by Aliya Hall
When Amber Fry left the family farm to go to college, she said she was probably the one of her parents’ four daughters that they wouldn’t have expected to come back to the farm. But after living in San Francisco for 12 years and having her own daughter, Fry and her husband knew that they wanted a different lifestyle for their family.
“There was nothing better in our minds than for her to grow up on the farm and have that connection we had when we were young,” she said.
Now Fry and her youngest sister, Terra Fry, work at the farm alongside their parents, Suzi and Steve Fry. Suzi and Steve started Fry Family Farm in Rogue Valley, OR, in 1990. What started with a mission of growing organic food to feed their family grew into a 90-acre operation growing vegetables, flowers and berries.
“They really wanted a career where they could be with their children and give back to their community and the earth, and create something that was their own,” Amber said.
Before the farm, Suzi and Steve owned a restaurant that they grew food for, and Suzi was passionate about growing flowers. Amber said they knew they were good at farming and wanted to try it on a different scale. “It’s morphed over the years into a really large, successful business,” she said.
Fry Family Farm has acreage in Talent, Phoenix, Medford and Ashland, OR, along with a retail store in Medford. Amber said when her family moved back to the farm there was a lot of infrastructure that needed to be put in place to keep up with food safety standards and to bring the farm forward into the future.
“We worked really hard and closely with different partners and got a few grants to build this mini food hub and processing center and commercial kitchen,” she said. “And with that it goes together to have a little store that’s on the premises where we can sell our own products, bring in other local products and highlight other vendors.”
Amber said value-added is an integral part of their farm because there is so much waste that goes along with farming and their family has always canned. “That was something that came pretty naturally,” she explained. Their value-added items include fresh pies, preserves, pickles, ferments and sauces.
Although Amber said that every year brings new challenges and changes in plans, working with her family is the best part of her job and makes overcoming those struggles a little bit easier. “We all work so well together and collaborate and bring in new ideas,” she said. “The collaboration with the family to continue to improve our vision is great, but since we’ve built it, in five years there’s been a huge change to pretty much everything.”
Amber said their biggest challenges include labor shortages, the price of organic food and the initial impact of COVID-19. In spring of 2020 their wholesale and restaurant accounts “went down to nothing” but she said they were able to start a year-round community supported agriculture (CSA) program.
“We got a huge amount of sign-ups for that, and we’re still continuing with that,” she said, adding that it was large growth for the farm.
Fry Family Farm has also been able to keep open their farm store, which was successful due to its size and that people felt comfortable visiting and stocking up on products they trusted, Amber said.
During the pandemic, the farm also partnered with local nonprofits and applied for the USDA Food Box program, in which they served 2,000 boxes a week to four different school districts in the area. When fire season also hit, the farm was able to continue their supply of food boxes through another nonprofit as well.
“It was a lot of quick thinking and moving puzzle pieces in different directions, but in the end it came out and really helped the community in a great way,” she said.
Going forward, Amber said she hopes this next year will have more people and events at the farm to further establish customers’ connection to their food and famers. Overall, the goal for the farm is to continue to survive in the unknown. Amber said that it’s always a challenge to hire on new, younger employees and to maintain an organic production with the drought that Oregon keeps facing.
“Our goal is to continue to do what we do and what we love and really make it through,” she said.
Although Amber said that farming isn’t easy, watching her children connect to the land makes all of the daily struggles worth it.
“Having my kids on the farm and seeing where their food comes from and eating right off the vine just reminds me why I do it and how important that connection to our food is,” she said. “We’re moving in a more digitalized world and the real connection with food and the earth is really important, and having things down with our own hands and getting to share that with the community is pretty great.”