Family farmers from Veerboort keep coming back to Hillsdale
Just as the decision to switch sausage for chicken put Veerboort, Oregon on the map, the strategy to take their products to the people has put Sun Gold Farms on the local farmers market map.
What's the connection? Dick Hertel, fifth generation family farmer, explained as he prepared for business at the Hillsdale Farmers Market early on that Sunday when they play a bog football game.
"My great grandmother Margaret VanDyke made the first batch of sausage in the kitchen of our family home at Sun Gold Farms," he said of the origin of the famous Veerboort Sausage Festival during the Depression.
"The church (Visitation Catholic Church) had always held a chicken dinner for its big annual fund raiser. But as years went on they weren't making any money. Turns out the farmers were donating the old chickens with tough meat and keeping the young chickens with the tender meat for themselves.
"People weren't coming for the chicken and the school wasn't making any money so she decided to make some sausage," Hertel said.
The result endures to this day with the Sausage Festival on the first Saturday of November and Visitation Church is going strong. So is Sun Gold Farms.
WITH HILLSDALE FARMERS MARKET SINCE THE START
Hertel's mom Vicki first trucked Sun Gold produce in from Veerboort to the Hillsdale Farmers Market the year it opened in 2002. It was then staged in the parking lot next to Casa Colima.
"I remember that site. Nothing was straight and it was more hilly than flat. At the time Hillsdale was either the only or the best Sunday farmers market around. My mom and I did a heck of a job that first day and we've been coming back ever since," he said.
Sun Gold Farms is also a regular presence at several farmers markets including Beaverton, Aloha, at PSU and in the Hollywood District of Portland.
Hertel arrives a couple of hours before the 9 a.m. opening when he comes to the Reike parking lot for the Hillsdale Farmers Market. It takes that long to construct what is more of a structure than a stand. Then there's time for coffee and breakfast with his fellow vendors, "Many of which I see more than my own family during the summer because we all go to so many of the same markets," he said.
The size and style of the Sun Gold "booth" and the variety of products, even on Super Bowl Sunday, are what make Hertel's presence stand out.
"We've got winter squash, kale, cold crops, and Brussels sprouts ,it's been a good winter for Brussels sprouts," Hertel said.
He's also selling ways for people to grow their own. "It's the first week of February and we've got pea starts. It'll be cold next week but they'll make it. February is time to start thinking about those early vegetable starts."
"In March we'll have broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and all those cool weather crops," he said.
Then there's the dried beans, walnuts and filberts and popcorn. "As the winter farmers markets became more popular and there were more of them we had to have more things to sell. So about four years ago we started growing this ruby red popcorn. Just a handful at first. Ten pounds. We put it out on the table and it was gone within half an hour," he said, still a little amazed.
"That one variety of popcorn turned into seven varieties grown on ten acres. That's a lot of popcorn. And the nice thing is when we put the packages out in the winter we don't worry about them getting wet."
Of the variety he offers, Hertel said, "I love trying new things. I love trying to market it and see how I can get it in people's bellies and how I can make a dollar off it."
The 120-acre Sun Gold Farm was a dairy farm until about 2002.Hertel's grandpartents milked cows to help the war effort during the 1940s. His dad Charlie grew up "dairying," as he calls it, but when "the last cows left" his parents took to direct sales of their farm products. Something young Chris could relate to since he sold corn and golf balls from a roadside stand across from the local golf course on Northwest Evers Road.
HOW TO SHARE THE HARVEST
Nowadays, besides weekly appearances at local farmers markets, Hertel helps to manage the family's CSA or Community Supported Agriculture. People subscribe to a CSA and receive a regular supply of produce and other farm products 18 weeks out of the year, from mid-June to mid-October.
"Basically, people pre-pay for part of the harvest. It was huge. In 2008 we had 800 subscribers. But that year it fell to about 300, which is where it is now. People didn't want to pre-pay during the recession," he said.
There are a couple of dozen pick-up locations in Portland for CSA customers, who bring their own bags to the site weekly to receive the latest farm products. "Subscribers" can pick up their weekly shipments at Hillsdale Farmers Market on Sundays for instance.
It's the farmers market circuit, though, that makes it possible for Sun Gold Farms to survive at a time when the small family farm is exceedingly rare.
"Our 120 acres is a relatively small farm nowadays, but the farmers markets have provided our family income for three decades. They are the primary source of our income," Hertel said.
DON'T LOOK BACK
In the late 1990s Hertel left home to attend college at Eastern Oregon University but he returned to the farm and did some work as a substitute teacher before landing a job as an assistant manager at Bi Mart.
"On my days off I was working on the farm with my parents. We were sitting around the table one day having lunch and they said "Why don't you come and work for us?' "
"I thought, 'hey that's a wonderful idea. I should do that.' I put in my two week's notice the next day. That was 2002," he said. A few months later he and his mom Vicki showed up in Hillsdale for the inaugural farmers market.
Now when he comes to the farmers market on Sundays he's on his own until getting everything ready. He's there by 6a.m. The first customers start showing up at 9a.m. By 1p.m.he's ready to again dismantle the Sun Gold Farms temporary farm product emporium and headhome to Veerboort. "Then it's off to watch swimming lessons with the kids every Sunday night."