Growing up in Oregon, the Oregon Fruit Products Company label has been one of those rare iconic images that has lasted throughout the years.
Today, the label may be slightly modernized, but the company retains its longstanding local roots, commitment to family farms, and employing hundreds of locals who have not only worked for the company for decades, but have also seen their own sons, daughters, and grandchildren grow up to work for the same company. That says so much about Oregon Fruit Products, and I can't tell you how proud I am to bring you the story of this iconic Oregon company.
Oregon Fruit Products
Since 1935, Oregon Fruit Products has been providing high quality canned specialty fruit products for consumers like you and me, as well as aseptic purees, ingredients, and frozen blended products for businesses. More about the latter later, but you've likely seen their classic black labels on grocery store shelves throughout the country; they can and sell 11 different types of canned fruit, from their best selling red tart cherries to gooseberries to blueberries.
Located in Salem, Oregon, the Oregon Fruit Products Company works with approximately 25-30 growers, most located within near vicinity of the plant. The farthest farms are the cherry farms in Washington's Yakima Valley, because, well, those Washington cherries are pretty darn near perfect, aren't they? (I just realized I have no cherry recipes on the blog yet. We'll have to change that next cherry season!).
I met Oregon Fruit Products CEO Chris Sarle at the Oregon Berry Festival this summer, and he kindly invited me and the two Bliss Kids out to visit the company's operations. We started the day visiting the Oregon Blueberry Farms & Nursery in Silverton, Oregon.
This particular family-owned farm grows approximately 200 acres of blueberries.
Zach, the Oregon Fruit Products Company Field Rep, works closely with the growers. He has contact with the farmers multiple times a day to ensure that fruit is picked at its ripest and handled with care. His own family has been in farming for more than 100 years.
Zach showed the kids and I how the machines go through and pick the blueberries, and then the kids and I got to climb onto one of the gigantic picking machines. You can see how large this beast of a machine is in scale to my kiddos:
This machine can pick about 15 acres of blueberries each night. The fruit apparently comes off the branches better at night, so it's less likely to get smashed.
The machines work so efficiently that they can fill one of the blue crates pictured below in a matter of 2-3 seconds. Within one hour, an entire truck full of blue crates can be filled.
Machine Picked, Hand Sorted
After our field trip to the farm, we were able to take a tour of the Oregon Fruit Products Company plant, where the kids and I were shown the entire process of sorting, weighing, steaming, and canning the fresh fruit. Official plant attire was, of course, required.
Oh, these two. The Bliss Kids are my heart, and seeing them in the hairnets and little lab coats that were still too big, and taking everything in with such intent, curious faces. . . I'm truly grateful for them to have had this experience. Plus: they're super cute in these lab coats!
Okay, back to business. We followed the blueberries from farm to blue bins . . .
To the first set of hand sorting . . .
To the special color sorting machine, which allows you to select specific colors and the machine will sort out the green ones, for instance.
Then all of the "bad" fruit that is either smashed, miscolored, or too small or too large (customers will call and comment on their berries being too small or too large, so they do strive for specific requirements per fruit) gets sorted out. Most goes into compost.
The approved fruit goes through a nice water bath . . .
And they go through this impressive line for final hand sorting.
I cannot stress, and pictures cannot tell you the extent, of just how much delicate care goes into hand sorting every batch of fruit that goes through these lines. It's quite an amazing experience, watching these ladies work. Many of these workers have been with Oregon Fruit Products Company for several years.
Workers like Ardis Birch.
Ardis (pictured below, on the left with the American flag shirt, with Anna Flores) has been with the company for 46 years. FORTY-SIX YEARS. That is almost unheard of in this day and age, and she is still smiling. That smile from this amazing woman says so much about the kind of company Oregon Fruit Products is, and how they conduct business like they are one big family.
Okay, back to the fruit's journey through the plant . . .
The fruit then gets sent to be canned, and the process is very similar to when you and I can fruit at home. . . only on a much larger scale. The steam baths these fruit go through are slightly more precise and detailed than my personal canning methods at home, that's for sure!
Before the cans enter their final hot water bath, they are individually weighed by these experts, and adjusted accordingly.
Prepped cans are then packaged up onto pallets in this massive warehouse, where Kurt (pictured below) gave us the lowdown on how they were left unlabeled until orders were confirmed. Most are wrapped with the classic black Oregon Fruit Products labels, but others are labeled for large grocery store brand labels.
Did you know?
Here's a fun fact: did you know that the series of numbers and letters on each canned goods item actually has a rhyme and reason to it? Each batch of canned goods is given a specific code, so if for any reason there are problems with the fruit, they can determine which batch may have had the issue by knowing the code on the bottom of the can.
Cooking Up Fun in the Oregon Fruit Products Kitchen
Our last stop of the day was across the street to the Oregon Fruit Products test kitchen. Here, the kids were going to meet a real live Food Scientist -- isn't that the best title ever? My kids were so excited to meet a Food Scientist! Especially Bliss Girl, who currently wants to be a scientist of some sort someday.
Food Scientist Quynh showed us all how to make a few different recipes using their specialty canned fruit, starting with showing us how simple it is to blend up a can of frozen fruit, add some lemon juice, and make these incredibly sweet, fruitful popsicles.
My kids loved these! We actually have a couple of similar popsicles left in our freezer right now from a batch that we made at home recently.
Next, we learned just what exactly went into each can of Oregon Fruit Products. Basically, it's just three ingredients for each fruit: carefully measured amounts of fresh fruit, water, and pure cane sugar.
That's it! Just like you would can your fresh fruit at home.
The final interactive kitchen activity was to make a berry trifle.
President Chris Sarles jumped right in to help whip up some fresh whipped cream.
Bliss Girl used her expert knife skills to cut up pieces of store-bought sponge cake.
Then both kids helped add layers of cake, whipped cream, canned fruit, and topped with fresh blueberries, rounding out the beautiful berry trifle.
No surprise here: this was my son's favorite part of the day.
I love having the kids help in the kitchen when they can, and desserts like this include a lot of simple steps that kids of almost all ages can help with. And, I always think it helps them find the food more delicious too, if they've had a hand in making it.
What a sweet note to end an incredibly full day!
What's next for Oregon Fruit Products Company? For starters, they are continuing to work on exciting new partnerships with breweries and other food & beverage artisans, as they did with Breakside Brewery to help them create new fruit beers for this year's Fruit Beer Festival. And, just released in Fred Meyer stores, are Berrst: fresh pourable fruit in individual containers. These are perfect for using on waffles, pancakes, crepes, in sauces, and most definitely in desserts.
In fact, the kids and I whipped up an absolutely addictive dessert using Berrst pourable fruit, and it has quickly become one of my son's new favorite desserts! He loves it so much, we just made it again last night. I cannot wait to share that recipe with you soon here on the blog!
Where to buy Oregon Fruit Products
Look for Oregon Fruit Products in grocery stores across the country, such as Safeway, Kroger, Walmart, Albertsons, Ralph's, AJ's Fine Foods, Winn Dixie, Publix, Stop & Shop, Heb, and Whole Foods Markets.
Local Company Bliss
Many thanks to CEO Chris Sarles, Kathy Stephenson, Zach, Kurt, and Quynh for opening up their home away from home to my family. It is such a treat to witness the love and care they put into making fresh, quality specialty fruit products, and it is an honor to be able to share their story with all of you.