Food trends at home and abroad favor Oregon products, trade specialist says

The Columbia River system, including these grain elevators at Biggs operated by Mid Columbia Producers, handles much of what the Pacific Northwest exports and must be maintained, an Oregon trade specialist says.

PORTLAND — Oregon’s agricultural prospects are intertwined with food trade, trends and technology, the state’s Board of Agriculture heard this past week.

Dennis Hannapel, the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s trade policy specialist, walked the board through changes and challenges he expects will impact the states farmers and ranchers in the coming years.

Among them: Increased use of mechanical and robotic harvesters. Tree fruits will be increasingly configured to grow on V-trellis systems, speeding picking time.

Expect the skies above fields, orchards and ranges to be filled with unmanned aerial drones, Hannapel said. Equipped with the right cameras, they’ll be able to take inventory, see disease outbreaks, spot nutrition deficiencies and help cattle ranchers track their animals, he said.

“The application for agriculture is going to be phenomenal,” Hannapel said.

Board member Doug Krahmer, a blueberry grower, said finding labor efficiencies is “huge” to farmers.

“Our workforce for harvest labor is aging, with no young people filling in underneath,” he said. “It takes our harvest costs the wrong way.”

Challenges include trade barriers and disease or pest problems that block Oregon products from overseas markets, Hannapel said. Complicating the picture are an ineffective and unpopular Congress and unresolved immigration reform and labor issues. The Columbia River system of ports, dams and elevators, which handles so much of what the Pacific Northwest produces, suffers from aging infrastructure and needs updating, he said.

Food trends include a “rush toward allergen-free and gluten-free,” and a strong future for foods that are all-natural, locally produced and sustainable – but not necessarily organic, Hannapel said. Kosher foods sell well, and the same might hold for halal food – items, particularly meat, prepared in a way acceptable in Islamic tradition. Oregon-produced halal food might find a good market in Muslim nations such as Indonesia, a populous trading partner.

National U.S. food trends are likely to take hold overseas, he said, and they line up well with what Oregon produces, he said.

Trends include “retro” products such as ice cream sandwiches, but made with natural ingredients and not the artificial colors, flavors and preservatives that filled previous versions. Consumers also enjoy “cool labels with cool stories,” Hannapel said.

In an unexpected development, Oregon craft beer and micro-brews have become so popular that European brewers want to learn how to make them, he said.

“It’s an interesting flip-flop, now that the student is teaching the master, so to speak,” Hannapel said.

Oregon exports nearly $3 billion worth of agricultural products annually, with China, Japan and South Korea the top three overseas destinations. Hannapel said fresh blueberries have done well in the breakthrough Korean market. Oregon wheat growers did a “phenomenal” job of handling the discovery of genetically engineered wheat and reassuring Japanese and Korean customers after they temporarily suspended purchases, he said. Gaining approval to export beef to China would be a major step forward, he said, while hazelnuts are a “hot commodity and moving well.”

“Trade is complex, political, emotional and technical,” Hannapel said.

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