Commissions beckon for family
Unger: 'I want to see our industry succeed' by guiding research, promotion activities
By MITCH LIES
HILLSBORO, Ore. -- As a youth, Will Unger recalls accompanying his father, Matt, to Oregon Strawberry Commission meetings.
At the time, Matt was commission chairman, a position he also holds today.
"I guess that got me interested (in serving on commissions)," Unger said.
Today, Unger, 29, is starting his second year on the Oregon Blueberry Commission and his fourth year on state berry commissions.
"I like to be involved in deciding where our assessments go," Unger said. "I want to see our industry succeed, too, and a good way to do that is to help direct the research and promotions that help the industry succeed.
"I guess I get some of that desire to be involved from my dad."
Unger is one of five farmers under the age of 40 serving on a commission that is perhaps younger than any of the state's 23 commodity commissions.
"The blueberry commission is not a bunch of old crotchety guys that have been farming for 30 years," said Doug Krahmer, chairman of the State Board of Agriculture and a former chairman of the commission. "And I think that is important. If we don't train the new generation, I don't know why they would be able to just step in when they are 45 or 50 years old and do a good job."
Unger, who served two years on the Oregon Raspberry Blackberry Commission prior to joining the blueberry commission, brings a unique perspective to the nine-member panel. In his work as farm and grower relations manager for Oregon Berry Packing in Hillsboro, which sells fruit around the world, he has experience in the international fruit market. And he is well versed in the local food movement through his family farm, Unger Farms in Cornelius.
Unger probably never would have left the family farm were it not that the farm couldn't support him year-round. He left five years ago to take the managerial position at Oregon Berry Packing.
With profit margins increasing on the family farm, his parents, Matt and Kathy, recently asked Will to return. Last fall, Unger informed Oregon Berry Packing he will be leaving after the 2014 harvest season.
Unger said he plans to continue the family business model of selling directly to consumers and to local grocery stores -- a business model he knows well. Unlike most multigenerational farmers who sell direct, Unger didn't transition to the local-food movement, he grew up in it.
"When I got into junior high school and through high school, my Saturdays in late May and early June involved getting up at 4 o'clock in the morning to start getting ready for the farmers' markets," he said.
As a young adult, Unger handled much of the farm's grocery business. His daily routine during strawberry season involved taking orders from New Seasons Market and other stores in Portland, filling up a 22-foot box van and delivering berries to the stores.
Unger helped expand the farm's local grocer sales in the years between 2001, when he graduated from Hillsboro High School, and 2007, when he left to join Oregon Berry Packing.
At Oregon Berry Packing, owned and operated by Roy Malensky and his sons, Jeff and Brian, Unger is in charge of getting fruit to the packing plant.
"Once it's there, they're in charge," he said.
In his position, Unger coordinates harvest schedules and works with two strawberry growers and 11 blueberry growers to develop spray and pruning programs. He also manages the Malensky family farm.
The move from local and direct sales at Unger Farms to Oregon Berry Packing has been educational, Unger said.
"I never realized how many different audits you have to go through to have a processing plant, and all the little details you have to keep track of," Unger said.
Unger said one buyer in Japan sent 13 people to audit Oregon Berry Packing's operation one day.
"It really surprised me how picky they can be," he said.
"But I think (Oregon Berry Packing) is one of the few companies that can meet their specifications," Unger said. "We are small enough that we can pay attention to that detail. And the customers in Japan have been very happy with the product we send over there."
In addition to maintaining his family farm's busy farmers' market schedule, Unger said he hopes to expand into more local grocery stores when he returns to the Unger farm. The farm sells its strawberries, blueberries and raspberries at about 20 farmers' markets and several local grocer outlets.
"I have long-term goals of expanding what my parents do, particularly with the strawberries," he said.
One goal, he said, is to gain shelf space in larger grocers, such as Fred Meyer and Safeway. Doing that, he said, will hinge on whether he can offer the grocers a consistent supply of strawberries.
"If they are going to have strawberries in a store, they need them in there all the time," Unger said. "And the issue has been that if we are supplying them, and we suddenly have some rain and it damages a bunch of fruit and we can't sell to them, they said there is an eight- to 10-day turn-around time in ordering from California. So they would have a bare spot on their shelf for that long, and they don't want that.
"I'd like to figure out a way to fill that, or produce them more consistently down the road," he said.
"I think that if we can be fairly close to the price California is charging for the berries, we can compete with them in the large stores," Unger said.
"The interest is there by the buyers, and they would even be willing to pay a little more just to get the local name in there," Unger said. "But figuring out how to have berries consistently all summer is the challenge.
"The variety we have right now seems to be pretty sensitive to rain," he said. "We could cover them. That is what we are considering -- whether we can make enough money to pay for the tunnels."
Unger said he is looking forward to getting back to field work when he returns to the family farm, something he does very little of in his current position.
"I make decisions for the farm, and I go out there and check on the farm," he said. "But I'm not gluing pipe together, moving irrigation lines or driving tractor. I do kind of miss that, getting dirty and sweaty out there."
Unger, who is the oldest of four siblings, is the fourth generation of Ungers to farm in Oregon.
If all goes well, he said, his son will become the fifth generation.
It may be a while before he knows whether his son is interested, however.
"He hasn't expressed any interest yet," Unger said. "But he's only 3 months old."
Residence: Hillsboro, Ore.
Occupation: Farm and grower relations manager for Oregon Berry Packing.
Family: Wife, Beth; daughter, 2; son, 3 months.
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