In previous years, John Jenkins of Lebanon didn’t have to go far for strawberries. But on Friday afternoon — with the Lebanon Strawberry Festival hitting full stride — he drove to the corner of Highway 34 and Seven Mile Lane and bought a box of the bright red fruit.
“The one over by the cemetery in Lebanon is not growing anymore,” the 74-year-old explained. “It’s a shame. They had great berries, but I understand. Times change.”
In 1909, Lebanon created the Strawberry Festival to promote the plethora of nearby strawberry farms.
Jenkins and other locals now are lamenting the loss of the last large strawberry patch in the immediate Lebanon area.
Good and Miners farm stopped strawberry production this year. Their fields, which once had as much as 17 acres of strawberries, sat just north of the I.O.O.F Cemetery off Highway 20. Tall grass now waves in the wind next to the cemetery’s Strawberry Lane.
“It’s too bad. We’re losing some of our heritage,” said Darrell Beaver, 72. His wife, Vickie, 70, picked berries at Good and Miners when she was young as a summer job.
Mary Garner, office manager for the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce, said there are still a few farms outside town that have just enough berries for roadside stands.
Garner remembered going berry picking with most of her friends when she was a child. The farms would send buses to Lebanon to pick up their young labor force.
“That’s how you made money for school clothes and extra money,” she said.
Darlene Carter used to have 12 to 15 acres of strawberries on her Tennessee Road farm, but she and her husband switched to other crops in the 1980s due to child labor laws.
“You couldn’t get people to come out and pick them. You had the crop sitting there, and it went to waste,” Carter said.
“I feel bad about it. I really do. It was a good way for kids to make money, and nowadays they don’t have things like that,” she added.
Lebanon isn’t the only place in Oregon where the strawberry industry has largely disappeared.
Strawberry acreage in the state peaked at more than 18,000 acres in the 1950s, said Bernadine Strik, Oregon State University professor of horticulture. Today, it stands at only 1,900 acres.
Linn County strawberry acreage dropped from 220 acres to 175 in the last 20 years, according to the latest figures. There actually has been an increase since 10 years ago, when there were 140 acres.
Strik said numerous factors are responsible for the decline, including the development of the California strawberry industry, less interest in canned fruit, and the aforementioned child labor laws. Strawberries also can’t be picked by machine like other crops.
Many farmers have switched to grass seed or growing other berries, like blueberries. Oregon now has 7,500 acres of blueberries harvested, compared to 800 in 1985. Twenty years ago, there were 4,000 acres of (farm) blackberries in the state, a figure that now stands at 8,000 acres.
The strawberry industry slowdown wasn’t evident at Khe Family Farm, where Jenkins had stopped to buy berries. Cars kept coming to its produce stand on Friday afternoon.
Khe Saetern said he has five acres of strawberries. And soon, said his son Nai Saetern, there will be fresh raspberries and boysenberries.
Lebanon Express reporter Matt DeBow contributed to this story.