For farmers like Anne and Laurel Berblinger, much of the challenge is getting Oregon’s specialty crops into the hands of consumers. The family grows about 300 varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs at Gales Meadow Farm in Gales Creek near Tillamook.
“Once they try it, they like it,” Anne Berblinger said, adding her farm is starting an on-site tasting event to initiate potential customers.
The Berblingers and other local farmers got some help Thursday, when Oregon State University and the state Department of Agriculture held a “crop-up” farmers market and dinner at the university’s Seafood Lab in Astoria, part of an effort to promote Oregon’s bounty.
The “USDA is trying to get more of these specialty crops out into the public,” said Julia Turner, an international trade manager with the Department of Agriculture.
Turner said Oregon ranks fifth in specialty crop production, including vegetables, fruits, tree nuts and nursery crops. Along with Oregon State, her department received a specialty crop block grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which they used to fund the crop-up dinners and markets for the next two summers. The grant will also fund a showcase of Oregon’s specialty crops to foreign food writers at Feast, a culinary event in Portland.
Diners at the event Thursday feasted on an eight-course dinner overseen by Jason Ball, a research chef with the university, and Executive Chef Jeff Graham from Fort George Brewery.
“The idea was that we work with farms as local as possible, and we do all the cooking,” Ball said, adding the two chefs first figured out what they were getting, then designed the menu.
The dinner Thursday included produce from several of the farms at the pop-up market earlier, along with local seafood. Dishes ranged from confit beet salad and raw sablefish crudo to smoked salmon served with local potatoes and sour cream and barbecue carrots. Ball said part of the purpose was to vary preparation, incorporating baked, smoked, grilled, pickled and confit dishes. For dessert was a mixed berry custard cup with hazelnuts — Oregon leads the production of these nuts — along with marionberries, boysenberries and black raspberries.
Ginger Edwards, who founded R-evolution Gardens eight years ago in the Nehalem Valley at the southern tip of Clatsop County, said the key to marketing specialty crops is in showing people how to use them.
“It’s just a few skills that are missing” from previous generations, she said. “We’ve been really invested in getting people back into the kitchen and cooking again.”
Edwards gets most of her business from farmers markets and community-supported agriculture, a farmer’s choice delivery of vegetables to enrolled members weekly. She also works with the Rinehart Clinic in Wheeler, providing low-income patients with cooking skills and local produce. Along with running her farm, Edwards is the executive director of North Fork 53, a farm-to-table bed and breakfast teaching people how to cook, can and otherwise preserve their produce to last through the winter.
More than 300 specialty crop producers this year have reached Oregon’s students through the state Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School program.
Chief among those was Bornstein Seafoods, a processor based in Bellingham, Washington, with a plant in Astoria. The company on Thursday won the Oregon State Schools Producer of the Year Award.
Christa Svensson, an export and marketing manager at Bornstein, said that when the company’s efforts to get seafood into schools started, the average amount spent per student was $1 per lunch, about one-fifth of it going to milk, and with no state support. In 2011, the state passed a law providing state money for schools to buy food from Oregon producers.
This past school year, Bornstein Seafoods provided seafood to six school districts, including Seaside. Svensson said the company hopes to expand the program to six more school districts in the coming year.
Turner said the crop-up market and dinner will return next year, hopefully in conjunction with the River People Farmers Market, which offers local produce from 3 to 7 p.m. Thursdays at 12th and Exchange streets.