Uprooted Harvest: First in a four-issue series

They settled in the lush Hood River Valley to carve out a life that epitomized the American dream, the opportunity to work their own land and gain prosperity.

In 1854 the first fruit tree was planted below the majestic peak of Mount Hood and, by the turn of the century, the rustic hillsides were dotted with apple and pear blossoms. Over the years the agricultural community in Hood River grew to more than 300 families, and fruit trees eventually covered 15,000 acres.

The county currently leads the nation in pear production and, until recent years, the future of farming seemed rosy.

For decades, the valley communities have enjoyed the security of being financially backed by an industry that has provided 3,200 full-time jobs, a third of the employment base.

Oregon State University economists estimated that in 1998 Hood River tallied more than $42,932,943 in wages to owners, laborers, and packinghouse employees. An additional $19,213,611 was earned by related occupations, such as fertilizer applicators, and $18,343,423 by the local food industry, grocers and other retailers.

But in the past three years, a threatening cloud has cast a long shadow over the valley's tree fruit business.

Costly environmental regulations, retailer consolidation, and stiff foreign competition have all played a key role in the steady decline to farm income. Last year, orchardists sustained more than a $28 million loss, the lowest point in 13 years. Conversely, during that same year, their expenses hit an all-time high at $3.4 billion because of increasing costs for energy, fertilizer, seeds, fuel, labor and environmental compliance.

As a result, the 2000 Anjou pear return to growers sunk as low as $47 per bin, far below the $120 price needed to meet operational costs. That figure falls far below 1999 averages that netted producers about $120 per bin and even farther behind historical returns that were as high as $145 per bin in the mid-1990s.

Agricultural economists have figured that if the current revenue shortfalls continue, between 20-30 percent of the growers and one packinghouse could be out of business within the next two years. They believe the impact on Hood River's economy will be devastating, since figures show that for every one dollar the fruit industry generates, another 85 cents is poured back into the local economy.

Along with the downturn in the county's agricultural industry, the unemployment rate in the county has risen to 9.9 percent --, three points above the state average -- and the future of the industry seems threatened on an unprecedented scale.

But the farmers of the Hood River Valley have stepped forward to show their strong determination not to go down without a fight.

In the past nine months, they have rallied and cooperated in the same strong, independent spirit that has helped their families for the past several generations weather poor crops, destructive tempests, and market downturns.

Their goal is twofold: increase consumer awareness about their plight and put pressure on federal legislators to revise foreign trade laws.

"We're trying to do everything and anything we can to turn this thing around," said Hood River orchardist Camille Hukari.

That "everything and anything" includes the following actions:

* On Tuesday, OSU's Hood River agricultural experimental station launched the latest public awareness blitz with its "Beaver Pears" sales. The bags of four pre-ripened Anjous and Barletts have been placed in some Portland area stores for a 12-week test period. They feature not only the well-known OSU logo but also bags labeled with the name of the participating grower and those with the county of origin. The purpose is to track shopping trends to learn more about consumer preferences for future marketing.

* In February more than 100 farm vehicles from the newly formed Tractor Coalition rolled down the streets of Hood River and focused the national spotlight on a budding "Buy American" campaign. Similar rallies have been held throughout Oregon and Washington in the past few months, including a gathering at the state capital.

* Pear Saavy, a promotional arm of the Tractor Coalition formed in April, is seeking to tie Hood River's premier crop into its tourism marketability. The plan: have area restaurants feature pear delicacies as a top menu choice or to compliment other entrees.

* To aid that effort, the Hood River Valley Fruit Loop, a tourism-based organizaton, received a $32,000 matching grant that was used to and develop a cookbook of homestead fruit recipes that has already sold 600 copies. In addition, the group has distributed about 15,000 placemats to area restaurants; the placemats list slices of information about the local agriculture industry and a map of the Fruit Loop and directory of its members.

* Competing growers banded together in late April to form the Mid-Columbia Pear Growers Association, a united effort to stabilize market prices by setting a uniform base sales price that is expected to help them gain as much as 20 percent higher returns.

"Where we're going to be going in the future is consumer education, telling them where their food is grown," said Clark Seavert, superintendent of the Mid-Columbia Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Hood River.

There is also movement on both the federal and state levels to support these efforts. U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith was successful in his bid for $4 million of emergency relief this year to help Oregon's distressed "small crop" farmers. He has initiated legislation to give monetary breaks to farmers using good environmental practices, and is promoting revisions to the United States Farm Bill that he believes will make it easier for America to compete in the import/export market.

"I hope what comes out (Farm Bill revisions) is a level playing field," said Smith. "Our farms are abundant beyond measure and I believe that American food products can compete with anyone."

Oregon Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, has launched a letter writing campaign to grocers asking for a commitment to actively support America's family farmers and buy produce that is grown in the United States.

"I think that when the American consumer understands that we cannot and should not be reliant on foreign countries for the food that we eat that, they too, will ask their produce managers at local grocery stores, `where is this from?' and demand U.S.A. grown products," said Smith.

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