CORBETT, OR — Throughout the Northwest, Don Sturm is known by many as “The Berry Man”. A third-generation berry farmer, he has long sold fresh berries to retail markets throughout the region. Some of his crates are even stamped with “The Berry Man.”
Throughout the rest of the country, Sturm may not be known by name (or nickname), but he is getting into many homes, as the farmer behind a company which sells freeze-dried black raspberry powder. The powder has been tested for medical uses, particularly how the high levels of antioxidants in the berries can help with cancer and other illnesses. “It’s incredible when you read the research,” Sturm said.
Though Sturm continues to sell fresh berries in the region, in recent years the freeze-dried part of his business has rapidly grown. At first, Sturm teamed up with his partners to grow the berries just for medical trials. Soon though, the team, which includes both a cancer researcher and professor of internal medicine and a practicing medical doctor who is also a professor, decided to start selling their freeze-dried powder online to consumers. Their website is berrihealth.com.
“We’re selling it as prevention,” for illness, Sturm said. The results from a variety of clinical trials are so promising that Sturm anticipates a future where it will be a medicine prescribed by doctors.
The black raspberry Sturm grows is the Munger cultivar. Though the farm is not certified organic, it does use a lot of organic products and a variety of strategies to minimize the use of non-organic inputs.
For example, Sturm sprays compost tea. He also eschews pesticides. Since the berries he grows are destined to be used for health purposes, he doesn’t want consumers worried about them being raised with pesticides.
For pest control, Sturm encourages beneficial insects by a variety of methods. For eight years he’s planted field borders to encourage beneficial insects. He’s also installed bird-safe homes for pollinators like Mason bees and bumblebees.
The farm, which is situated in a locale with a good climate for growing berries, not too cold in the winter and not too hot in the winter, also doesn’t have too many neighboring farms, so there’s not much risk of overspray from other farms. Drip irrigation is used.
Once harvested, the berries are immediately refrigerated. “As soon as one pallet comes off the machine, its put in refrigeration,” Sturm said. “We want to control the product from the start to the end, keep it food safe.”
The picking season for black raspberries is a short period in July. “We try to pick at the peak of ripeness,” Sturm said. “It makes a difference in the amount of antioxidants in the berries.” The farm uses Littau harvesters and older BEI blueberry harvesters converted for raspberries. The berries touch only stainless steel and remain food safe. When the berries are freeze-dried, they’re ground in a powder, “ground fine enough to have the seeds ground up, too,” Sturm said.
Birds love the berries almost as much as Berrihealth’s customers. “Birds like them than better any other berry,” Sturm said. He uses electronic distress signals and kites and has built hawk perches to keep the birds out of the fields. “Starlings will devastate them if we don’t keep them out of there.”
At present about 60 percent of the berries Sturm grows for is sold from the website (primarily as a freeze-dried powder, though there are some sales of liquid extract), with the rest going to medical colleges for clinical research.
In addition to black raspberries, Sturm’s Berry Farm, which includes Sturm’s wife Rosie and other family members, also grows red raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, boysenberries, marionberries and strawberries. The farm also makes its own preserves.
Before finding a medical outlet for his black raspberries, Sturm was selling them to processors that were using it for jam and for the dye USDA uses for grade stamping meat. Today Sturm sells only a small percentage of its total harvest – and none of its black raspberries – to processors.
Because so much of his berry harvest is sold fresh, there’s a lot of hand picking at Sturm’s farm. At peak time the farm employees 125 people. Year-round employees number 10. At present Sturm grows just under 100 acres of black raspberries, but his goal is to increase that to 150.
Sturm admits that the black raspberry “wasn’t my favorite berry for taste, but I’ve acquired a taste for it. It’s not real sweet, kind of has a woodsy taste. I eat it on my cereal every morning and use it in smoothies.”
That’s a common way for consumers to enjoy the black raspberry they buy from Berrihealth, too. “It’s exciting to know you’re growing something that actually helps other people,” Sturm said.