Stephanie Haugen ’12 grew up on a farm in Washington County. As a journalism major at Pacific University, she used her senior project to explore the changes in agriculture in her home county and to tell the stories of the farmers who are neighbors to the University. With her permission, Pacific magazine is publishing excerpts of her seven-story investigative series.Matt Unger of Unger Farms in Cornelius credits farmers markets with the revival of his business.
“Farmers markets kept us in the berry business,” he said.
The Ungers, who have been in the business for 20 years, started out selling their berries and cucumbers to processing plants, but there was too much competition from farms in California. So, they switched to selling most of their berries fresh at markets, at their farm store, at roadside stands and to local stores.
“If we hadn’t made the switch, we wouldn’t be in business,” said Kathy Unger. “Farmers markets saved our farm.”
The Ungers grow blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, grapes and a small amount of vegetables. They make 65 percent of their sales at farmers markets, where they have more control over price.
They work together to make it work.
Matt cultivates the crops while Kathy works in the office.
“I can’t grow a darn thing,” Kathy admits.
Their three sons help out on the farm and at the markets, and their daughter Laura runs the farm store on their property.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture records 7,175 farmers markets nationwide with 120 in Oregon alone. From 2010 to 2011, there was a 17 percent increase in farmers markets across America, and the Portland Metro Area is no exception to the growth around the country.
Washington County hosts 15 markets, one almost every day of the week. In the last seven years or so, markets have flourished and have drawn in more customers. The Hillsboro Tuesday Marketplace draws in about 7,000 to 9,000 customers on a given Tuesday, and the Portland Farmers Market at Portland State University brought in more than $6 million in 2011, a nearly $5 million increase since 2001.
Laura Unger grew up with the family business and watched the family farmers market booth evolve.
“We had to constantly one up to make our product more marketable,” she said. “We had to put in the extra effort to create visual appeal.”
Since their first days at the markets, they have streamlined a distinctive design and logo, trying to make their name known.
The Ungers enjoy selling produce to local people, and are proud of the taste and quality they provide in their berries.
“You can’t buy any better berries in Washington County and in Oregon,” Matt said. “We have good quality climate, soil and farmers.”
Even when business is good, though, it isn’t without its challenges.
In the summer, the family works from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. Winter means maintenance, bookwork and planning for the next season.
Unpredictable weather, pests (like a new fruit fly that destroyed berry crops in 2009) and regulation add up.
“It’s not an easy life,” said Matt Unger.
But, he added, it’s the one he knows.