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Berry farm yields sweets

Chef buys an old Jacksonville farm as a base for his chocolate truffle business

— Amid the brittle raspberry canes and grape vines surrounded by other dormant plantings awaiting spring's warmth, Jeff Shepherd surveys the past and confidently eyes the future.

In an era when several Rogue Valley berry patches have been abandoned or pulled out, Shepherd is aggressively adding plants at his terraced two-acre haven wedged into the Jackson Creek drainage on Daisy Creek Road.

The fruit is a key ingredient in the long-term success of an intertwined venture ' hand-dipped chocolate truffles he began making last summer. While the fruit keeps him close to nature, truffles are far more profitable.

Shepherd and his wife, Belle, moved to the Rogue Valley from Hawaii in 2001 and bought a piece of land that had once prospered with berries and more recently yielded a few wine grapes.

What I wanted was a few acres of land to grow my own fruits and berries and to utilize them in my chocolate business, says the Southern California native, who has been a chef for 20 of his 40 years.

He bought some equipment, got his domestic kitchen certification and went to work.

His Lillie Belle Farms Hand Dipped Chocolate ' Belgian chocolate and raspberries ' drew a favorable response at local growers markets.

I couldn't make them fast enough, he says.

Soon, he followed up with a black pepper truffle that complements red wine and developed a new market in local wine shops.

It's not as common as wine and cheese, says Paschal Winery estate manager Rene Dobbes, but people who are into wine know about wine and chocolate, and it's quite lovely.

Elk Cove Vineyards and the Jacksonville Inn wine shop now stock Lillie Belle truffles, as do Ashland Food Co-op and PC Market of Choice.

His offerings have expanded to Belgian-style cremes using local ingredients, a cherry cordial made with rum-soaked Rainier cherries, an organic peanut butter pyramid, creamy caramels, rum-soaked figs and many more.

Shepherd learned the chef's art from gourmet cook Tom Wagstaff in Los Angeles, and his interest in pastries and chocolate grew when he took classes from Wolfgang Puck.

In 1992, Wagstaff, who had since become the general manager of a restaurant in Hawaii, asked him to work there. Not long after, he met Belle Arnold, who took a job as a cashier at the restaurant.

The Shepherds got married nine years ago and launched their first business on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where they purchased a century-old Buddhist temple for &

36;250,000, converted it into a bed and breakfast, and sold it for twice the price five years later.

It exceeded our wildest expectations, he admits.

But while the bed and breakfast was successful it was somewhat on the cramped side. The Shepherds decided to return to the mainland with their daughter, Lillie, now 8.

Southern Oregon fit into their plans because Belle grew up in Ashland and is working on a graduate degree in public health at the University of Washington. The climate was good for growing things and that fit nicely with Jeff's desire to see what he could do with chocolate.

The property's original berry farmers were Thurl Moore, better known as Joe, and his wife, Ellnora, who came to the Rogue Valley from Chowchilla, Calif., in 1953.

Moore developed a popular berry operation which became his prime interest for more than a decade after retiring from his Medford Water Commission job in 1972. The Moores sold the property to J. Thurston Duncan in 1988. The property went through several hands before the Shepherds bought it in July of 2001.

This year, Shepherd anticipates producing 400 to 600 pounds of blueberries. He pulled out six flats of raspberries a day last summer and is adding several hundred plants, including fall golds this April.

There are three varieties of strawberries and 12 boysenberry plants as well. He says he didn't get a marionberry plant order in early enough for this year.

The farm also has a Queen Anne and two Bing cherry trees.

My life, he says, is going to be sweeter because of this.

His biggest worry at this point, is developing enough chocolate to keep pace with the demand.

Jeff Shepherd makes chocolates with ingredients from an old berry farm he bought in Jacksonville. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven