1405 SW Vermont St.
Portland OR 97219
United States

503-475-6555

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Ayers Creek Farm Newsletter July 14 2012 Market

Sarah West

 Happy Bastille Day. A good way to recover from the day's celebrations is to amble over to the Hillsdale Farmers' Market starting around 10:00 am tomorrow and buy some restorative fruits and vegetables. We will be there enjoying the π cherries that are now at their best.

Here is what we will have:

π cherries, naturally. A mixture of Montmorency and the Hungarian morello types (Jubileum, Danube and Balaton). Montmorency has a light, almost clear juice, and the Morellos have a dark red juice.

Raspberries & Loganberries: Coming to the end of these delicate and aggravating fruits.

Boysenberries: Barring unfortunate meteorological events, we will have these for the next three Sundays.

Miscellaneous Ribes: Red currant, black currant and gooseberries.

Acetaria: A lovely mixture of lettuce types from Wild Garden Seeds. This is the prime lettuce season for those of us who do not use greenhouses.

Cooking GreensOlera – the cooking greens: Leaf chard and a mixture of orach and amaranth.

Aromatics: dill, fenugreek, edible chrysanthemum

Grains and Pulses: Frikeh, chickpeas, fresh favas

Preserves

A couple weeks ago in the Hillsdale Farmers' Market newsletter, assistant manager Sarah West noted that one of the most frequently requested foods at the information stall are organic strawberries. It interested us because we have often toyed with the idea of growing strawberries, and the lack of this crop illustrates some of the challenges farmers face when deciding what crops to grow.

As organic growers, our stall should put to rest the claim that certain crops can't be grown organically. That is a prevarication, not a fact. Dependency upon synthetic crop inputs is relatively recent, and there is no crop that we can think of can't be produced without them. In fact, strawberries have naturalized on our farm and we find the occasional plant with the most sublime fruit you could ever dream of.  The lack of organic strawberries has nothing to do with organic farming, instead it is largely due to the historical structure of agriculture in Oregon.  

In 1965, there were roughly 14,000 acres of strawberries harvested in the state. Most of the crop was sent to processors for making jam and pie filling. By 1990, the acreage had dropped by half, and in 1999 it halved again to about 3,500 acres. Currently, the harvested acreage is fluctuating between 1,700 to 2,000 acres. These data show the change that has happened in the industry. Most of the strawberry producers gained their experience in the processor market and, as it collapsed, shifted to fresh market as the processors left the state or started using imported fruit. Historically, many of those growers had roadside stands and, as the shift occurred, they used that experience to move into fresh market. Most of the strawberry acreage shifted over to a more lucrative form of farming, nursery production.

There was no tradition of organic strawberry production in Oregon, so it hardly surprising that as the industry shrunk all of the remaining strawberry growers used synthetic inputs. At this point, growing fresh market strawberries is an "old sector" and there is no economic incentive for a young farm to make the substantial investment to grow the crop. Berry prices across the board are too cheap for a farmer considering a new planting. Beets and lettuce are a better investment for people entering the business: small package of seed, lots sweat equity with a low risk of failure due to weather. With fruit, a few hours or days of ill-timed rain and the farmer has to contend with the disappointment of losing a substantial chunk of income, as well as upset customers. So the cohort  most likely to bring an expertise in organic farming, young farmers, have little reason to consider fruit because the older cohort, and that includes us at Ayers Creek, have made our investment and suppress fruit prices.

There is an addition twist that is integral to our character as organic growers, and the reason why we answer "no" whenever we consider strawberries. Over the past half century, strawberry varieties have been selected and reselected in breeding programs that use synthetic fertilizers, aggressive soil sterilization, fungicides and insecticides. At the present, there are no varieties that have gone through a selection process for robust performance on organic farms. So we would be starting with debilitated plants that are essentially chemically dependent. In fact, all of the commercially available strawberry plants are grown in chemically fumigated soils and that sets up additional restrictions under the rules of organic agriculture. That is an additional barrier that can change, but as long as the price of strawberries remains so low there is no economic incentive for a shift towards organic breeding programs.  

Those naturalized strawberries we encounter from time to time gave us an idea about seven years ago. We dug up several hundred and planted them in a managed field. Our goal was to find a population with good natural resistance to disease and replicate the interesting diversity of flavors we found in those volunteers. Similar to what Frank and Karen Morton do with their lettuces. The wildlings, as we called them, were really good and we discovered we were really bad at growing strawberries. The farm has to be a good match with the farmers' personality, and we grow other crops with greater pleasure and success.

We will see you all tomorrow, perhaps with La Marseillaise still ringing in your ears.

Allons enfantes de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!

The Boutards of Gaston & Ayers Creek Farm