Meridian Orchards, in Aurora, Oregon is the longest-running certified organic hazelnut orchard in the USA. It was there that a panel of experts shared their inspiring business stories of marketing success during the lunch break of the 2019 Summer Farm Tour. The common threads binding the tales together were organic produce, organic product lines, and hazelnuts.
A group of around 75 people—mostly hazelnut growers—first toured a new organic hazelnut orchard at Skydance Farm in Sherwood, Oregon. Everyone then traveled from Washington County to Marion County. A catered lunch awaited the group at Jim Birkemeier, his daughter Mary Birkemeier-Stehman and son-in-law David Stehman’s Meridian Orchards.
Organic Produce Distribution
Tom Lively, a founding member of the Organically Grown Company, was the keynote speaker. Organically Grown is a distributor of certified organic produce based out of Eugene, Oregon. They deliver to restaurants and retailers throughout the Pacific Northwest. The lunch-hour program was the mid-point of the farm tour in August, organized by the Oregon Organic Hazelnut Cooperative, and sponsored in part by West Coast Nut magazine.
Tom shared his experiences of starting out in the late 1970s with “A few gardeners, small-scale farmers, hippies, environmental activists and dreamers living near Eugene.” He also shared how the co-op has grown and evolved over the decades.
In 1978, the group of farmers formed a nonprofit organic produce co-operative. In 1980, some of the members wanted to coordinate which farmers would grow which crop. That way they’d be able to market a more diversified product line as a unified group, instead of everyone growing the same few crops—tomatoes, corn and lettuce, for example. Divvying up the crop-growing assignments was not always smooth sailing. There were many arguments, some quite heated. But the coordinating paid off. In 1982, the group formed a growers’ marketing cooperative.
They opened their first distribution facility in Eugene in 1983. It had a truck-loading dock, which opened up bigger possibilities for loading, unloading and shipping. In 1994, the co-op opened their first Portland facility. The company in 2008 became an employee stock ownership program (ESOP). They expanded their delivery route into Idaho and Montana in 2015. “We’re shipping out of the Pacific Northwest anything that grows especially well here,” Tom said. Among many other produce items, such as blueberries, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, and purple sprouting broccoli, his company now also distributes 30,000 pounds of hazelnuts a year. In 2018, the Organically Grown Company transitioned ownership to the Sustainable Food & Agriculture Perpetual Purpose Trust.
Tom talked about the power behind cooperatives. He encouraged the hazelnut growers to collaborate, so they can set a pre-determined price point for their organic nuts. Organic growers face the challenge of competing with Turkish hazelnuts, which sell for around $4 a pound. Ideally, organic US growers would like to have a base price of $5.50 per pound for organic hazelnuts, around $5.85 a pound for organic walnuts and $6-$6.50 a pound for organic almonds.
After Tom spoke, a panel of business owners who sell, and/or incorporate hazelnuts into their product lines, shared their experiences with marketing, as well as their current and projected future hazelnut needs.
Vegan Ice Cream
Kate Campbell, of Coconut Bliss, based out of Eugene, talked about a hazelnut fudge ice cream flavor that her company offers, which they recently renamed Chocolate Hazelnut Decadence. They use roasted and diced organic hazelnuts. She said they buy 12,000-14,000 pounds of hazelnuts a year. “Double that poundage in shell,” she said.
Coconut Bliss is growing their brand by expanding to sales in more countries. It’s getting harder for her to find a good, steady supply of coconuts, so she’s mulling over the idea of phasing into using hazelnut milk in place of coconut milk in her vegan ice cream.
Of the hazelnut industry, Kate said, “I think the future’s bright and we’re happy to be a part of it and support that.”
Trail Mix and Granola
Patricia Wiskow, of Wildtime Foods, uses whole-kernel hazelnuts in her Grizzlies brand of handmade organic cereal, trail mix, granola and other products. Her company buys 10,000-12,000 pounds of hazelnuts a year. “We use anywhere from fifty to fifteen-hundred pounds in a day,” she said.
Wildtime Foods, also of Eugene, started out in 1981, delivering locally on bicycles. They’ve since outgrown the bikes and now deliver by motorized vehicles to local, natural food stores. You’re likely to find their products in the bulk-food section. They also have an online store.
