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Cut and dried

Parkdale family starts new dried fruit business

What began as a hobby for Rick and Bette Benjamin may represent the saving grace of the Hood River orcharding industry.

The Benjamins hope that their Hood River Dried Fruit Company, founded in the fall of 2001, provides the kind of pizzazz that will attract consumers and help envigorate the fruit market.

It’s hard to image a better time for their efforts.

“Orcharding has been a rollercoaster ride,” said Rick. “We’re at the bottom of a dip right now, and hoping for a rise.”

Though the Benjamins agreed that farming in Parkdale has been a relatively comfortable coaster ride so far, they believe that variety can only make their business stronger.

“We like to think we can help the fruit industry survive by diversifying,” said Bette. “And for Rick and I, it’s a kind of therapy, to be busy and not to sit around wondering what we should do.”

As the Benjamins farmed, they noticed other orchardists counteracting the economic downturn by utilizing fresh food outlets in Portland, fruit swaps with southern states in return for citrus products to sell, and other methods.

“People are reaching out and doing things instead of crying into their soup and saying ‘we’re doomed,’” said Rick.

The Benjamins have been practicing the ancient technique of fruit drying since they started their first orchard in 1978.

“It’s like a hobby,” said Bette. “It’s not all work, and has really been exciting.”

The Benjamins increased dried fruit distribution beyond their three children when Highway 35 flooded in the early 1990s and traffic was diverted by their Cooper Spur residence. They sold dried pears at their fruit stand and discovered that demand was extremely high for such a product.

“We didn’t want to get involved with distribution — our cup was already full with other things,” said Bette. “But we thought a value-added product could be something that would help us out.”

Dried fruit is made with lower grade fruit taken off the packing line.

“They’re basically non-profitable pears that we haul back from the packing house, ripen up and process,” said Rick. “That’s one advantage of drying — most of the time it’s cheaper.”

Though the Benjamins only grow pears on their orchard, they dry other varieties of excess fruit given to them by growers like Hup Streich, the Gilkersons and the Tamuras.

Comice pears are the Benjamins’ favorites for drying, followed by Boscs and Bartletts. They also offer custom drying to those who bring in their own fruits and vegetables.

The final products include cinnamon apple rings, plain pears with or without peels, pear leather, and dark or white chocolate-dipped pear slices — a customer favorite. No sulfides or preservatives are used on any of the fruit.

“We think that will be important for our product in the future,” said Bette. “It’s more accepted, and tastes great.”

The whole process takes place in a barn that Bette used for her Rainbow Gymnastics school — she and Rick were both physical education teachers at valley schools. A large trampoline still rests in the corner, but most of the chilly room is filled with bins of fresh fruit and smaller, stacked boxes of dried product. The fruit is taken down to 15 percent of its original moisture content, retaining all its vitamins, minerals and flavor. The process takes around five hours for apples, and about 12 hours for pears.

While packing machinery worth many thousands of dollars would help the Benjamins get more product out the door, it’s only an eventual goal. Right now, the pair are moving away from small heat-sealed packages to resealable bags for on-the-go customers, and are in the midst of redesigning their labels.

“We’re learning about the world of marketing — it’s a jungle out there,” said Bette. “It hasn’t really been a booming business yet. We’re taking baby steps, working with local retailers, a little e-mail, word of mouth, and bazaars.”

With the help of local marketing agency HR Mountain Sun, Inc., the Benjamins are also preparing brochures and a website. They also received a Mt. Hood Alliance grant to help hire an employee to market and package their products.

The Benjamins’ fruit has appeared in diverse locations including local businesses like Rosauers, the Mt. Hood Railroad train station, Mid Valley IGA and the Hood River City Market; outlets like the student store at Hood River Valley High School, the Oregon State University Bookstore, Nike’s Beaverton campus and Government Camp; and local gatherings including Hood River’s Harvest Festival, the Pear and Wine Festival, the Mosier Bazaar and the Blossom Festival.

“The chocolate pears are an insane seller at the festivals,” said Bette. “Every time we think we’ve brought enough, but each night we have to go home and dip more.”

Visitors from across the country and abroad have turned into repeat buyers through phone and e-mail communication.

“We want to keep people focused on fruit,” said Rick. “If new products keep people thinking ‘fruit, fruit, fruit,’ then they’ll come back and buy, buy, buy.”

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For more information about the Hood River Dried Fruit Company, call 352-6480, e-mail info@driedfruitcompany.com, or visit the Benjamins’ fruit stand at 8675 Cooper Spur Road in Parkdale. The company will be found on-line soon at: www.driedfruitcompany.com

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