“Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did” Dr. William Butler
Strawberries have been known since the time of the Greeks and Romans. Wild American berries and French Strawberries were crossbred as early as 1624. Commercial strawberry growing began in America about 1800 near the largest eastern cities. Strawberries moved west with the pioneers and were reportedly grown near Vancouver, Washington at the Hudson Bay Post in 1836.
In 1846, Henderson Luelling traveled with his family from Iowa to Oregon by wagon train, with two extra wagon loads of fruit and nut trees and berry plants. Luelling’s plants thrived in the fertile Willamette Valley, and he opened a nursery in Milwaukee, Oregon in 1850. By 1870 he was advertising the Wilson variety of strawberries, which had been developed by James Wilson of New York, but were more suited to the Oregon climate. This variety helped establish the emerging strawberry industry in the Northwest, which was looked upon at the time as a stop gap measure until the larger fruit trees planted in the Hood River area could come to maturity. The first canneries were pioneered by Asa Lovejoy in Oregon City in 1870 and began processing and shipping berries across the country.
Around 1880 the Clarks Seedling variety, a chance seedling found in the Mt.Tabor area in east Portland, became the first commercial strawberry variety because of its excellent shipping qualities. Strawberries were grown primarily in the HoodRiverValley, and were shipped by Southern Pacific Railroad across the country. The railroad helped farmers form shipping unions which enabled them to grow and ship almost double the amount of berries.
Ettersburg 121 became the leading variety in the Willamette Valley in 1910 because of its excellent canning qualities. Bred by Albert Etter of Mendocino, California, the Ettersburg 121 was a firm fleshed berry with high flavor and a color that held well in canning.
In the 1920’s the Marshall variety of strawberry was grown extensively in Washington, Oregon and California. These were very large berries with an exceptional taste and firmness. Many, who have eaten them, hail Marshalls as “the finest eating strawberry”. Marshall berries were important in the Oregon strawberry industry as the first berry that was processed by freezing. Oregon and Washington pioneered the preservation of fruit by freezing. Barrels of Marshall berries were frozen in freezing plants where they were rolled back and forth to ensure the berries were frozen in the center of the barrel. They were then shipped by rail to preserve factories on the East Coast. While they were important to the development of the great freezing industry in Oregon and Washington, Marshalls had their limitations. They were poor to average in productiveness, non-hardy, and virus susceptible plants.But Marshalls continued to be grown well into the 1960’s.
Other varieties grown during 1900 - 1930 were Magoon, Gold Dollar, Oregon, Dervey, Improved Clark, Corvallis and Washington Red.
Just after World War Two, western farmers unknowingly imported virus infected plant stocks. The Marshall berry was very susceptible to virus. This resulted in disastrous crop reduction and lead to the breeding of a more virus resistant strawberry, the Northwest variety, developed by C. Swartz of Washington State University. Northwest, introduced in the 1950’s was an excellent freezing berry but was not as good for preserves as the Marshall. The Hood berry introduced in 1965 was an excellent berry for preserves but not suited to freezing. Both the Marshall and the Hood were susceptible to the red stele root disease and so new varieties were needed to overcome this problem.
During the 1950’s and 1960’s Oregon farmers grew 90 to 100 million pounds of strawberries. Marshalls and Northwests continued to be the most widely grown berries.In fact, in the 1950’s the “Five Ton Club” was created to encourage berry farmers to grow even higher yields of the Marshall variety. Only a small percentage of farmers succeeded in reaching the goal of 5 tons of Marshalls per acre. This quote from the Sunday Oregonian, August 7, 1955 shows that some things never change. “Three years ago, when the council launched its ‘Five Ton Club” program, Oregon’ strawberry industry was in a gloomy frame of mind, predictions were heard on all sides that California, with its fantastic yields of up to 20 tons an acre, soon would drive Oregon out of business.”
The Siletz variety was the first breakthrough against the red stele disease and was bred by George F. Waldo of the U.S.D.A at Oregon State College in 1955. It had deep red berries of high flavor, which adapted well to freezing. However, the Siletz berries were too soft and not very large and not as good for preserves.
H. Daubeny, Canadian Department of Agriculture developed the Totem variety of strawberry, at the research station at Agassiz, British Columbia, in the 1970’s. This proved to be the variety that combined disease resistance and great qualities for canning, preserves and freezing. Totem strawberries are known for their excellent processing qualities including integrity of color and flavor. A long fruit spur that is susceptible to late frosts hampers them. Totems have become the leading variety of strawberry grown in Oregon today.
By the 1970’s California had a large and growing strawberry industry. Although Oregon berries were far superior in taste and texture and unrivaled in qualities for canning and freezing, the California farmers were able to produce between 20 and 30 tons an acre compared to the 5 tons an acre grown by Oregon farmers. This began to drastically affect the market for Oregon berries.
Additional varieties grown and processed during the 1950 - 1980 period were Molar, Cascade, Columbia, Shokusan, Benton, and Rainer.
Today, approximately 70% of Oregon’s processing berries are of the Totem, Tillamook or Hood varieties. The Oregon strawberry industry with its 120 year history has had a production that has ranged from over 100 million pounds (1964, 1988) to less than 20 million pounds. Currently Oregon ranks third in the nation in strawberry production, but it is a distant third to Florida and California. Compared to California’s 1.9 billion pounds, Oregon is a niche market.
Due to the colder Oregon climate the vast majority of berries are June bearing varieties. Additionally, climate conditions in Oregon dictate a three-week harvest period. Oregon’s berries are superior in quality but costly to grow and harvest requiring a greater price in the market to remain viable. In California, most of the berries are day neutral varieties, providing longer harvest periods. Production per acre is considerably higher and cost of production is considerably less.
Currently, some of Oregon’s strawberry growers are looking toward the Far East to expand their market. Japanese consumption of Oregon strawberries has been increasing.. Other Oregon growers are looking at an expansion of the fresh market as the future for Oregon strawberries. Growers in Oregon are exploring the options to keep premium grade Oregon strawberries viable into the future.
Special Thanks to Whitey Lawrence, Bob Conroy, Dean Bredenkamp and Mark Gehlar for their invaluable knowledge of the Oregon strawberry industry. They were gracious enough to share memories of events and people, like themselves, who shaped the industry as we know it today.