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Mid-Valley InBusiness: Growers cope with uncertainties

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Linn County has claim to the grass seed capital of the world, and Christmas trees reign supreme in Benton County, but don’t forget about green beans.

There’s no exact measure for what region grows the best vegetables. But no matter how you slice them, green beans from the mid-Willamette Valley are tops.

“There’s evidence out there that the mid-valley beans are the best in the world because of the growing conditions,” said Brian Rowson, human resources manager at National Frozen Foods Corp. in Albany.

Green beans have long been a leading crop for area growers, who produce about 20 percent of the nation’s total petite green beans. The valley also has high yields of many other crops, including sweet corn, squash, peas, broccoli and beets.

Oregon is among the leaders in several categories of vegetable production, according to data recently issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. California still holds a substantial lead, growing more than half of the nation’s fresh market vegetables and 75 percent of vegetables for processing. But Oregon is a leader in many individual vegetable crops grown for processing.

The data was compiled using information about vegetable production in 2015 and shows the diversity, quantity and quality of Oregon’s agriculture.

But many factors face the vegetable production industry that could impact the future. The minimum wage increase recently approved by the Legislature, limited land to grow vegetables as more fields are converted to hazelnuts and blueberries and increased regulation in the wake of recent food contamination outbreaks place additional burden on the industry as a whole and individual businesses and farms.

Still, there is some certainty in producing food.

“People have to eat,” Rowson said.

Rowson started working at National Frozen Foods 28 years ago, and he’s seen a lot of change. Automation has allowed processing to become more efficient and improve quality. National Frozen Foods harvests vegetables from July through October, freezing them to be processed throughout the year. Bags of locally grown vegetables are then distributed to grocery stores and restaurants, as well as food giants like ConAgra, Sysco and Campbell Soup Company.

The area’s largest vegetable processor, NORPAC, is an Oregon-based, 240 farmer-member cooperative with 45,000 acres and more than 600 million pounds of vegetables produced annually, according to the company website.

Farmer Peter Kenagy of North Albany is a member of NORPAC. He grows sweet corn and green beans, but those crops haven’t paid as well recently. Nationally, fresh market vegetable production is down slightly, but it’s been growing in Oregon, with twice as many vegetables now produced for the fresh market as for processing.

“There’s been such an emphasis on fresh vegetables,” Kenagy said. “The processed vegetables, they’re not sexy anymore.”

Kenagy has had to diversify to survive, growing plants for seed production. He said seed crops have become more financially viable than vegetables. He’s been a farmer his whole life, and has been a full-time grower since 1980 on land off Nebergall Loop.

“We’ve got good ground and the capability to do good things,” Kenagy said. “We’ll always be able to to switch and do something different.”

Fifth-generation Corvallis farmer Eric Horning grows sweet corn, squash and bush beans among other crops on 2,000 acres about 12 miles south of Corvallis. He is the fifth generation of farmers in his family, dating back to the 1850s. Horning said there are a lot of uncertainty about the future of growing vegetables. Like others, he’s diversified, planting hazelnuts, wheat and silage corn.

Horning’s farm crew has been out spraying and fertilizing, getting things ready to plant. There’s a lot to consider in deciding what he will grow, including the current price of the crop, rotating what he grows to optimize soil conditions and timing to maximize yields. This year, he’ll grow sweet corn and squash for sure. He’s still considering bush beans.

Horning said he feels a sense of pride as a grower.

“We take great care to make sure that we do things right,” Horning said. “When we hear somebody comment that they enjoy our product, I get a sense of satisfaction.”

Rebecca Barrett, a mid-valley freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to InBusiness.

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