Grown local, and now staying local
As the late-winter snowmelt feeds the watershed of the Willamette River, growers around the region are once again preparing for the coming agricultural season in the Willamette Valley.
Marion County and the surrounding region is a hotbed of produce in the state of Oregon, providing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables that flood community farmer's markets throughout the spring and summer months.
Perhaps no product is more synonymous with summer in the Willamette Valley than berries. Be it marionberries, blueberries, strawberries or raspberries — Oregon is berry country. However, little of it actually stays in the state.
"About 95 percent of the (blueberries) that are raised, grown, picked and harvested goes out of the state," said Verne Gingerich of Gingerich Farms in Canby. "Out of that, 20 percent goes out of the country. Very little of it stays in Oregon."
A fifth-generation farm on the southern outskirts of Canby, Gingerich Farms is a 1,000-acre farm that was established in 1919 and grows blueberries, hazelnuts and seed crops. For almost 40 years, Gingerich Farms has been growing blueberries, and for the vast majority of that time, the Gingerich family has been packing the fruit both fresh and frozen, helping Oregon to become the No. 1 producer of blueberries in the United States with 134 million pounds grown in 2018.
However, making sure Oregonians have access to some of the state's signature produce is sometimes harder than growing it.
Keeping it sealed
Once the blueberry is harvested and shipped, it could go anywhere from California, to Canada to Japan.
"A lot of the stuff we sell might end up in a Costco bag," Gingerich said. "We really don't know where the berries go, other than maybe that they stayed on the west coast rather than going back east."
Enter Seal the Seasons, a North Carolina-based business that seeks to keep locally sourced frozen produce available in the region in which it is grown. The brainchild of founder and CEO Patrick Mateer, Seal the Seasons was created in Mateer's dorm room in Chapel Hill, North Carolina as he was working and studying at UNC.
"I was working at the farmer's market and saw the incredible quality and how hard these guys are working and how great the product was," Mateer said. "I wanted that product available to everybody, but when I went to the grocery store where most people get their food, there wasn't any access to this type of product, which made zero sense to me as a 20-year old."
Because frozen produce has such a long shelf life, it is much easier to ship around the country and abroad. Mateer wondered why frozen produce couldn't be packed, processed and sold locally.
"I was told that local farmers couldn't work with the grocery stores due to pricing issues and volume issues," Mateer said. "I got thrown all these reasons, and if I could solve the problems, then they'll be happy and they'll buy local."
Mateer started Seal the Seasons in 2015 and 2016 selling local products in North Carolina. Over the past four years, the company gradually expanded its range to nearby states like South Carolina, Florida and Georgia, but also in New York and New Jersey.
Making the connection
In 2018, Seal the Seasons reached across the country to Oregon and through Canby-based fruit processor Santiam River Inc., connected with both Gingerich Farms and Molodyh Farms in Aurora — a second-generation strawberry farm run by Gabriel Molodyh.
Molodyh's grandparents immigrated from Russia to China where he was born, then to Argentina before finally arriving in Oregon in 1972.
"My wife and I wanted to give our kids the farming experience just like I had growing up, so we bought our land," Molodyh said. "My family and I are passionate about growing the best strawberries we can and we do it with pride."
Through the Molodyh and Gingerich farms, Seal the Seasons was able to purchase, process and distribute their berry product locally last year, making it available in Safeway stores in Woodburn, Canby, Oregon City, Molalla and other nearby stores.
The result has been a pleasant success for the two farms. While the majority of their product still gets processed and sent outside the state boundaries, the fact that local buyers have the ability to find and purchase a local product in their neighborhood supermarket is a model that Gingerich is proud of.
"That doesn't happen very much with frozen food," Gingerich said. "But with Seal the Season — whatever product you're buying, you'll see where it came from. It has quite a visual and a little bit of information on where it came from. I think that's quite unique."