Schedeen Farm is just the kind of place I want to think my food comes from: beautiful land with happy farmers growing big berries, squash, corn, and Christmas trees. They even have a friendly yellow lab and black and white cat to greet visitors.
I visited the farm in Boring, Oregon, on a tour arranged by the Lifewise Oregon Berry Festival. The annual festival, concocted by Oregon’s berry commissions and sponsored by Lifewise Health Plan of Oregon, is in its fifth year. During a scorching July weekend, 37 vendors of fresh market berries and value-added products set up booths behind the Ecotrust Building. Berry enthusiasts sampled jams and vodka, watched cooking demos and learned about the health benefits of berries.
Four of us were whisked off to Boring, where Julie Schedeen gave us a tour of the farm she and husband Tony bought from his family back in 1977 when she was only 21. “I had no idea how much work it would be,” she said. But she smiled as she led us through rows of berries, describing the properties and life cycles of each. Tall and blonde, with long bangs flopping in her face every time a breeze blew, she seemed comfortable in her own skin and very happy on the farm. And she was the perfect, friendly hostess. At one point she said, “My theory in life is if you’ve got no pride, you’ve got all joy.” Hmm. Something to ponder later.
During our tour, Schedeen encouraged us to roam the rows, seeking the ripest berries, the ones that want to fall off the vine, warm, into your hand for a direct trip to your mouth. We stepped carefully over thorns that reached to snag our clothes and ankles, a breeze relieving us from the sun, the farm quiet except for birdsong and sprinklers.
Most berry cultivars Schedeen grows were either developed at Oregon State University or at the University of Arkansas. We tried the giant triple-crown blackberries from Oregon State, and the Navajos and Kiowas from University of Arkansas. They also grow boysenberries, raspberries, loganberries and such unusual berries as olallieberries and tayberries.
Many of the state’s approximately 1,200 berry growers participate in trial programs for Oregon State, helping the university track how berries perform. A lot of science goes into growing, harvesting, packing and marketing berries. Most fresh berries have a short life of three to five days once they’re picked. Blueberries last longer, while the Northwest’s luscious marionberries are too soft to be shipped fresh at all. [See our essay “Franken Food Versus Real Food” about Oregon berries versus California’s factory berries.]
The Schedeens have been farming their land for almost 40 years now. For the first 20, they machine-picked their 150 acres, selling the harvest to processors.
Then they made a radical change from machine-picking to hand-picking. “We thought what are we going to do, complain about the price at the cannery for another 20 years?” Schedeen remembered. Encouraged by an extension agent, they switched to hand-picking fruit.
It took a while to get the hang of preparing fruit for the fresh market. Proud of their bountiful harvest, they overloaded containers and accidentally smashed their own berries. Plus, the berries had dog hair all over them, courtesy of the farm dogs. “That was our beginning,” Schedeen laughed, remembering their earliest effort –mushy and hairy — being rejected at market.
Now the Schedeens sell to brokers, at farmer markets, and have two retail fruit stands of their own in Boring and Gresham. You can meet Julie Schedeen herself at the Irvington Farmers Market on Sundays or in downtown Portland at the Thursday lunch hour farmers market at the World Trade Center. While she and Tony employ young workers to set up and tear down, it’s important for her to personally meet her customers. “People want to meet the farmer,” she said. “They don’t want to meet a teenage kid the farmer hired.”
Schedeen’s also sells at the Rockwood Farmers Market. This Gresham neighborhood has a high poverty level and limited access to healthy foods. The farmers market is part of the Interfaith Food & Farms Partnership, a project of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon’s Interfaith Network for Earth Concerns. “We’re at that stage of life where we can do that,” Schedeen said. “We don’t have to make money at the market.”
A Way of Life
As they’ve aged, the Schedeens have scaled back their farm. Now they cultivate 50 to 60 acres and employ a team of about 35 hand pickers. They’re headed toward more micro-farming of their favorite crops, including figs, gooseberries, and red currants.
Have they ever had any second thoughts about farming? Early on, the solitude was hard. “It’s a very specific way of life,” Schedeen said. “I remember when the highlight of my day was seeing someone standing at the end of a row to talk to, or to see crusty old farmers at the cannery.” The grueling work and unpredictability of crops can also wear one down. “Sometimes the thought you can just sell it and quit gets you to the end of the day,” she said, still smiling. “But then you wake up happy.”
The Schedeens intend to stay put. Their comfortable, 2400 square foot farm-chic house – originally a toolshed – is all one level. Perfect for farmers who are just starting to think about slowing down.
Cat McKenzie, marketing director for the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission and founder of the berry festival, had advised our group that we should eat at least half a cup of berries per day to reap the health benefits. I ate way more than that while visiting Schedeen’s Farm. Fortunately for the public, the Schedeens had already done their main harvest. So you can still buy their delicious fresh fruit and jams at farmers markets and their retail locations. And find out what a truly happy farm tastes like. – Photos and story by Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor