By Misty Zakrzewski
Before the Willamette Valley Fruit Company retail store was built in Salem, their customers came knocking on the door of their business office to purchase a pie or request a tour of the facility. The community wanted to be able to buy pies straight from the source, and the Willamette Valley Fruit Company listened.
Now, after the store’s second anniversary, visitors walk through the Willamette Valley Fruit Company’s front doors and feel like they’re entering their grandmother’s farmhouse. Guests can sit at a table and enjoy a slice of pie and hot coffee while peeking into the kitchen. Only they won’t find their grandma there, but about a dozen pie-making gurus mixing berry fillings and shaping dough—almost entirely by hand.
Warm and cozy, the smell of freshly-baked marionberry pie fills the air—along with apple, blueberry, peach, rhubarb and about 15 other flavors that remind you of your childhood. Visitors can pick up a pie to take home, along with jams, cobblers, frozen fruit and a variety of other local Oregon products. Those who are interested in seeing the fruit in action can tour the processing facility.
It’s not only the fresh pies that make Willamette Valley Fruit Company a special place in the community, but also their desire to listen to and connect with people. “Part of the unique contribution we in agriculture have to make is the sharing of the natural resources we steward, the opportunity to have people come out and experience the land, the opportunity to tell our story and have people see where their food comes from. Connecting with the community and creating positive interactions with the people in it adds a deeper meaning to the adventure of being in business,” says Jeff Roth, farm owner operator and one of the six owners of Willamette Valley Fruit Company.
Willamette Valley Fruit Company started in 1999 by Jerry and Carolyn Roth, a Salem, Oregon, farm family. At the time the farm economy was down, so they decided that in order to keep the farm healthy to provide for the next generation they would follow a dream and do their own processing. Processing started in an old airplane hangar on the farm, until a facility was built the next year. That first year they processed two million pounds of fruit, and after a few years of success they looked at ways to add value to the fruit they processed.
In 2001, the company decided to continue the legacy of gourmet pie-maker Marie Jensen—owner of Salem’s LaSuisse Specialty Foods—and purchased the company. Jensen was in her 70s and wanted to sell the company to someone who could carry on what she had started. “We felt like it might be a good opportunity for us,” says Dave Dunn, general manager and one of the owners of the company. Turns out they were right—Willamette Valley Fruit Company sold 350,000 pies last year. On a typical day, 1,000 pies are made, and additional shifts are worked as needed to make enough pies to meet the demand of sales.
Today, Willamette Valley Fruit Company processes 12 to 14 million pounds of product that come from up to 35 growers. Most of their growers are located within a 10- mile radius of their factory in Salem in order to support local farmers. One of their long-term goals is to keep the farmers in their area viable on the farm. “We take a lot of pride in that we’re an Oregon company,” says Dunn. They are not out to compete with mass pie-producers but instead trying to create a high-quality product that brings money back to the Oregon economy. Dunn wants Oregonians to appreciate that Willamette Valley Fruit Company is a local business and the money spent on their products stays local. “The consumer doesn’t realize in most cases where the food comes from. When you go into the store and buy a bag of berries it doesn’t mean they’re coming from Oregon,” says Dunn. With increased pressure from foreign competition, Willamette Valley Fruit Company is proud to say their berries are grown in the Willamette Valley. “The Willamette Valley is known as having unique soil and weather; we have the best quality berries grown anywhere in the world,” says Dunn.
Another advantage they have over foreign processors is more advanced technology. Being automated has made Willamette Valley Fruit Company more efficient and enables them to remain competitive. “We’re trying to be honest and act with integrity in our business dealings,” says Jeff. About a year ago the company started using a state-of-the-art polybagging machine to bag their own fruit as well as expand that part of the business on a commercial scale. “Our goals are to continue to provide quality products and expand our ability to meet the demand for our pies, cobblers and frozen fruit,” says Jeff. New technology is one of the things that is helping them achieve their goals.
Willamette Valley Fruit Company products are sold in 200 stores, including Whole Foods, Roth’s, Market of Choice, Thriftway and Zupans. In the summer, they mingle out in the community and sell their products at 15 different farmstands around the state. Willamette Valley Fruit Company products are sold as far north as Seattle, all the way down the I-5 corridor to Central California. “Basically our retail products are getting more recognition all the time as companies find them. In theory, the snowball is rolling down the hill and each time it rolls over it gets bigger,” says Dunn.
This fall, the Willamette Valley Fruit Company will host its Second Annual Harvest Festival to encourage the community to appreciate and celebrate Oregon’s bounty. The festival is held in October and about 6,000 visitors attend to enjoy a 13-acre corn maze, hayride tours, U-Pick, and tasty pies and smoothies made with Oregon-grown berries. “It’s another way we connect with the community and get the community to connect with us,” says Jeff.
He adds that the Willamette Valley Fruit Company is special because, “We’re able to showcase processing, farming and retail all in one location. When it comes to good people and healthy, good food, Willamette Valley Fruit Company is a fun place to visit and a great place to find something tasty to take home.”