Adding Value: Three Oregon Food Processors Who Make an Impact

By Anna Markley

Oregon agriculture's economic impact begins in the fields, orchards, and rangeland of Oregon farms and ranches. But before going to market and finding its way to our plates, much of it is processed and transformed by small companies throughout urban and rural areas of the state. Altogether, processing provides over 41,000 jobs and $13.21 billion of total output in Oregon's economy. Even as general manufacturing declined during the recession, food manufacturing jobs continued to grow. It remains the only manufacturing sector projected to grow in Oregon, with 1,700 new jobs forecast by 2018.

Processors come in a variety of forms, from the very small to the very large. As part of our celebration of Oregon agriculture this Thanksgiving, intern Anna Markley looked into a few exemplary processors around the state. Here is her report.

Rogue Creamery, Central Point

Rogue Creamery has a history of being uncompromising in both in the quality of their products and their focus on sustainability.  And after nearly 80 years in business and over 75 awards for their blue and cheddar cheeses in the last decade alone, it’s clear that their model is working.

The creamery was established during the Great Depression and provided much needed year-round jobs both for farmers and factory workers living in the Rogue Valley.  Employment and production reached a peak during WWII, as the creamery upped their production of cheddar cheeses to assist in the war effort.  Despite less demand during the “Velveeta Era” of the 1950’s and 60’s, Rogue Creamery has stayed true to making high-quality, artisan cheese to this day.

The company’s commitment to environmental stewardship has been equally unwavering over the years.  Rogue Creamery has been on the forefront of the industry in initiatives that aim to reduce waste, increase efficiency in energy usage, and support sustainable agricultural.  The company recently installed a 58,000 watt solar panel system and has worked tirelessly to recycle the bulk of the organic and inorganic byproducts of the cheese making process.  They also have initiated a program internally that rewards employees for biking, taking transit, and carpooling to work.

The company’s facilities in downtown Central Point employ 40-60 people depending on the season, and include Roquefort-style aging caves and a shop that is committed to featuring other local products such as chocolate and wine.  Sourcing locally has been a priority since the company’s inception.  Rogue View- a dedicated 70-acre dairy farm on the Rogue River- provides the bulk of milk for the company.  Cows there are mostly pasture grazed, which gives their milk a rich and wholesome flavor perfect for cheese making.

“What’s different about what we do is we do this every day,” says Francis Plowman, the company’s Marketing Director.  “We work very hard to ensure that our suppliers are faithful stewards of the land and use environmental practices that meet our standards.”

Muirhead Canning Company, The Dalles

On a warm, sunny day in early fall, around twenty employees are helping to sort, core, peel, slice, and can the last of the season’s peaches at Muirhead Canning Company. Though just a couple miles outside of downtown The Dalles, the rolling hills and farmland surrounding the property make it feel as if the nearest town is a hundred miles away.

The company, which has been family-owned and operated since 1946, prides itself on the purity and quality of their product. They stand out from other canning companies in their practice of using the traditional home-canning method of steam peeling as well as the pure sugar they put in their syrup.

They also pride themselves on their sourcing. Half of the farms that supply fruit to Muirhead are located within a hundred miles of their canning facilities. Both cherries and a share of their peaches are grown in neighborhood farms just a couple of miles from the processing facilities. “A lot of people don’t realize where their food comes from,” says Russell Loughmiller, who bought the company with his wife, Jenny, from the Muirhead family in 2006. “I like to know my farmers pretty well.”

Muirhead currently sells about 350,000 cans of fruit a year through their online ordering system and yearly mailer. The Loughmillers don’t spend a lot of time or money advertising, so they rely on the quality of their product to generate repeat customers.  Though the company’s market is mainly in Washington and Oregon, they recently partnered with Azure Standard of Dufur to make deliveries as far as the East Coast. 

As employees stack the warm, canned peaches on the loading dock outside just a few feet from the whole peaches, it’s easy to see the satisfaction that comes from turning fresh produce into a product. It’s this process that has always been appealing to Loughmiller. “It’s fun to see something that came from the field turn into a final product you can see on the shelves.”

Fresh n'Local Foods, Salem

Fresh n’ Local Foods is the brainchild of Evann Remington (right), a successful entrepreneur and a mother who became concerned with the quality of food being served in schools and daycares. The Salem-based company began operations in 2007 as Organic Fresh Fingers, a healthy retail line with products sold in 150 stores across 11 states. 

The company currently supplies healthy, locally-sourced meals to public, private and charter schools and districts, Boys and Girls Clubs, Albina Head Start, Family Relief Nursery and numerous workplaces. The meals, which meet USDA and National School Lunch Program’s price and nutrition guidelines, are made from scratch in their new production kitchen in Salem’s Fairview Industrial District.

Remington and her staff have developed 25 entrees that kids recognize and enjoy, such as mac n’cheese and enchiladas, that substitute healthier ingredients such whole grains and vegetables. 

Most of Fresh n’ Local’s purchasing is done through Charlie’s Produce, which serves as the “go-between” for farmers and processors, and Minto Island Growers in South Salem.  Remington would like to both purchase more directly from farmers and work more closely with other local food processors in the future, but both will take a considerable amount of time and energy. 

For the time being, she plans to direct that energy towards hiring two to four more employees as well as incorporating a new Plant Manager into the staff to oversee and streamline manufacturing. She also hopes to expand production numbers to 800,000 meals a month for schools, daycares, and other institutions across Oregon.

Remington is also working on developing and expanding the Healthy Dinner Program, which is in its first year of operation.  The program allows employers to give their employees the option of ordering healthy entrees online, which will be delivered to their work places.  SAIF Corporation, which manages worker’s compensation in Oregon, has undertaken a trial the program for their 1,600 employees, and has found it to be a great success so far, Remington says.