Farmer Q&A: Blueberry Farmer
From the Farmer's Tractor
June 28, 2007
Doug Krahmer, 51, farms blueberries in St. Paul, Oregon, and has been doing so for almost 30 years. Krahmer grows his blueberries for two different packing operations – one that releases them fresh in the marketplace, and one that packs them for frozen sales. As Chairman of the Oregon Blueberry Commission, Krahmer has seen incredible growth in the Oregon blueberry market. In the late 1990s, Oregon produced fewer than 20 million pounds of blueberries. Today, the state yields more than 40 million pounds.
How did you get into blueberry farming?
Before I got into blueberry farming, I worked with my father in the late 70s, farming row crops like sweet corn, wheat and broccoli. Then, after I got married in 1980, I started working with my father-in-law, a blueberry farmer. Basically, I’ve been working with blueberries every since. In 1996, along with Bill Sabol, I started Blue Horizon Farms. The unique thing about our operation is that we are spread over about 200 miles north to south at 10 different locations.
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
We are a lot more conscious about conservation practices. Back in the 80s, we had the field sprayed clean. Now we leave grass down the middle of each row. Years ago, I was using three or four insecticides per year. Now I only use one.
We’ve also become a lot more technologically savvy when it comes to production. Rather than fertilizing blindly, we now take tissue and soil samples to determine if fertilizer is needed. We can test for levels of nitrogen, phosphate, magnesium, calcium (which helps strengthen cell walls) and zinc (which helps the plants grow better) – stuff we didn’t even think about 15 years ago.
How will blueberry farming evolve in the next five years?
Because the price has been strong over the last few years, there are a lot of people getting into the business and planting new acres. That means that blueberry farming will be facing a challenge on the marketing end as production increases. It will be crucial that we continue to get our health message out to the consumer.
Additionally, we will be seeing a lot more third party certifications for food safety, chemical practices and growing conditions. Currently, our operation is in the process of getting this type of certification, which is provided by an independent third party, and not by agriculture. This is something that the packers were already doing, but now growers are getting into it too. This way, if there is a problem at the store, retailers can trace the product back to the beginning of the distribution process.
What is your greatest challenge as a blueberry farmer?
On the national level, I’m a part of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, which is the blueberry leadership group responsible for promoting blueberry health messages to the consumer. Here, the challenge lies in the marketing end.
On the state level, I chair the Oregon Blueberry Commission, which is more geared toward how to grow good, quality blueberries. My challenge here is to make sure growers get what they need to ensure optimal growth of their product.
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
It’s imperative to keep communication channels open between grower and packer. We have an extremely close relationship with our buyers, and they will even occasionally bring in their customers to tour the farm and sample the fruit.
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
I’ve become more aware of the farm’s microbiological health. Every time I put on any kind of fertilizer or insecticide, I run tests to ensure a healthy balance in the environment. We all know that chemicals can be detrimental to the microbiology of the soil, so we try hard to minimize applications and to do things that are in the best interest of the land.
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
Through the Oregon Blueberry Council, we promote U-Pick and roadside stands. This is important to the blueberry industry, but it’s also important to agriculture as a whole. If people can’t get out there and see how a farm works, and pick the fruits themselves, they will lose the connection to the farmer entirely.
Reactions from consumers have been positive in every case. Usually they look at field, see how beautiful the berries look at harvest time, and simply say “wow.” Then they pick a few off the plant, and eat them with a smile.