Let’s pick a sweet, bright-red strawberry — make it a venerable Hood variety, Oregon’s most beloved — and pop it into Portland’s mouth.
The berry comes from Liepold Farms, a family operation outside the wonderfully-named town of Boring, east and a bit south of Portland. Chances are Portland gobbles up the berry without much thought to how it got there.
“Some do,” strawberry grower Jeff Liepold said. “But I don’t think they actually understand what it takes to put a hallock of strawberries on the table.”
Or what a hallock is, for that matter. But it’s understandable, to a point. In America, in Oregon, food is everywhere. Stacks of boxed and canned food, mounds of fruit and vegetables and slabs of meat and fish from all over the world fill all the stores all the time. Load up your shopping cart; there’s always more coming.
Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association, said every box, can, carton, jug, bag and package of food in a store turns over, completely, in two weeks. Jana Jarvis, president of the Oregon Trucking Associations, said if deliveries stopped today the grocery stores would be out of food in about five days.
Robert King, an instructor of applied economics at Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences, said the typical grocery store takes in at least a semi-truck load of food each day, plus multiple delivery vans from specialty vendors. He describes it as a remarkably efficient, competitive system.
Stores aren’t the only place to find food, of course. Portland’s local restaurants, tasting rooms and brew pubs don’t lack for customers. The fast-food burger and pizza chains are busy, too. The Portland school district alone serves students 30,000 meals a day, and Oregon Health & Science University serves 1,200 meals to patients daily. Country Natural Beef, a relatively small producer based in Burns, sends about 80,000 pounds of beef to Portland per week.
The city does love to eat. Portland supports more than 50 community gardens, in which residents can rent space and grow food. There are 22 neighborhood farmers markets in Multnomah County alone. It’s not uncommon to hear chickens clucking from backyard coops in upscale neighborhoods, and many Portland residents grow some vegetables, tree fruit or berries at home.
Food is a massive economic engine, too.
A study by Ecotrust, a non-profit involved in public policy research and advocacy, estimated the Portland food market churns $4 billion a year. That’s the amount of money estimated to change hands between producers, processors, distributors and eaters. The market in Seattle is estimated at $6 billion annually.
King said it’s not unusual for grocery stores to register $500,000 to $1 million in sales per week, although with slim profit margins.
And the dollar figures barely describe the constant flow into what analysts, activists and researchers call the urban “foodshed.”
The Other Oregon asked several people and organizations what it takes to feed Portland. They all agreed it’s an interesting question. But Steve Cohen, a retired food policy director for the city, said it is “unknowable.”
But there are other things to learn. Let’s pick that juicy Hood strawberry and pop it into Portland’s mouth.
Rows upon the land
It’s late May, and Jeff Liepold steers a bouncing farm utility vehicle past rows of ripening strawberries and adjacent rows of blooming raspberries and Marionberries. Other types of blackberries, blueberries, boysenberries and black caps are here and there, along with rotational fields of wheat and clover.
Liepold is 44, bearded, built like a wrestler and laconically plain-spoken. His grandparents farmed here and so did his parents, Rod and Marcia. His older sister, Michelle, a licensed clinical social worker with a psychology degree, returned to the family business with a slew of ideas.
Jeff and his wife, Jen, have two sons and two daughters. They work the berries, like he did when he was their age. In season, depending on what needs to be done, Liepold’s day begins between 4:30 and 6 a.m.
The Clackamas County farm is a patchwork of about 400 acres of owned and leased land outside Boring. Berries take up about 250 acres this summer.
Berry rows hug the gentle roll of the land, stretching hundreds of yards over rich, dark soil. It is marvelous farmland, and for generations it and similarly situated land has fed Portland. Most of Portland’s major east-west thoroughfares originally began as “farm to market” roads, with Washington County, Clackamas County and East Multnomah County feeding the city.
A 1926 USDA soil survey of Clackamas County summarized the situation in terms that still hold true.
“Portland consumes most of the berries, vegetables, and dairy and poultry produced in the county and the rest usually finds a ready sale in the local markets,” the report said. “Portland also supplies a ready market for grain, hay and livestock.”
But the population then was a tenth of what it is now. The Portland metro area now counts 2.4 million people, more than half the state’s population. The metro area’s urban growth boundary, the line that restricts development under the state’s land-use planning rules, borders Liepold Farms property.
Oregon adopted statewide planning chiefly to protect productive farmland from urban sprawl. With all its with faults and frustrations, especially with property development rights in the balance, the system has slowed land conversion.
But the urban growth boundary, or UGB, is adjustable. Fast-growing Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, which contain the Portland metro area, lost more than 40,000 acres of farmland between the 2012 and 2017, according to the USDA Census of Agriculture.
“It’s coming,” Jeff Liepold said of urbanization.
Liepold has worked the farm full-time about 20 years. He’s taking over operational control from his parents; it’s one of those emotional, complicated successions happening all over the state as farmers retire and their grown children assume control. The Liepolds attend a farm succession class at Clackamas Community College for three hours, one day a month, to learn how to do it.
“We are planning for the transition this year and we’ll see how it goes,” Jeff Liepold said. “It’s not that easy.”
