Clearwater Cranberries is a collaborative of independent, family-owned cranberry growers who are on a mission to demonstrate that premium cranberries, watershed stewardship, and sustainable farming practices.
Harry Hoogesteger, coordinator of the South Coast Watershed Council, harvests cranberries at a Clearwater Cranberries farm.
It’s no idle boast that Oregon grows the best cranberries. To see them, travelers must venture into Oregon’s southwest corner of the state. There, where salmon run in cool, clear rivers out to the Pacific, about 200 cranberry farms are nestled amidst towering forest wilderness.
Oregon is known for producing remarkable cranberries. The unusually temperate and long growing season in this region enables Oregon to grow cranberries that are larger than most other cranberries and have a measurably sweeter, higher sugar content, a uniquely deep red color.
The farming community on what is known as the Wild Rivers Coast is also remarkable. Farmers value the wild rivers and unique wildlife that share their landscape, and they work together to be good stewards of the land. But growing cranberries has often meant using a lot of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. We’ve come to see the impact of such chemicals on salmon habitat and water quality in local streams and rivers, and on pollinators, which are essential to growing cranberries and most other fruits and vegetables.
One small group of cranberry farmers has teamed with the South Coast Watershed Council to protect local rivers by testing environmentally friendly growing practices. They have found that they can still grow the best cranberries in the country while significantly reducing the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and using water more efficiently.
Sadly, when berries are sold in big batches to national companies, the commodity market doesn’t recognize or reward the best of the bunch. The industry knows that Oregon berries, when mixed with berries from other regions, enhance the sweetness, color, and overall quality of the mix. But when it comes down to dollars, all berries are the same.
Gretchen and Randy Farr and their sons Liam and Aiden at harvest
“When we sell our cranberries to the commodity market, they become anonymous. No one knows who grew them, that they’re better than other berries, or that we grew them using environmentally friendly practices. We don’t want our berries to be generic when we’ve taken such care in growing them. We want to sell them to someone who shares our values, and will appreciate them.” - Randy Farr, a founding grower with Clearwater Cranberries.
Today, when an Oregon shopper looks for cranberries on the market shelves, they are as likely to get berries from Massachusetts as they are from Oregon. When the commodity system makes berries anonymous, it takes away a shopper’s power to choose berries from families like Gretchen and Randy Farr, and Scott and Carol McKenzie, who grow with care for the environment. If we can empower shoppers to reward farmers for growing higher quality berries in a way that protects Oregon’s local rivers, we will all benefit.
OEC is partnering with these cranberry farmers and the South Coast Watershed Council to make this possible. The fruits of this partnership–or in this case the cranberries–is Clearwater Cranberries. The mission of this collaborative of farmers is to produce the highest quality cranberries in a fair and sustainable manner that preserves the environment and their family farms for generations to come. Clearwater Cranberries is in the process of obtaining Food Alliance certification for sustainable growing practices. Their goal is to sell the highest quality and healthiest cranberries to buyers within the region who share their values.
We are proud to report that the market is responding positively to our efforts. Sam Currie, the district manager for Bon Appétit Management Company, recently traveled to the South Coast and toured the cranberry farms of Clearwater Cranberries. Bon Appetit has cafes in many of Oregon’s private universities and corporate campuses, and is a leader in sourcing local, sustainably grown food.
After learning about their growing practices, high quality berries, and commitment to preserving family farming on the South Coast for the next generation, he said, “We want to buy all of our cranberries from you, and we want to pay you a fair price that enables you to continue to farm sustainably, and to make a decent living.” To farmers who have sold into the commodity market all of their lives, this is a radical, and welcome change that makes farming in a socially responsible way possible.
“When you sell to the commodity market, it’s an adversarial relationship, and it’s all about price. No one cares whether your kids can take over the farm and make a living. No one cares whether you protect local rivers and salmon populations. To hear that a local buyer wants to support our stewardship practices, and wants my kids to be able to make a living farming in 20 years – that’s amazing.” Scott McKenzie, a founding grower with Clearwater Cranberries.
At OEC, this is the kind of food system we want to grow – one that cares whether a farmer’s kids can make a living farming in the future, and that supports their ability to improve their farming practices to protect Oregon’s environment as we continually develop better approaches to farming. It's leaders like Bon Appetit and the farmers of Clearwater Cranberries that make this kind of change possible. We are proud to be supporting a future where farmers are not anonymous, but instead, local heroes.