by Chelsea Harlan
Summer is here and with it a pleasant cacophony of sights, sounds, and scents fill many bright Saturday mornings all over the city: the aroma of hot food and fresh-cut flowers, the chatter and buzz of vendors with their rainbows of produce and handmade goods, customers strolling with cloth bags bulging with fresh fruits and vegetables, the thrum and thump of stringed instruments and drums. At many farmers markets, amidst the color and chaos, you’re bound to find a certain booth with green cardboard flats overflowing with plump, bright red strawberries. These berries are from Unger Farm, one of Oregon’s most bountiful small farms and a success story for regional crops.
Located on 140 sprawling green acres in Cornelius, Oregon, Unger Farms has been run by Matt and Kathy Unger since they purchased the land in 1984. Although best known for their strawberries, they also produce blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and table grapes. To begin with, the farm sold strawberries and cucumbers only to food processors in the region, but in 1985 they attended their first farmers market in Hillsboro. They haven’t looked back. Kathy says that everything they grow, they want to go local. Currently about eighty percent of their harvest goes to farmers markets and grocery stores, with the remaining twenty or so percent—the berries that grow out too fast to sell at the markets—going to canneries and food processors.
Unger Farms is nothing if not a family affair. Matt’s family has been in the strawberry business since the 1950s; he’s a third-generation farmer. Matt and Kathy live in a house on the farm where they raised all four of their children. Kathy’s parents live in a manufactured home brought onto the farm as well, and while none of their kids are in residence, they all live nearby and may one day build their own homes on the property. Two of the Unger’s children, Laura and Greg, work full-time at the farm, while their oldest son Will works for a neighbor farmer (although he spends just as much time on Unger, specifically in Kathy’s refrigerator); Brian is a mechanical engineer for Gerber Knives during the week and moonlights as a farmer during evenings and weekends. There are even three grandchildren now, learning about the family tradition of care of the land.
The Ungers realize, however, that farming is hard and a lot of work. They have always made it clear to their children that they don’t have to farm if they don’t want to, that they want them to pursue their passions and interests, wherever those may lie. For some, this means pitching in when needed; for others, farming is already a career, ensuring a fourth generation of Ungers on the farm.
When Kathy and I spoke, she and Matt had just returned from a week-long trip to Washington, DC, their yearly trek across the country to speak with state representatives about getting funding for small fruits into farm bills. They, and other small farmers like them, have quickly recognized that when they don’t go and have face-to-face interactions with such representatives, their farms tend to get left out of budget considerations. Unger Farms is a member of the small fruit commission, commissions being state groups that represent specific growers; small farms pay assessments to the appropriate commission, who in turn fund research and promotion for their specific crop. This is the third year the Ungers and other members of the small fruits commission have gone to DC to fight for funding. Kathy is hoping the tide will soon turn from the majority of government subsidies going to big producers such as grain growers. Small farms have a greater impact on local economies than these big farms, and with public demand for local produce rising, the government will have to start reallocating for what people want.
Such demand is reaching a fever pitch here in Portland and its surrounding areas. The Ungers have already had multiple requests for their berries from stores such as Fred Meyer, Safeway, and United Grocers; farmers markets, restaurants, and roadside stands have also been inquiring. They already sell at many farmers markets, with eighteen slated for this season, from Hollywood to McMinnville to Hillsboro. The farm has three vans they use for transportation, with drivers assigned to certain delivery routes that take them each day to the Thriftways, Whole Foods, and New Seasons that carry their fruit.
For Jessie and Becca, the Unger’s twin great-nieces, this year will be their third managing the farm’s stall at the Hollywood Farmers Market, presiding over those green flats that are Unger Farms’s signature look. Kathy knows people like to see a familiar face every week at the markets; she herself attends the Hillsboro market on Saturdays, and three others during the course of the week, although she helps out at other markets to see how they’re doing throughout the summer months. Unger Farms employs four people year-round, full-time, but as many as 150 at the height of the season: berry pickers and high school and college students who do some irrigation work, manage the stalls at the farmers markets, and drive the delivery vans. When the peak season comes, the Ungers are out in the field seven days a week, for at least five weeks, working to bring in the harvest. Each year, a little healthy competition is introduced for the students who run the market booths. Prizes for the best display are awarded; it allows the students to get creative, and boosts morale overall.
One new element to Unger’s is the farm store, which opened this past October and is set to reopen on June 1st. It sits on the backside of a piece of land the Ungers purchased just this year, expanding the eighty acres they originally purchased to its current 140. Kathy has wanted to do the farm store for a long time, and is particularly excited about its first summer run. The store will have Unger’s range of berries, of course, as well as vegetables from the five-acre garden located right next to the store. They also plan to sell local products from neighboring farms and other vendors, such as pepper jellies, filberts, and honey. Everything the Ungers produce now goes fresh, although they did try out making jam a few years back, with a local food processor in Forest Grove. Kathy says they would be open to making more jam and treats such as berry syrup for the farm store, perhaps in the coming years.
The farm will host its first U-pick this year, also starting in June. A special patch of strawberries has been planted for just this purpose. Kathy loves to have people come out to the farm, and looks forward to teaching adults and children alike how to pick and appreciate the plant. They already teach a second grade class, of Springville School in Beaverton, how to grow strawberries when the students learn about the lifecycle of plants. The students take a field trip out to the farm to see the equipment and where the berries are grown—and, of course, to sample the results.
The farm faces its share of pest problems, from gophers to mice to insects to killer late frost. Unger tries to be as environmentally aware as it can be in its pest management: they’ve created homemade traps for the rodents; they use drip irrigation to coat fragile blossoms with ice, which protects them from frost; they grow grass between rows of berries to counter soil erosion. Unger also uses integrated pest management, which involves constantly walking the fields and doing leaf analyses. They’re careful to look over all the available options, from organic to non-organic, before choosing a strategy that will work best economically and sustainably, always working to use chemical sprays as little as possible. Sometimes a common enemy will assert itself, and the whole farming community will band together to fight it. Last year, the spotted-wing fruit fly was such an enemy, known as SWD; it’s an insect that affects all kinds of fruits, from berries to apples. Multiple fruit research groups pooled their money for new research on how to combat the fly, efforts which proved successful. Such collaboration is common in the farming community, contributing to an innately competitive yet supportive atmosphere.
When I asked Kathy what the future holds for Unger Farms, she said they usually just go by a five-year plan; they like to expand slowly and thoughtfully. They have thirty-two acres in production of strawberries this year, and plan to have an additional fifteen by next year. There are several things Unger does that Kathy believes have helped make it the success it is today. One is the farm’s focus on getting a quality fruit into their half-flats. This concept starts with a clean field and comfortable berry pickers; the Ungers have redesigned flat carts to make picking easier and to ensure the pickers get plenty of breaks. They take pains to pick only the choicest berries, to ensure that every berry in every pint is fresh, plump, firm, and colorful. The farm gives full refunds or replacements if customers are unsatisfied, a rare policy in berry farming. This attention to detail and focus on quality shows the Unger’s love for what they do and respect for the people they do it for. Properly training the pickers is also a priority. About forty percent of the crew comes back each year and assists in training the newer members, adding to the sense of family and community on the farm.
When we ended our conversation, Kathy was heading outside to work for a bit. The flat shed on the property holds all the gear for the farmers markets, and she wanted to sort through everything and get organized. After all, berry season is in full swing!