Most Oregon farmers have only a general sense of who consumes the food they grow. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Wheat farmers know the tons of grain they ship to Japan, Taiwan or the Philippines are made into noodles, crackers, cakes and more, and there’s satisfaction in that. “Feed the world,” a wheat combine operator in eastern Oregon says as a mound of wheat swelled in the hopper behind the driver’s seat.
Growers who sell to distribution and processing co-ops may not know exactly who buys the frozen vegetables or canned fruit made from their labor, but they see the brand labels on store shelves or in a shopper’s grocery cart.
Other farmers have a more personal connection. For Marcia and Rod Liepold, owners of Liepold Farms in Boring, Oregon, it comes when passing a Burgerville restaurant. The Pacific Northwest chain, based in Vancouver, Washington, made a corporate decision to brand and market itself as a fast food outlet that features local ingredients. In season, the company trumpets its locally sourced onion rings, fries, grass-fed beef hamburgers, blue cheese in salads, and hazelnut shakes.
In a partnership that began 15 years ago, Burgerville buys strawberries, raspberries and blackberries from Liepold Farms. The berries flavor the restaurant’s milkshakes and other treats. Beginning with strawberries in late May or early June, Liepold Farms workers pick berries and load them on trucks for rapid delivery to Burgerville outlets. “They need it fresh,” Marcia Liepold says.
The Liepolds also sell at farmers markets and to processors, but the Burgerville connection is a critical piece of their business.
Both sides benefit. Burgerville is assured of high-quality local products – a selling point with many customers – while producers including Liepold Farms are assured of a stable market and price. The restaurant readerboards announce the arrival of berry season, and the restaurants even featured a poster of Marcia Liepold. It got to the point that strangers would approach, ask if they’d met before, then recognize her as “the berry lady.”
Knowing that people inside are eating her family’s berries is an honor, and a responsibility, that hits her when she passes a Burgerville restaurant.
Field to Fork
Connecting with consumers who want to know where their food comes from is a key development of the “foodie” movement. As a result, many Oregon restaurants, grocery stores and even some cafeterias identify and share the stories of their growers.
New Seasons Market, a high-end Portland grocery chain, tells customers that it buys Hood strawberries – a heritage variety in Oregon – from Unger Farms west of Portland and pork from Rieben Farms, one of the few surviving hog farms in the Portland area.
From northeast Oregon, rancher Cory Carman and collaborators provide grass-fed beef to a collection of markets and restaurants that in turn note the connection on websites, advertising and menus. Carman also sells beef to the food services department at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, a teaching hospital, which serves it to patients, students and staff.
Carman gains satisfaction from providing beef that tastes good and is raised in a sustainable way.
“I think when we put so much work, energy and passion into the product we are producing, to hear back from people who are experiencing that product is rewarding,” Carman says.