KENO, Ore. — A hobby has turned into a business for Debra and Roy Harris.
After decades of various jobs — Ray was a logger, Debra has long been involved in multiple phases of the food industry and both were mushroom pickers and buyers — the Harrises planned to retire. But because their experiments with making jams from fresh fruit literally jelled, they’re putting in even longer hours than before.
“I know it’s odd for people as old as us to jump into something new,” she laughs. Debra is 65, and Roy just turned 67.
Their business, Oregon Jams: Specialty & Wild Barry Jams, began last summer when they began selling jars at farmers’ markets. Their offerings sold quickly. Forty-five jars of huckleberry jam sold out in two hours at a Bend farmers’ market.
Week after week the pattern repeated itself. At the advice of their daughter, they raised their prices, eventually tripling the original price.
“I sold out just as fast as we put it up,” Debra chortles, still amazed. “I thought, ‘Maybe there is something to this.’ It was like all the stars aligned.”
The Harrises pick some fruit — including elderberries, apples and peaches — from their shared orchard in Keno, a small southern Oregon community near Klamath Falls.
Other berries come from the Coos Bay area and other Oregon Coast communities. While some fruit is bought, “I’d rather pick it myself because it’s fun,” Debra insists. “It puts you in contact with the soil, with the earth. It makes your soul real happy to be out there.”
Their multi-varieties of jams are making buyers real happy. Some varieties, like raspberry and huckleberry, are straightforward and take only a few hours to make. Others are more involved, specialties like marionberry-raspberry liqueur and peach amaretto.
Debra says she uses less sugar than most jam makers to emphasize the fresh fruit and berries — “You need some tartness” — while the specialty varieties take days because of the time involved in blending and preparing the liqueur — “the alcohol is cooked off but the flavor remains.”
Because they’re supposedly retired, the Harrises are trying not to spread themselves too thin.
“It’s Roy and I. We can’t supply it to 28 stores and spend all our weekends at farmers’ markets. It’s all about quality control for me,” says Debra. “It’s important that it’s organic.”
She credits her husband for devising several jam varieties. “Roy was instrumental in the recipes. He said, ‘Let’s try this and this together,’ and it worked.”
The couple is always testing new recipes and varieties. This spring they have plans to add more specialties jams, including dandelion, fir and spruce trip (“very fruity and very good for you), manzanita flower and wild rosehip.
“We’ve always dealt in wild food,” Debra says, noting Roy is a game hunter, she’s made herbal medicines and canned for decades, and for about 40 years they were wild mushroom pickers and buyers.
Now the Harrises are focusing on their wild berry and specialty jams, a business that’s mushrooming so rapidly they’re moving from their home to the kitchen at the Keno Grill restaurant. In upcoming weeks they’ll spend three or four days a week cooking jam, making 45 to 60 dozen jars for farmers’ markets.
“We’re running low on everything,” Debra says of the need to resupply their stock of jams. “We had no idea people would like the jam as much as we do.”