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Lifewise Oregon Berry Festival: An Inside Look

Little girl selling berries at The Berry Batch in Woodburn, OregonBefore I spent a day with state berry commissioners, I knew little more about berries than that they’re good in pies and jam. But on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Lifewise Oregon Berry Festival, I learned a few things about Oregon’s berry industry.

The berry festival took over the Ecotrust Building’s outdoor area in Portland for two hot days in mid-July. This was the fourth annual festival, but the first time it partnered with Lifewise Health Plan of Oregon, a small regional insurance company.

Similar to other foodie fests, the Lifewise Berry Festival gives small local businesses a chance to showcase, sample out and sell their foodstuffs. Because I was on a media tour hosted by berry commissioners, I got extra samples and backstory. Here are a few interesting products and berry-related factoids I gleaned at the fest:

• Karen Avinelis of Thomas Creek Farms is a huge blueberry booster. Her farm’s freeze-drying process extracts only moisture, she said, leaving 98 percent of the nutrients intact. This makes for a perfect portable camping snack.

• Berries came to Oregon on covered wagons.

Rows of strawberry bushes

Who knew that berries came to the West on covered wagons?

• Salt & Straw, known for its unusual ice cream flavors, makes a vegan-friendly cucumber-raspberry sorbet. But vegetarians beware when accepting S&S samples – they also combine black raspberry and ham. In ice cream. Weird.

• Clear Creek Distillery uses 30 pounds of pears to make a fifth of pear brandy. How is that even possible? They try to buy from small farms within 100 miles. “If it grows in Oregon, we’ve thought about making something out of it,” said their rep.

• Sage & Sea Farms’ drinking vinegars stem from a 15th or 16th century English concoction which was originally used to make medicine more palatable. Now people mix them with spirits or soda water rather than noxious remedies.

• Vincent Family Cranberries in Bandon is the country’s only family-owned cranberry company, according to the booth’s workers. Their cranberry palm nectar is medicinal strength at 94 percent cranberry juice. So bottoms up at the first sign of urinary tract trouble.

• Sturm’s Berry Farm supplies black raspberries for clinical trials. Scholarly institutions have researched the use of black raspberries in treating oral cancer, colitis and other maladies. Sturm’s markets its Berri Health line of freeze-dried berry products as a nutritional supplement.

So What Does a Berry Commissioner Do?
After touring the berry fest, my small group boarded a bus for a field trip to Unger Farms in Cornelius, a half hour outside of Portland. On the way, I sat across the aisle from Linda Strand, a berry commissioner on the Oregon Raspberry & Blackberry Commission. I had the chance to ask her many of my most pressing berry commission questions. Foremost among them: What does a berry commissioner do?

Woman dressed like a blueberry holding a pail

She’s a blueberry. Looks like a fun job.

First I had to understand what the Oregon Raspberry & Blackberry Commission does. The ORBC dates back to 1981. Growers pay a small amount of their profits, about 1 or 2 percent, to the commission every year. The nine commissioners decide how best to spend that money, mostly in marketing and research designed to promote the industry. Linda told me they partner with Oregon State University to figure out how to improve berry growing by counteracting blight and other problems. The Lifewise Berry Festival is an example of using commission funds for marketing. It’s a big endeavor because the ORBC has to coordinate with the Oregon Blueberry Commission, the Oregon Strawberry Commission and the cranberry growers, who don’t have their own commission as far as I can tell.

Unger Farms
At Unger Farms, Laura Unger, a young daughter of the family, led our tour. She’d always wanted to be a businesswoman, she told me. But after a year of working in a Portland office she realized she could combine her love of business with her passion for the family farm. She returned to Cornelius, where she and her brother are starting to take over running the farm from their parents.

It’s easy to see why Laura loves this piece of land. It’s so close to Portland but looks totally rural. The Ungers have a beautiful little lake surrounded by cattails, a cute bright red farm store and fields of strawberries, blueberries and blackberries. Visitors could pick their own strawberries for $1.75 a pound the day we visited. I also learned that a blueberry picked in the sun off the bush is about 100 times better than anything in the refrigerated case at the grocery store.

Woman selling berries at a booth at the berry festival

The Berry Fest gives regional producers an opportunity to introduce people to their farm-fresh products.

Linda the berry commissioner had explained to me on the ride there that Oregon fruit is mostly grown for flavor, which means it tastes great if you eat it on harvest day, but degrades by the time you ship it anywhere. Hence our state’s many roadside fruit stands. The Ungers are experimenting with a type of strawberry called the Albion, which compromises between excellent taste and a hardier berry that better stands up to shipping, at least for short distances. These are some delicious berries, and make excellent strawberry lemonade, as served in the farm store.

Berry Gala Dinner

Four jars of locally-grown berry juices

These locally-grown berry juices offer intense berry flavors.

The berry gala dinner is the crowning event of the berry festival. This year it was the biggest yet, with 120 people eating a berry-heavy menu on the roof of the Ecotrust Building. Guests include movers and shakers in the berry community, a few media people, and some members of the public. My table had an interesting mix of folks: one of the event organizers from Lifewise, her husband, who’s a Seattle police officer, farmers Tim and Susie Kreder who run a third-generation Oregon farm, berry commissioner Linda Strand and her husband, who works in the industrial pump business. Tim is also a berry commissioner, so we had one in-the-know table as far as the berry biz. While much of the talk centered on food, I also learned about ways to keep birds off berry crops, and how evil starlings are.

People eating berry dishes at the berry festival

What’s better than dining al fresco with berry-centered dishes?

The dinner was a big food event, prepared by renowned chef Jenn Louis of Lincoln and Sunshine Tavern. She managed to work berries into a four-course gourmet dinner. Standout dishes for vegetarians included spinach with pickled blueberries and feta, melon and marionberries with chilies and lemon, and cabbage salad. The artisan breads from Grand Central Bakery were served with berry conserva, which is like jam but better.

By the time the last dessert berry was eaten and the sky over the Ecotrust roof had gone dark, I’d developed a whole new appreciation for berries, their growers, and the effort it takes to promote food products. — Story and Photos by Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor

Lifewise Oregon Berry Festival
Oregon Strawberry Commission
Oregon Blueberry Commission
Oregon Blackberry and Raspberry Commission
Sturm’s Farm
Salt and Straw
Thomas Creek Farms
Clear Creek Distillery
Unger Farms
Sage & Sea Farms
Vincent Family Cranberries

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Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor

Teresa Bergen, a freelance journalist who lives in Portland, Oregon, has been a vegetarian for more than 30 years. Her travel articles have appeared in India Currents, Yogi Times, The Circumference, and the Catholic Travel Guide. She’s the author of Vegetarian Asia Travel Guide. In addition to being a vegetarian and a journalist, Teresa is a yoga and group exercise instructor and personal trainer. She's also's Vegan/Vegetarian Editor.