Forum sheds light on county’s top industry

Many facts, and a few emotions, about the reality of farming in Hood River Valley emerged in an informative event Thursday at Columbia Center for the Arts.

In an attempt to give actual farming context to an art show about agriculture, the Center for the Arts sponsored the panel discussion with five local agriculturists, as an adjunct to the “Reflections On A Way of Life,” which continues through April at the center, at Third and Cascade in downtown Hood River.

“The labor issue is a catastrophe waiting to happen,’” said panelist Jean Godfrey, who grew up on a valley farm and is now executive director of Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers.

Godfrey repeated Thursday the message she gave Gov. John Kitzhaber at an economic summit in Hood River about lack of action by the federal government on immigration reform, leaving growers in annual doubt about whether they will have enough workers to pick the fruit each summer and fall.

Godfrey’s other chief concern is working with growers and the Oregon State University Extension Service to make up for lost funding for agricultural researchers in Hood River, whose work helps growers with pest and disease control, orchard management, root stocks and other aspects of farming.

Labor supply, new laws and expenses regarding fruit safety and fickle market conditions are just a few of the big challenges facing farmers in 2012, according to the panelists, who included three people whose Hood River valley family farms are now in their second century of operation.

Between safer application of pesticides, water testing and meeting health standards, “Farmers are being asked to do more and more,” said Jeff Heater, orchardist and field man for Underwood Fruit.

“Food safety programs are a huge burden for farmers,” Heater said, referring to rigorous regulations farmers must meet in order to market their fruit both in the U.S. and abroad.

“Farming is a long-term investment, and it’s so long, we’re still waiting for the return,” said Jennifer Euwer, a Parkdale orchardist.

The curator of the “Reflections” exhibit, Sally Reichmuth, introduced Euwer this way: “She told me, ‘I farm in spite of having studied economics in college.’”

Also on the panel were Oak Grove grower Tim Annala and Heather Blaine of Hood River, whose family grows fruit in three counties “and multiple microclimates.”

Annala earned a sociology degree from OSU and returned to the family farm after working in Portland for a few years. His son is now involved in the family operation.

“It’s worked out. I couldn’t do anything else. A lot of these (issues) we have I’ve forced myself not to worry about because I enjoy it so much. We don’t have an economic unit, but we’re making it work.”

Farming facts brought out in Thursday’s event included:

n The farm gate value of Hood River County fruit — the value of the fruit as it leaves the farm — is $63.4 million.

n The land itself is among the most valuable agriculture acreage in the state, because of its close proximity to urban areas.

n Hood River valley has a “comparative advantage” over growing areas, as the soil and climate of this valley is ideal for producing pears — by far the leading agriculture product in Hood River County, which produces the most pears in the nation. That fact is not well-known in Hood River County, according to Euwer.

“Often when I tell people I’m a farmer, they ask me, ‘What do you grow?’” Euwer said.

n Two-thirds of all fruit grown in Hood River is sold in the United States; the rest for export.

Locally purchased fruit is “a drop in the bucket,” Euwer said, and most of what is grown goes to the three main packing houses — Diamond Fruit, Stadelman Bros. and Duckwall-Pooley, where the fruit is stored, sorted by size and quality, packaged and distributed.

The packing houses are hired by the growers to do those services, but the grower usually won’t see payment for six months to a year after harvest.

n The volume of pears by grower might vary, but the packing houses ensure that all growers receive the same price for a particular size and grade of pear.

n Mexico is the largest importer of Hood River fruit, while a stable work force that largely hails from Mexico is the linchpin of harvesting fruit in this county.

n Most of the local immigrant work force remains in Hood River nearly year-round.

“My biggest expense is payroll; second is housing. We’ve spent millions on housing,” Blaine said.

“A lot of our employees know more about farming than I do,” Blaine said.

n While Hood River orchardists use due diligence to compile documentation for all their workers, an estimated 60 percent of all farm workers in Oregon are illegal immigrants, and shortage of workers is an annual threat to harvest.

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