Our Ephemeral Fruit Heritage

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The Oregon strawberry, past, present, and future

STORY BY MIKE ALLEN
IMAGES BY NOLAN CALISH

“What a delightful place this is …
Here we find fruit of every description …
With fine walks, lined on each side with strawberry vines.”

So wrote Narcissa Prentiss Whitman upon arriving at Fort Vancouver in 1836. Whitman and her companion had just become the first two white women to travel overland to the Oregon Territory, and she describes the sight of the garden there, filled with fruit and cultivated vegetables, in nearly paradisiacal terms — the promise of the West, instantly fulfilled.    

Since then, an Oregon industry has risen and declined. But even now, with California’s worldwide strawberry empire ascendant, spring’s first fruit still contributes more than $13.2 million to Oregon’s agricultural economy. With strawberry farmers facing perpetually declining prices at the processor and a chronic labor shortage, they look increasingly to the fresh local market to keep the heritage alive.   

The Challenge and Promise of the Northwest Berry Industry

It’s hard to know whether those strawberry vines Narcissa saw were cultivated or wild varieties. Good tasting, if small, native strawberries could (and can!) be foraged in the Oregon Territory from the peaks of the mountains down to the beach. James Robert Cardwell, the first president of the Oregon State Horticultural Society, described wild strawberries in such abundance that, “in some regions, it is said, hogs fatten on them.”

Cardwell goes on to relate that Oregon’s early settlers and residents created their own varieties of horticultural strawberries based on the genetic stock at hand. Indeed, Oregon’s first commercially successful variety was a chance seedling found by Fred E. Clark in his garden on Mt. Tabor, and named Clark’s Seedling.

Although those first Clark’s Seedling strawberries were shipped fresh from Hood River in iced-down railcars, the market quickly moved to processing. Distance from the major markets of the east meant that canning and freezing made the most economic sense. At peak strawberry production, in 1957, Oregonians farmed 18,300 acres of strawberries, 95% of which were bound for the processing plant. Last year, just 2,000 acres were farmed here, 85% destined for processing, and 15% for fresh eating.

The decline in acreage is closely correlated with the rise of the California fresh-strawberry industry, whose cast-off fruit more than satisfies the volume required by the processing industry. Only high-end strawberry products call for Northwest berries anymore, and as the price paid for processed fruit continues to drop, more and more farmers look to the local fresh market to keep growing strawberries.

Fortunately, while they can’t compete economically with the perennial flood of strawberries churned out by our southern neighbor, Oregon strawberry farmers produce famously superior berries, nurtured by a climate that contributes to the development of deep flavor and heady aromas. Yet many of the very same qualities that have made Oregon strawberry varieties ideal for processing are problems for the modern fresh market. For one thing, intense sweetness reduces the shelf life of fresh berries. “Our berries taste very good because they’ve got a very high brix, or sugar level, along with a lot of other components. And because of that, they degrade fairly quickly,” says Tom Peerbolt of the Northwest Berry Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting a sustainable Northwest berry industry.

Here, where consumers have the benefit of eating fresh berries warm from the field, that intensity of flavor really drives interest in supporting local growers. Many farms that once trucked fruit to the processor in Oregon’s strawberry heyday, now grow exclusively for the fresh market.

The Hood Keeps them Coming Back

The venerable Hood is easily Oregon’s most beloved strawberry. Developed for the processed market to be soft, sweet, and crimson throughout, its popularity as a fresh fruit has made it a brand name emblematic of Oregon strawberries. It’s also smallish, disease prone, average in productivity under the best of circumstances, and doesn’t last long on the stem once ripened. It only fruits once, late in the spring, leaving us high and dry all summer. The only things it has going for it, in other words, are that it’s beautiful and delicious, and that’s what keeps farmers growing it. Yet as the Northwest strawberry patch shrinks, the space devoted to Hood shrinks even faster. Bernadine Strik, professor of horticulture at Oregon State University, estimates that Hood now represents less than 20% of Oregon strawberry acreage.

