by Sally Colby
The Hood River area of Oregon is rich with fruit and vegetable growers, and Packer Orchards is one of them. The family has been growing fruit since Larry Packer’s grandfather moved to the region with the railroad and started farming on land that’s still in the family.
Although the business has changed from the time the family sold fruit at small-scale farm stands and farmers markets, their values and goals have remained the same. In 1995, the family opened a farm stand and continued selling at farmers markets. “That’s also when we started the bakery,” said Larry’s wife Tammi. “We sold jams and made pies from the extra peaches.”
Today, Packer Orchards has 140 acres in production in the Hood River area, growing cherries, peaches, pears, apples, blueberries and other small fruits. “Hood River County is a primary pear growing region,” said Tammi. “We’ve always grown mostly pears and some cherries, and as the farmers markets started to do well for us, we realized we needed more cherries, peaches and other fruit.”
The Packer family grows about 10 to 12 pear varieties, including the popular Bartlett, Bosc, Green Anjou and Red Anjou. “We’re still selling pears at the market now,” said Tammi. “Winter pears are picked hard and require a 60 to 90-day rest period that allows the carbohydrates to convert to sweet sugars. Right now we have Red and Green Anjou, and some Asian pears. The winter pears, the ones that hold over best, are the ones that keep our farmers market supplied with fresh fruit.” Although some customers appreciate Asian pears, Tammi says those will be replaced with other better-selling varieties.
The fresh fruit season begins with cherries, but Tammi says this year the crop is several weeks behind due to the long winter. “We usually start harvesting cherries around Father’s Day, but it depends on the weather,” she said, adding they grow about 15 varieties of cherries. “We harvest cherries all the way to the end of July/first week of August. That season runs into peaches and a little into Bartlett pears. A lot of the varieties at the beginning and the end of the season are planted specifically for farmers markets.”
Cherries come with challenges, and Tammi says rain on ripening cherries is one of the biggest problems they face each year. However, with an assortment of varieties which ripen over the season and with trees planted at elevations which range as much as 400 feet, chances are better for a good crop. “A rainstorm can wipe out a cherry crop in just a few hours,” she said. “The early cherries with an early rain might have damage, but the cherries on the upper elevations are fine because they’re behind far enough that they don’t become damaged.”
While the majority of the fruit crop grown at Packer Orchards is marketed through Diamond Fruit Growers, farmers markets are one of the family’s main sales outlets.
“Farmers markets have been a really good venue for us to sell fruit directly to the consumer,” said Tammi. “They have allowed us to purchase more property. It’s a good mix between retail and wholesale for us.”
Farmers markets have brought more customers to Packer Orchards’ on-farm market. Tammi says she feels fortunate to have entered the farmers market arena when that venue was gaining popularity, and now benefits from customers who are willing to come to their farm store. “The main reason we started a bakery was to use all the extra fruit for added-value products,” she said. “People want something to eat at the market, and pies were a natural addition for us because we had cherries, pears, peaches and apples. We wanted to make sure that anything we did had some sort of farm product we grew.”
One unique aspect of Packer’s baked products is the inclusion of pear concentrate. “We have pears made into pear concentrate, which looks and acts like honey,” said Tammi. “We use that in place of sugar. We can eliminate sugar 100 percent or decrease it by at least 25 to 30 percent in other items. Everything we make has something that has been grown on our farm.” In addition to pies, market-made goods include a full line of fruit jams and cinnamon rolls with a fruit topping. Tammi says their line of cookies made with decreased sugar, local flour and other ingredients have become popular.
Although Tammi handled all the baking at first, as she became busier with other aspects of the business, she handed over some of the baking tasks. “It’s become more manageable over the years as we’ve learned how to do things better,” she said. “I still am involved every day, overseeing production.”
In 2016, the family realized producing every kind of pie throughout the year wasn’t reasonable. “We started to become much more seasonal,” she said. “We’re going to be baking only cherry pies during cherry season, and only peach pies during peach season. Right now, we’re getting local strawberries and rhubarb for pies.” Tammi believes by offering only pies which would be in season corresponding with each fruit as it ripens, they’ll create more excitement and anticipation for customers.
The Packers recently purchased another farm, formerly owned by the Rasmussen family, which was a popular agritourism draw. Last year was the Packer’s first season there, and Tammi says the planting, cultivating and upkeep of the gardens, sunflower field, pumpkins and corn maze kept them extremely busy, but her dedicated crew worked hard and got everything done.
“We tried to emulate what the Rasmussens did,” said Tammi. “That was very important in this community. If we were going to pick up where they left off, people wanted everything they were familiar with Rasmussens. We learned what we should do and shouldn’t do. We’re in the process of mapping out what we need to do better.”
Summer school groups were hosted last year at the Packer’s second farm, followed by fall activities. “We jumped right in with fall tours of the pumpkin field,” said Tammi. “My oldest daughter Rochelle has developed a school group program where the students learn and do something that’s hands-on along with play time.” Rochelle also handles human resources for the farm operation and helps out wherever she’s needed on the farm. Son Jonathan works primarily with his father in the orchard, and daughter Jennifer handles social media, event planning and helps Rochelle with school tours.
Tammi credits her family’s membership in NAFDMA (North American Farm Direct Marketing Association) with providing support and guidance as they grow that aspect of their business with the new farm. She says at the NAFDMA winter meeting, she learned of a farm which holds an event to benefit a charity. “It’s a week-long event,” she said. “Customers buy a bucket and pick as many sunflowers as they want, and the money has been donated to charity. That’s what we’re going to do this year, and we’re really excited about it.”
Visit Packer Orchards online at www.packerorchards.com .
Adding value through the seasons
by Sally Colby