SILVERTON, Ore. — Blackberry pies rode along a sparkling new conveyor line June 27 at Willamette Valley Pie Co., where a dozen visitors from Japan gathered for a morning tour.

The group — composed of well-known Japanese chefs, retail and food industry representatives — took a keen interest in the fruit, sourced from local farms. Speaking through a translator, they asked questions about sugar content and flavor while observing pie production.

Ultimately, the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission hopes the delegation will return to Japan with ideas for creating products of their own featuring Oregon berries.

The commission hosted the five-day trade mission June 24-28 with Japanese companies after receiving a Specialty Crop Block Grant of $81,290 from the Oregon Department of Agriculture in 2018. Funding for the grants comes from the USDA to enhance the competitiveness of Oregon's specialty crops.

Oregon grows nearly all U.S. blackberries and boysenberries. Combined with raspberries and black raspberries, production totaled about 42 million pounds in 2018, according to the commission.

Darcy Kochis, marketing director for the commission, said they identified Japan as a top potential export market for overseas. Not only do Japanese consumers follow food trends, but they have the economy to support premium products, she said.

By bringing buyers to Oregon and connecting them directly to growers, Kochis said they aim to increase awareness of Oregon berries as healthy, premium food ingredients and drive sales.

"We feel like we can tell the best story about our industry by bringing them to our backyard," Kochis said.

The trip started with a visit to Oregon State University's breeding program at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora. Kochis said the group was especially intrigued by Columbia Star, a thornless blackberry variety released in 2014 that has exploded in production, from 400,000 pounds in 2016 to 2.7 million pounds in 2018.

From there, the group met with several growers in the field to talk about Oregon's growing environment and learn about farm practices. They were even able to sample fresh berries off the line.

"They're telling us that they've been inspired by the flavors that they've tasted, and the stories that they've heard," Kochis said.

The week ended with visits to Willamette Valley processors and value-added companies, including Willamette Valley Pie Co.

"All of the berries come from local farms," said CEO Jeff Dunn. The company buys berries from about 30 farms within 10 miles of the processing facility.

Derek Imig, a member of the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission and sales manager at Willamette Valley Fruit Co., said tapping into the Japanese market would be "huge" for Oregon berry growers. He said the trade mission to Oregon should leave buyers with an impression on buyers that they can't get from brochures.

"When you taste a berry that you've pulled off a bush, you don't forget it," he said. "This trip has certainly given them something to think about."

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