The leading varieties now, she says, are Tillamook and Totem, both of which are more productive than Hoods. The Totem strawberry is used in Haagen-Dazs ice cream, right alongside the Hood and the lesser-known Shuksan, but out-of-hand eating is not Totem’s strong suit. “The thing is, when you look at flavor, you have to remember there’s fresh flavor and then there’s flavor once it’s processed,” says Strik. The industry standard for processed strawberries is “4+1”— four pounds fruit plus one pound of sugar — which gives Totem the sweetness it lacks in the field.    

Tillamook is valued for its size, but Marven Winters, who grows Hood and Shuksan strawberries on his farm in Troutdale for the Portland Farmers Market, is unimpressed. “It’s a really huge berry. You might only get four in a pint berry basket.” But the lackluster flavor, he says, fails to draw repeat business. “People see the Tillamook and go, ‘those are really big.’ So they buy them, but they don’t come back next week. But the Hood keeps them coming back; the Shuksan keeps them coming back.”

Trouble in the Berry Patch

Dr. Chad Finn is the small-fruit breeder at the 105-year-old Oregon Agricultural Research Station. His office sits on the edge of the OSU campus, where Corvallis gives way to test fields and farms. The Coast Range ambles along the horizon, and Finn sometimes walks up there in the spring, collects wild strawberries, and parses the native species that grow there.

He created the Tillamook, and he knows big flavor is essential, but he also has a responsibility to farmers’ bottom lines. Oregon farmers are suffering from a chronic labor shortage and declining prices, problems which compound one another.

Pickers get paid by the pound, so the faster they pick a pound, the more they get paid. As Finn relates, “There was a grower who told me he had a picker picking 1,200 pounds in a day of Tillamook — they’re making, at that point, $30 or $40 an hour.” 

But farmers have a harder time getting laborers to pick the small, poorly producing Hood. The money just isn’t as good. And if the labor isn’t there, fruit goes to rot in the fields, and much of the huge cost of establishing a strawberry field, which must be rotated every two or three years depending on the variety, is lost. So, year after year, many farmers reduce their strawberry acreage because of labor uncertainty. These economic pressures demand new strawberry varieties, our abiding love of the Hood notwithstanding.

Strawberry Fields Forever

There’s a new strawberry available this year called Charm that has horticulturists excited. It’s extremely productive and vigorous, marketed as a “Potential Hood replacement!” according to the release. But the fine print amends that: “The soluble solids content was not as high as for ‘Hood’ or ‘Puget Crimson’ but was comparable to ‘Totem.’”

“Soluble solids” is botanist-speak for “sugar.” So, Charm is a potential Hood replacement from a processor’s perspective, but perhaps less so from a fresh-eating perspective. Still, the literature promises “excellent overall fruit quality when evaluated as a fresh fruit.” We’ll find out this year. 

Meanwhile, the California-bred Albion continues to grow in acreage, and currently dominates Oregon’s fresh market. Albion “is just a pleasant-eating strawberry. It’s sweet, it tastes like a strawberry, but it doesn’t have nearly the flavor intensity of a Hood,” says Finn. What’s really special about it is that it fruits from June to October, so fresh market farmers can get more yield from a single planting. 

Strawberries that fruit all summer long are called “day-neutral” varieties. They’re what California and Florida grow to fill the year-round, far-flung demands of the supermarket produce aisle. When Finn says that the Albion is pleasant and sweet, he’s talking about the fruit produced on Northwest soils to satisfy the fresh local market. If it only needs to travel a few miles, it can be left on the vine until it’s absolutely red and aromatic.

Consumers, especially those accustomed to supermarket strawberries, seem to like it. Farmers seem to like it. Local restaurants name the variety on their menus. It’s the most widely grown fresh-market strawberry in the Northwest. So why reinvent the wheel? Just because it was invented in California?

In addition to the fact that a Northwest-bred day-neutral variety might be more resistant to local disease pressures, Strik says that, “Albion is very firm, which can be a good thing. But consumers really like that melt-in-your-mouth kind of texture that the Oregon strawberry tends to have.” (“It ain’t a strawberry if you can’t crush it with your tongue,” as a guy at the bar once said.)

