Fruit marketing efforts begin at the local level

Camille Hukari was beside herself on Oct. 5.

That's when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the country-of-origin labeling requirement as part of the Farm Bill.

"You had to peel me off the ceiling," said Hukari, founder of the Tractor Coalition, a locally-based group of farmers seeking to raise consumer awareness about agricultural practices.

"We've been working on this for 20 years," she said.

The Tractor Coalition has been at the forefront of promotion efforts by Hood River Valley growers this year. The organization was formed in February by orchardists fed up with mounting losses from a variety of factors, including unfair foreign competition and consolidation of retail buyers. The group's mission is to educate consumers about where their food comes from, how it's produced and the inequities American farmers face with government regulations and foreign imports.

The country-of-origin labeling requirement is just one of the issues the Tractor Coalition has turned the spotlight on this year. The group has worked on education outreach through a variety of means -- from parading through town on farm equipment to speaking at public forums to passing out informational brochures at Harvest Fest. Next week, Hukari will speak to consumer groups at the Portland Food Conference.

Hukari feels that, however unfortunate the circumstances, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent bioterroism scares have finally brought to the forefront many of the issues she and the Tractor Coalition have been harping on.

"This is an issue of national security," Hukari said. "There's been a big change in the overall attitude of the country in concern for our safety. We were looking at the big picture in February. Now everyone is."

The country-of-origin labeling requirement now must pass in the Senate, which likely won't start debate on the Farm Bill until next year. Hukari's next push is to get people to contact Sen. Wyden and Smith to urge them to support the issue.

"Anyone and everyone who cares where their food comes from should contact Wyden and Smith," she said. "This is extremely important to us. It's not the answer, but it's going to help."

Other promotional efforts focus specifically on marketing local fruit. The Fruit Loop, an organization of 27 farms that sell directly to the public, expanded its marketing campaign this year thanks to a Mt. Hood Economic Alliance grant.

The group distributed 55,000 Fruit Loops Maps aimed at visitors driving through the Hood River Valley. It also published a cookbook featuring Fruit Loop farms and their favorite recipes which has been "selling very well," according to Fruit Loop marketing director Kaye White. The group also printed 20,000 promotional placemats which went to 13 area restaurants in June. An additional 10,000 were distributed in September.

"We're at the front line of consumer education," White said. "We hear (consumer's) questions or misconceptions and we spend a lot of time correcting these ideas and getting people excited about supporting local agriculture."

White is already gearing up for next year's promotional campaign which will include behind-the-scenes tours of local farms and orchards geared to the group travel industry, and a new event called the Clear Creek Distillery Orchard Tour -- a behind-the-scenes peek at the making of Clear Creek Distillery's famous "pear-in-a-bottle" pear brandy. The painstaking process begins in May when about 2,500 bottles are put on the trees while the pear is still small enough to fit through the neck of the bottle.

Similarly Pear Savvy, started this year by sisters-in-law Mary Beth Kennedy and Carrie Kennedy, seeks to raise "pear awareness" within the local restaurant industry.

"With all the millions of people coming through Hood River every year," said Carrie, "we think they ought to encounter pears when they dine out." The Kennedys plan to continue working with local restaurant owners and chefs to educate them on how to properly work with pears -- including ripening techniques -- and to develop menu ideas. They also plan to research "buying avenues" for local restaurants, where they could get pears directly from local growers or packing houses.

"We want to get so that people come away from Hood River saying, `Wow, that is the pear capital of the world'."

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