Vegan and Gluten-Free Bulk Sales
Herman Bojwani, of Earthly Gourmet Distribution, is looking for bulk, food-service-friendly items. Ninety percent of his sales are to restaurants, 10 percent is sold retail. Hazelnuts are one of the ingredients in the company’s Ethiopian sauces. Herman said a small part of his business is hazelnut butter and hazelnut cookies.
Earthly Gourmet is based out of Portland. They deliver vegan and gluten-free foods to restaurants, bakeries, food processors and natural food stores along the I-5 corridor in Oregon and Washington State. Herman would like to use local and organic hazelnuts, but the bottom line price is important to him, so he tends to buy Turkish nuts for less cost. He did admit that he wants local businesses to support him, so he knows he needs to support local markets in return.
Wholesale Seeds, Nuts, Legumes and Honey
Hummingbird Wholesale, based in Eugene, is a family-owned business. They sell pumpkin seeds, legumes, dried fruit, honey and hazelnuts. Charlie Tilt wants to expand the company’s marketing outreach. “We have to think outside our micro circle,” he said.
The Tilts have great respect for organic growers. “Organic farming is an art form,” Julie Tilt said. “It’s experimentation and research and creativity. Organic farming is a lifestyle. You’re choosing to live your life with certain values.”
The Tilts appreciate the Birkemeier and Stehman’s dedication to producing hazelnuts organically. “Ninety-nine percent of (USA) hazelnuts are grown in Oregon,” Tilt said, “but only one-percent are certified organic.” For the past 20 years, the Tilts have bought their hazelnuts from Meridian Orchards.
As far as pricing, Charlie said he doesn’t mind paying $0.25-$0.50 more per pound for organic, “but two to four dollars per pound more is harder for retail in-store consumers,” he said.
“Value added” are buzz words among some farmers and growers. In the case of Meridian Orchard, Mary Birkemeier-Stehman takes some of their hazelnuts and adds her special touches—different roasts and various nut butters, all with attractive labels—to add value. The consumer is willing to pay more for these nicely presented, specialized products. Birkemeier-Stehman also sells organic fruit.
Birkemeier-Stehman calls her value-added side business Squirrely Jane’s. She set up her marketing display for the hazelnut growers to peruse during the farm tour. She uses the canopy, banners, tables and signs to sell her products at Portland-area farmers markets. She sells one and two pound bags of nuts—lightly salted, roasted and raw. She offers two types of roast. “Some people like the dark roast and some like the light roast,” she said. The smallest kernels are turned into hazelnut butter, which she grinds in an antique peanut grinder in her certified kitchen on the family farm. She makes chocolate, lightly salted, and straight hazelnut butter.
Birkemeier-Stehman enjoys getting the nut products ready for the public, and educating and interacting with customers.
“It’s my jam,” Birkemeier-Stehman said about the value-added piece of the business. “I like it. And that’s important.”
Linda Perrine of Honor Earth Farm, in Eugene, was the moderator of the lunch-hour program. Perrine said she got calls this year from Korean and Chinese buyers for organic hazelnuts. In past years, she’s had calls from Japanese buyers as well.
Perrine takes her nuts to Miller Dehydrator Company to be washed and dried. Miller is located in Eugene. It’s an organic handler certified through Oregon Tilth. She uses Denali Nut Company, of Salem for shelling.
Perrine is a founding member of Oregon Organic Hazelnut Cooperative (OOHC), which got its start in 2017. Currently, she is a Member Director. In 2018, she leased her 32-acre orchard of Casina and Willamette hazelnuts to My Brothers Farm, another co-op member, so she can spend a year focusing on growing OOHC and assisting other members.
OOHC Vice President Taylor Larson thanked everyone for attending, saying it was wonderful to have so many people attend the event.
“Looking at the whole eco-system globally and how Oregon fits into that, there are lots of opportunities for people to make a really good living,” Larson said about organic hazelnut growers.
“What we need are more members.” He echoed what Tom Lively had said at the beginning of the program: “We need to find a way to steer all of our ships in the same direction and collaborate.” Those interested in joining OOHC can find a membership form on their website.
Larson offered a special than you to West Coast Nut magazine for their sponsorship, which was greeted with a warm round of applause.