Arriving at our hotel shortly after midnight, we bid each other good night and retired to our rooms for some much needed rest. We left at 8:00 the next morning for our first site visit with Eric Pond, COO of AgriCare. Started in 1990, AgriCare provides land management services to large investment groups (of which KS in a contributor) in Oregon and California. Eric lead us on a tour through the conventional blueberry and hazelnut farm, accompanied us to Rainsweet packing facility and finally lunched with us at the organic arm of the blueberry operation. All along, explaining the operation and fielding questions from the group.
AgriCare manages 5400 acres in Oregon, from the Columbia River south to Roseburg.
A few highlights from the morning;
1. Blueberries are a life-long crop – some plants remaining productive for up to 75 years. Plants are generally replaced only for the purpose of providing new genetics.
2. On the subject of genetics, blueberries are selected and bred traditionally. This in an attempt to avoid some of the controversy that often surrounds biotech crops. This theme was also noted in the strawberry industry.
3. AgriCare dedicates part of its land to the establishment of natural bumblebee habitat. These are non-income producing plants that are grown to encourage a robust native bee population. The bumblebees are supplemented by rented honey bee hives that are used for 4 weeks during blooming.
4. Invasive species have made an impact on the blueberries – the spotted wing drosophila causes significant damage to the berry and has been studied extensively at Oregon State University. The bug is thought to have arrived from Hawaii and then spread though the I-5 corridor.
5. Oregon recently passed a new minimum wage law that raises minimum wage to $15/hr by the year 2020.
This raises ethical concerns for producers who are trying to balance a living wage with the demand for affordable food.
6. The Rainsweet facility delivers a frozen blueberry product ready to be shipped to repacker in either 30 lb cases or 1200 lb crates. The process is time sensitive – berries are picked, processed and frozen in less than 24 hours. It is likely that frozen berries retain more nutrient content than fresh berries due to the rapid freezing process.
7. Peak season for the berries is June – September and the plant has the capacity to move 250,000 to 1 million lbs. per day.
The afternoon found us headed back to Salem to visit the Parrish Middle School’s Farm to School Garden.
We were introduced to Rick Sherman, the state’s School Program Director and Brenda, the School Garden Coordinator. Their team also includes 2 Food Corp service members – Joel and Cat. There are 633 school gardens in Oregon and they vary greatly from raised beds to row crops to roof top gardens. The underlying goal is to connect students to the food they eat and expose them to farming. The program is currently grant funded but Brenda remains hopeful that at some point, the state and the schools will see the value of this project and provide for a permanent position within the curriculum.
There was a brief moment of disconnect when it was stated the school would likely not accept support from large industrialized ag companies such as Monsanto due to the GMO controversy that often accompanies their presence. It is important for us to continue to share our message in this regard – we support all production methods that provide safe, wholesome and secure food. If we, like Bernie Sanders, ideologically, naïvely and persistently continue to spread this message, we may, at least, be part of the conversation.
Overall a great day with a lot of diversity built in – tomorrow we catch up with our friend, Brett Miller aka “Crossfit Brett” for a tour of his new gig!