands that were once grass fields due to the deep soil.  Plus, grapes prefer a south facing slope. In Oregon, grapes mostly harvested by hand.

Health benefits spur blueberry interest

Blueberries, a similarly labor intensive crop, are also on the rise.

“We have a relatively good climate and soils for growing blueberries. In Oregon, we get higher yields per acre compared to a lot of other blueberry growing regions. Consumer demand has been on the rise so more farmers are planting them,” Amanda Vance, a faculty research assistant in the berry program at Oregon State University said.

Owners of Thank You Berry Much Farm, Cristina and Mike Wheeler, are new to the blueberry business. Last year Cristina, a part-time Spanish translator for the City of Salem, and Mike, a forester/appraiser, were looking to move their family into the country when Mike found two and a half acres of established blueberries.

“Mike asked me, ‘Do you want to go back to work or be a blueberry farmer?’” Cristina Wheeler said. The choice was clear and during the last year Cristina has thrown herself into the running and marketing of the u-pick operation as well as learning everything she can about caring for berries.

“Blueberry acreage has been increasing over the past several years. I think interest in local food and the farm-to-table movement is part of the reason, people are looking for more local produce,” Vance said.

For six years Alison Seeber, husband Bill and in-laws Sheila and Ted, have farmed seven and a half acres of certified organic blueberries.

“Ted has more than a half-time job most of the year working in the blueberry field, applying nutrients and compost tea to the plants, preparing compost for the next year, pruning, weeding and irrigation management. The rest of the family, including our young boys, help out as well whenever possible,” Alison Seeber said.

Of the more than 10,000 plants, some are u-pick but most are harvested by hand and sold commercially to eager buyers.

“There has been more and more research showing the many health benefits of blueberries. Also, there is a growing Asian market that purchases Oregon berries,” Vance said.

Zach Taylor cares for a hazelnut tree. He planted 40 acres of hazelnuts last year.

Zach Taylor cares for a hazelnut tree. He planted 40 acres of hazelnuts last year.

Weather conditions boost hazelnut market

Similarly, hazelnuts are being recognized by the American public for their heart healthy properties and snapped up by an ever-expanding Asian market.

“The U.S. is waking up to hazelnuts, but China buys 80 percent of the crop,”  Tim Aman of Aman Brothers, LLC said. Aman, along with his brothers Kevin and Tom, farms 120 acres of hazelnut trees between Mount Angel and Silverton. They also own a nursery which provides 800 acres of new trees every year to farmers around Oregon.

One of those farmers is Zach Taylor, who planted 40 acres of hazelnuts last year.“It is a good opportunity,” Taylor said.

The Taylor family has grown grass seed for generations, but Zach recently diversified and now grows Christmas trees as well as hazelnuts.

“I wanted to increase diversity and spread our risk. We can’t irrigate so we are extremely limited. Grass seed, Christmas trees and hazelnuts grow without irrigation,” Taylor said.

Hazelnuts grow wild in the hills of Turkey, the other big producer which has 70 percent of the market. However, in recent years there have been several severe freezes in Turkey that have devastated the country’s crops. Weather gave Oregon, where 99 percent of America’s hazelnuts are grown, a boost.

“The price has doubled and tripled. Five to six thousand new acres are being planted in Oregon. Loaning institutions see it as a good investment,” Aman said.

Hazelnuts grow well in Oregon due to its position on the 43rd parallel and the large body of water it borders. The nuts have not always been an easy crop, however. Between 1958 and 2005 Eastern Filbert Blight moved south from Washington affecting established old growth orchards and wiping them out. Fortunately, Oregon State University professor of horticulture Shawn Mehlenbacher was able to develop a line of trees that is resistant to the disease, leading to the successful crops of today.

“This whole valley could be planted in hazelnuts,” said Aman.

Microbrew trend creates new niche market for hops

Another trend impacting Oregon agriculture is the populations growning interest in  microbrews. According to the latest updates by the Oregon Brewers Guild, “Oregon’s breweries crafted 1,296,000 barrels of beer (or roughly 321 million pints) during 2012, an 11 percent increase from the previous year.”  That volume of beer requires a lot of hops.

Jeff DeSantis of Seven Brides Brewing and partial owner of Hops 2 You knows about this relationship first hand.

When Seven Brides Brewing started in 2008 he struggled to purchase the needed supplies.

“We could see the hop fields but couldn’t buy the hops,” DeSantis said. It was a problem of quantity.  Back then, brewers were forced to buy hops in 200-pound bales. They solved the problem by joining with hops grower John Annen of Annen Brothers Inc. and his son Chase, who now runs Hops 2 You, and developing a baler that produces 15-pound bales. That makes it easier for micro brewers to purchase them.

“We gave small breweries a tool to play in the market without being gouged. It takes a half pound of hops per keg and most beers have multiple varieties of hops,” DeSantis said.

It helps that Oregon is known for hops worldwide. But like most crops, it takes some investment.

“The infrastructure is immense. You can’t just say, ‘Hey let’s grow hops!’ you have to have a nursery and there is the picker and dryer investment,” DeSantis said.

But with the growth of the craft industry, the hop crops are in demand.

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