Just outside Salem, OR, off a rural road deep in farm country, you’ll find the Willamette Valley Fruit Co. They’re dishing up delicious local berries all year round.
We had a chance to meet with Jeff Dunn, Sales Manager to learn about their farm to fork operation, which focuses on processing local berries and turning them into a variety of tasty treats from pies and cobblers, to freezer jam and fruit puree.
How did the Willamette Valley Fruit Company get started?
It all started with the berries. Gerry Roth and his family had been farming berries in the valley for three generations. My dad David Dunn was actually with them at the start, and had been in the food industry for his entire career. He had the technical know how to help set it all up. All the pieces just came together – the land, the berries, the right people, the machinery and most importantly the relationships with the other farm families here in the valley. Most of our growers are within a 10 mile radius of our facility. And so in 1999 they processed their first pounds of fruit through a local barn while they were building our current home.
What Oregon berries do you have available for customers?
We have every berry that grows in Oregon…well, every popular berry. We used to even have gooseberries and loganberries, but nobody farms those anymore, at least not on a large scale. Our processing season runs from May to September. It starts with rhubarb, strawberries, then raspberries, blueberries, marionberries, and lastly all the different kinds of blackberries. We finish out the packing season with cranberries in September from SW Oregon. Every year we process over 20 million pounds of fruit.
You freeze much of the berry crop. Tell us about the IQF (Individually Quick Frozen) process you use and its benefits.
Individually Quick Frozen (IQF) refers to the process of freezing the berries without having them touch another berry. This is to prevent clumping together which would damage the fruit. This process also preserves the nutrients while sealing in natural flavors. When the berries come in straight off the field, their temperature is 80 or 90 degrees, whatever the temperature is outside. We put them in a cool room which is usually set at 35 or 40 degrees to draw the field heat out of the berries so they’ll freeze more easily and efficiently. After that, they’re put through a series of blowers and washers on different belts and sorters to takeout any of the leaves and stems or dirt that may be on them. And then the berries drop into the freeze tunnel.
We pack every pound of fruit within 24 hours of when it comes in so this process is fairly quick.
What makes WVFC special and unique vs other berry farms?
In addition to growing some of our own fruit, we’re really committed to supporting local farms. A lot of packers get fruit from all over, but the local quality here is excellent. We’re very relationship oriented and have a great community of growers. We have grower dinners in the spring and fall, we feed the farmers pie when they come in, and we just have a lot of fun.
Another key difference between us and other processors is the value added side of our business. Our goal from the beginning was to not only grow the fruit and process it, but to turn it into a product that we can sell to the end consumer. That’s where the pies come in, the frozen fruit poly bags and other products.
You make your own pies and other products with Oregon Berries since buying a pie business in 2001. How did that part of the operation get started?
Originally, when we started in 1999, the goal was to vertically integrate from farm to fork. We were looking for an opportunity to turn their berries into a value added product. Marie Jansen, who lives just down the road, started making LaSuisse pies probably about 30 years ago now and perfected it. When she was looking to retire, she wanted to sell her business but only to the right people who would keep her recipes and the integrity of the pies intact. It was a perfect fit with our commitment to quality, local foods so she came in and showed us how to do it and we’ve continued that way ever since.
What’s your bestselling pie?
Marionberry is the best selling pie year round.
Which one is your personal favorite?
That would have to be strawberry rhubarb.
Are your products available nationwide?
We currently sell our products in 11 states, but the bulk of our business is in the Northwest – from the Bay area up to Washington State. We’re primarily available in high end grocery stores. We usually ship our pies frozen and raw, and the local in store bakeries bake them onsite or they sell them out of their frozen food aisle. We do about 10% of our sales through our farm store here in Salem.
What’s the furthest distance you’ve ever shipped a pie?
We do online sales and have shipped to the East coast.
If you were stuck on an island and had only one food to survive on what would it be?
It would not be pie (laughs). It’s the week after Thanksgiving so I’m pied out right now. On second thought, maybe I should say pie. I certainly like it better than cake. Or I could say fruit. No – I do really like fruit but pie just makes it better.