Summer is here and with it a pleasant cacophony of sights, sounds, and scents fill many bright Saturday mornings all over the city: the aroma of hot food and fresh-cut flowers, the chatter and buzz of vendors with their rainbows of produce and handmade goods, customers strolling with cloth bags bulging with fresh fruits and vegetables, the thrum and thump of stringed instruments and drums. At many farmers markets, amidst the color and chaos, you're bound to find a certain booth with green cardboard flats overflowing with plump, bright red strawberries. These berries are from Unger Farm, one of Oregon's most bountiful small farms and a success story for regional crops.
Located on 140 sprawling green acres in Cornelius, Oregon, Unger Farm has been run by Matt and Kathy Unger since they purchased the land in 1984. Although best known for their strawberries, they also produce blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and table grapes. To begin with, the farm sold strawberries and cucumbers only to food processors in the region, but in 1985 they attended their first farmers market in Hillsboro. They haven't looked back. Kathy says that everything they grow, they want to go local. Currently about eighty percent of their harvest goes to farmers markets and grocery stores, with the remaining twenty or so percent-the berries that grow out too fast to sell at the markets-going to canneries and food processors.
Unger Farm is nothing if not a family affair. Matt's family has been in the strawberry business since the 1950s; he's a third-generation farmer. Matt and Kathy live in a house on the farm where they raised all four of their children. Kathy's parents live in a manufactured home brought onto the farm as well, and while none of their kids are in residence, they all live nearby and may one day build their own homes on the property. Two of the Unger's children, Laura and Greg, work full-time at the farm, while their oldest son Will works for a neighbor farmer (although he spends just as much time on Unger, specifically in Kathy's refrigerator); Brian is a mechanical engineer for Gerber Knives during the week and moonlights as a farmer during evenings and weekends. There are even three grandchildren now, learning about the family tradition of care of the land.
The Ungers realize, however, that farming is hard and a lot of work. They have always made it clear to their children that they don't have to farm if they don't want to, that they want them to pursue their passions and interests, wherever those may lie. For some, this means pitching in when needed; for others, farming is already a career, ensuring a fourth generation of Ungers on the farm.
When Kathy and I spoke, she and Matt had just returned from a week-long trip to Washington, DC, their yearly trek across the country to speak with state representatives about getting funding for small fruits into farm bills. They, and other small farmers like them, have quickly recognized that when they don't go and have face-to-face interactions with such representatives, their farms tend to get left out of budget considerations. Unger Farm is a member of the small fruit commission, commissions being state groups that represent specific growers; small farms pay assessments to the appropriate commission, who in turn fund research and promotion for their specific crop. This is the third year the Ungers and other members of the small fruits commission have gone to DC to fight for funding. Kathy is hoping the tide will soon turn from the majority of government subsidies going to big producers such as grain growers. Small farms have a greater impact on local economies than these big farms, and with public demand for local produce rising, the government will have to start reallocating for what people want.