Farmers’ markets are a collection of businesses, a temporal grocery store where each shelf comes with a smiling face and a wealth of knowledge about the products they create. We’re giving our vendors the spotlight to share more about their role in the Hillsdale market community.
by Sarah West
Tom and Patreece DeNoble probably didn’t foresee their future as one of Portland’s leading vegetable farms when they started growing calla lilies in the backyard of their Tillamook, Oregon home in the early 90’s. “It was a hobby,” Tom explained on a recent tour of their 40-acre farm located just outside of Tillamook, “that became our livelihood.”
Tom grew up on his family’s dairy not far south from where his vegetable farm now sits. A dairy farm childhood is a hard-won lesson in responsibility; Tom and his siblings helped with morning and afternoon milkings, among the farm’s other chores, putting in four- to eight-hour days in addition to their schoolwork.
“I wanted out,” Tom recalled, and he found work in construction and then at the Tillamook cheese factory, the job he left when he and Patreece expanded their calla lily operation from their backyard onto a 23-acre parcel of leased land, just down the road from their present-day farm.
“We ended up growing artichokes because a guy I knew wanted a job from me,” Tom recalled. “I asked him what he could do, and he said he knew how to grow artichokes.”
Tom took a chance on a crop that was new to him, quickly learning that artichokes are well-suited to Tillamook’s coastal climate, with moderate summer highs and fog-bank-regulated sunlight. The artichokes were an instant success; superior in quality and flavor to those shipped in from California, they fetched a good price from local wholesale markets. Tom (and a few other area artichoke growers) delivered to a number of coastal and inland groceries until the California suppliers caught wind of the competition.
“One day when I was out on my deliveries, I got a call from [a commercial grocer’s] produce manager saying I needed to come and get the artichokes I’d just dropped off,” Tom recalled. “ I asked him what was wrong with them and he said, ‘Nothing. But yours are a dollar each and California just sent us a shipment for a quarter each.’ All but one store called to have me come pick up the artichokes I’d just delivered. So that was the end of that.”
Around this time (the late 90’s), the DeNobles had begun selling at the Milwaukie Farmers Market, and, in 2002, were a founding vendor of the Hillsdale Farmers Market. When their wholesale outlets stopped calling, they transitioned to direct marketing through farmers markets in order to get the price they knew their high-quality product deserved, and which would keep their farm in business. Direct marketing works because it allows the farmer to (literally) stand behind their product.
“If you don’t get to tell your story,” Tom acknowledged, “your stuff isn’t going to sell because no one can tell the difference [between your product and one that was conventionally grown].”
The DeNobles use sustainable growing practices—composted manure, organic amendments, crop rotation, and the occasional organic-approved spray for pest control—but are not currently certified organic. It’s a conundrum that many farmers-market-scale growers face: certification creates an extra (often significant) cost, one that the farmer must pass on to their customers (some of whom may no longer be able to afford their product); but without certification, it is difficult to expand into the wholesale market—certification provides the proof of quality a farmer needs to get a fair price for their product.
Besides artichokes, the DeNobles now grow (in lieu of calla lilies, which they moved away from in the mid-2000’s) an ever-expanding assortment of vegetables. Their rich, nearly rock-free soil nurtures large and tender root crops, and the cool Tillamook climate keeps them well-stocked in brassicas (kales, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.) and artichokes throughout the summer months, when Willamette Valley farms struggle to keep up production of these heat-sensitive crops.
The trade-off is that tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants can be a bit of a stretch for their coastal farm, which is why the DeNobles have installed twenty-two unheated greenhouses, each one-hundred feet long, for a total of two-acres of temperature-moderated growing space.
Even so, Tom admitted, “Tomatoes are one thing we may start growing less of. They just take too long out here.”
“You can’t grow everything everywhere,” He explained about their ongoing variety trials, “You have to figure out what works where you farm and let go of the things that don’t.”
This tireless search for balance between production efficiencies and quality control is part of what makes DeNoble’s vegetables stand out in Portland’s increasingly competitive local food market. In addition to selling at four Portland-area farmers markets, they deliver to 37 restaurants, and stock a popular farmstand on their property in Tillamook. They are considering organic certification for next year, a step they must take in order to profitably re-enter the wholesale market.
Despite its many expansions in the past twenty years, their farm remains a mostly family-run business. Tom and Patreece’s two children, Chandler and Lexi, both work full-time on the farm, and the four of them do almost all of the harvesting, as well as much of the planting and crop management, with the help of three other farmhands.
“We are very picky about our vegetables,” Tom emphasized, from variety selection and cultivation practices to harvesting, packing, and storing—they aim for the highest quality vegetables they are capable of producing.
He and Patreece are the only farmers allowed to harvest the artichokes (though they are slowly training Chandler), a daunting task considering they have 13-acres of this signature crop, but one they attribute to their product’s success.
“If I wouldn’t eat it, I won’t sell it,” seconded Patreece.
But the proof, as they say, is in the artichoke-flavored pudding. If you haven’t yet tried a DeNoble artichoke (or any of their flavorful vegetables), it’s time you did. If you have, than you know what Tom and Patreece are talking about: Tillamook (and the DeNoble Family Farm) grows good artichokes.