Many farmers who want to hang on, as Liepold and his family have chosen to do, find a way to partner with Portland. In their case, the partner is Burgerville, a Vancouver, Wash.-based restaurant chain that has 42 restaurants in Oregon and Southwest Washington. The company makes a priority of using Pacific Northwest ingredients, and heavily advertises its local and seasonal offerings and the specific farms that supply them.
In 2018, Burgerville bought about 135,000 pounds of berries from Liepold Farms. The farm is Burgerville’s sole provider of raspberries and Marionberries used in the company’s milkshakes, sundaes and shortcakes. The same holds for strawberries, except for some early-season strawberries the company buys from California until the Oregon berries come on.
Overflowing bowls and empty plates
Oregon doesn’t produce all it consumes and doesn’t consume anywhere near what it produces. The state is an export point for $968 million worth of food annually, most of it produced in Oregon, according to the state Department of Agriculture. And that doesn’t include Oregon wheat, 90 percent of which is exported to Asia.
For scale, the state’s growers annually produce enough for each of the 2.4 million people in the Portland metro area to take home about 1,000 pounds of wheat, about 56 pounds of blueberries and about 40 pounds of hazelnuts.
Economic reality makes Oregon agriculture seem skewed sometimes — we produce a lot of grass and vegetable seed for people to grow elsewhere, for example. In 2011, earnest Willamette University researchers wondered what would happen if the Willamette Valley’s grass seed growers grew wheat instead. They determined the growers would produce 16 billion servings of wheat for the valley’s population, or 244 percent of what the USDA recommends.
Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Commission and Oregon Wheat Growers League, pointed out that most Oregon farmers don’t grow bread wheat. Instead, they grow soft white winter wheat more suitable for such things as Asian noodles, crackers and pastries.
“They’d have to eat a lot of cake,” he said of Portlanders. Seed it is, then.
Pride aside, the state’s growers, processors and eaters are a miniscule side channel of the international foodshed flow. Sysco Corporation, the world’s largest food distribution company, reported $58.7 billion in food sales to restaurants, schools, hospitals and hotels worldwide last year. One of its 332 international distribution facilities is in Wilsonville, 20 miles south of Portland.
Lamb Weston, the Idaho-based potato company, says on its website that it sells 80 million servings of french fries every day, worldwide. River Point Farms, with headquarters in Hermiston, harvests 450 million pounds of onions annually, and among other things provides 70 percent of the red onions used in Subway sandwich shops nationwide.
Yet the Boring berries bound for Burgerville, and other similar arrangements, are an important part of the food system,
“I think farmers benefit quite a lot if they sell wholesale in the small chains,” said King, the applied economics instructor. Stores and restaurants are able to place a farmer’s face with what they’re selling, which is important to consumers who want to know where their food comes from, he said.
“Those relationships are unique,” King said. “It works out well for farmers.”
Into the food system swirl
About 10 years ago, Jeff Liepold’s mother and sister attended a chef and vendor meeting and struck up a conversation with a chef from Burgerville who was looking to diversify the company’s roster of berry suppliers. After three years, the farm became a contracted provider.
Burgerville has similar arrangements with other producers. In addition to the 135,000 pounds of berries Burgerville bought from Liepold Farms in 2018, the company bought 465,000 pounds of Walla Walla sweet onions, 64,000 pounds of asparagus and 9,300 pounds of pumpkin puree. All came from single providers; each in turn was featured on Burgerville signboards and other advertising.
“We’re proud of that, we think it’s pretty cool,” said Hillary Barbour, Burgerville’s Director of Strategic Initiatives. It’s fair to say the company is more transparent about its business than most. Barbour said that’s what Burgerville’s food-savvy Northwest customers expect.
As that Hood strawberry heads off to become a Burgerville milkshake, farmer Jeff Liepold and his family spin through many of the thick issues of modern agriculture, rural economics and urban sensibilities.
Many of the berries they raise can be machine-picked, but not strawberries. Extra care of hand-picking means extra value, and Liepold needs a crew of about 60 to get the job done. They arrive each year from California, he said, and live in a labor camp on the farm during harvest. A crew of 60 is fewer than Liepold would like to have, but he has to keep a grip on labor cost. He speaks a little bit of Spanish.
Having a dedicated buyer in Burgerville provides revenue stability, which means peace of mind, he said. Burgerville pays within 15 days of delivery, Liepold said, whereas other buyers can be inconsistent.
The arrangement is bringing change to the farm, however. Burgerville wants him to transition to organic production because that’s so popular with consumers, so he’s starting that this year.
Meanwhile, price competition from other growers, some of whom he describes as practically hobbyists who don’t need to make a living with berries, has pushed him out of some farmers markets in Portland. He sticks with the bigger ones.
Sales at the family’s roadstand have dropped over the years, in part because berries are available at so many neighborhood markets that buyers don’t have to travel to Boring. The stand formerly made up 15 to 20 percent of sales, now it’s down to about 5 percent.
Then there are the farmer’s usual worries: plant disease, bugs and the uncertain performance of berry varieties. Hoods, the old strawberry favorite, have to be replanted every two or three years to maintain production.
Still, the life fits Jeff Liepold. He doesn’t like to sit around much, he said, and farming keeps you hopping. And he’s out in the fresh air. Burgerville is a good partner.
“It’s good, you know,” he said.