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Alas, these fields were not forever

Oregon strawberries are best, but the market disdained them

The Corvallis Gazette-Times

Oregonians with at least a little gray in their hair can recall the days when, as schoolchildren, they were invited to descend on the fields of local strawberry growers to help with the spring harvest. For them, it meant a bit of pocket money and first dibs on the best berries. Many have fond memories of those days.

All of that is in the past. The heyday of Oregon strawberries was during the 1950s, when farmers had more than 17,000 acres in strawberry cultivation.

Those tens of thousands of little fingers were integral to keeping local farmers in business at harvest time.

Things began to change in the 1970s, when concerns over pesticide exposure, child labor laws, an uncertain supply of available pickers and increasing competition from California began to push many Oregon commercial strawberry farmers out of business.

We have about 2,000 acres in commercial strawberry production now, compared with California's 387,000. Most of Oregon's berries end up in jam, as most local berries are too fragile for shipping. — It is a shame that technology has meant that many people never will taste a fresh Oregon strawberry. It is the sort of berry that would have inspired 17th century English author William Butler, who said of strawberries, "Doubtless God could have made a better berry. But doubtless, God never did."

One of the tastiest berries every grown in Oregon, the Siletz variety, was developed in 1955 at Oregon State University by George F. Waldo of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That fact, and pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about Oregon strawberries, is available at the Oregon Strawberry Commission's Web site.

Siletz berries and other local varieties could not compete, primarily because they didn't ship well. So hardiness, not flavor, became the chief attribute of supermarket strawberries. Those bland, too-tart strawberries are OK, especially when tossed into a sugary glaze, piled into a flaky pie crust and smothered in whipped cream. But Oregon strawberries need only a cold shower to become a table-ready spring rhapsody of sweetness.

Those of us who appreciate Oregon strawberries look forward to trekking through often-muddy rows, to our local U-pick field or local market. Whether as a delight to share with guests or to can as preserves for a prized Christmas present, Oregon strawberries are choice.

We offer thanks and a strawberry-stained salute to the Oregon farmers who still grow them.