So that’s the challenge for Finn’s breeding program: a day-neutral Hood. Budgets are tight, and breeders also need to introduce improved June-bearers for the processed industry. Not everyone even thinks it’s possible. Day neutrality is a complex trait that is as dependent on the climate as genetics. But, as Finn mused from his rickety office chair, “growers tell me that if I could get a day-neutral Hood, that’d be the cat’s meow.” 

Besides the economic benefits it might confer, the interest in such a fruit suggests a dedication to a regional aesthetic preference, a refusal to succumb to global market homogeneity. Northwesterners want Northwest berries, and a firm berry with a hollow, white interior is not a Northwest berry.

For now, the long summer of Hoods remains a fantasy. Recent work at OSU has confirmed the predictability of a genetic marker associated with day-neutrality, but it’s too early to know if it will help. Perhaps, like nearly all pleasures, the perfect strawberry is an ephemeral treat, existing only at the intersection of a certain place and time. We’re in the right place, we just have to wait for the right time.

Mike Allen has been slowly retiring from professional cooking and butchery for years. He can be found at the crossroads of food, craft, and the environment, and at arbiterofdistaste.com.

Slow-roasted strawberries with whipped goat cheese, honey, sunflower seeds, and bee pollen

Serves 2–3 as an appetizer or snack

This recipe is ripe for riffing. Don’t have watercress? Try garnishing with other soft greens or herbs like arugula, chervil, or mint. Not a fan of sunflower seeds? Experiment with poppy seeds or chopped, toasted nuts for a different kind of crunch.

Ingredients

1 pint early season strawberries
3 teaspoons olive oil, divided
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (plus more to taste)
1 cup fresh chevre (Bill prefers Briar Rose chevre from Dundee, Oregon)
cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon wildflower honey
1/4 cup toasted sunflower seeds
1 tablespoon bee pollen
watercress to garnish (optional)

Recipe

Preheat oven to 200°F

Stem and halve the strawberries, or quarter if large. Toss gently in a bowl with just enough olive oil to coat and a small pinch of salt, and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Place in oven for 45 minutes to an hour, just until berries start to release sugar and wilt slightly. Let cool and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whip the chevre with a few cracks of black pepper (let’s say 2–3 turns), one half teaspoon of salt, and two teaspoons of olive oil until smooth. (You can do this in a mixer or food processor, but it just makes more dirty dishes.)

On a medium-size dinner plate, spread the whipped cheese in an even layer, covering almost the diameter of the plate. Place the cut/cooked strawberries on top of the cheese in no particular fashion, just not overlapping each other. Drizzle the entire plate with the honey, using a spoon, then drizzle the whole plate with the remaining tablespoon olive oil. Sprinkle the sunflower seeds, then the bee pollen over the whole plate, and finish with a few more cracks of black pepper and a few sprigs of watercress if desired.

Serve with fresh baguettes or crackers of your choice.

There are few farmers market moments as electrifying as the first strawberries. It’s a sign that summer — real summer — is just around the corner. And for Bill Wallender, executive chef at Quaintrelle on North Mississippi Avenue, it’s a reminder that the restaurant is turning one year old, because one of the very first things he bought for the kitchen was a flat of farmer’s market strawberries.

In this dish from Quaintrelle, the strawberries are slow-roasted. It’s a good route to take if you’re faced with berries that aren’t exactly perfect, as the low heat concentrates flavor and amps up sweetness without sacrificing a juicy texture. Bill also recommends the technique with other fruits that might be a bit tart early in the season, like apricots.

This recipe is all about texture and contrast. Rich cheese, juicy fruit, crunchy nuts, fresh greens, and just a hint of peppery heat (don’t skip the black pepper, says Bill!) makes it so fun to eat, especially paired with a chilled glass of Gewürztraminer on one of the first truly warm afternoons of the year.

“Think of this like a casual bread-and-spread dish,” says Bill. “There’s no real clean way to eat it. Just use your hands and get in there. And I like food like that.”

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