Stahlbush Island Farms thrives under Chambers family
Anyone calling Stahlbush Island Farms in Corvallis, Ore., and asking for Mr. Stahlbush will be greeted with silence for a moment. Mr. Stahlbush has not owned this land for 25 years. And it is only an island because the farm is surrounded by the Willamette River.
Berries, like these Marion blackberries, have a short shelf life when fresh. Stahlbush Island Farms freezes them and reaps rewards year-round.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF STAHLBUSH ISLAND FARMS.
In fact, the farm has thrived under the ownership of the Chambers family for the past 25 years. Anyone viewing the farm’s website, on the other hand, will get a perfect picture of the current state of affairs of an enterprise that is a leading example of sustainability and vertical integration. The farm’s owners set out from the start to not only adopt sustainable practices, such as organic growing, but also to utilize self-marketing and food processing to maximize profits from its fruits and vegetables.
“We wanted to be in the market 365 days of the year, and we wanted to bring real value back to the farm,” says Karla Chambers. She is vice president of the company, and her husband Bill is president. He oversees the farming operations, and she is head of marketing and processing operations. Stahlbush Island Farms is a fine example of how modern ideas of sustainability and marketing can be used to wring all the profits out of a blueberry or a pumpkin.
Karla and Bill Chambers have proven that sustainability and vertical integration can work on a farm.
Bill and Karla met at Oregon State University while studying to become ag economists. Instead of going the academic route, they married and bought Stahlbush Island Farms. Both came from families that had farmed in Oregon for many decades, and they took over some traditional crops like wheat and sugar beets.
However, the Chamberses saw a different future for the farm. The deep, rich, river bottom soils of the Willamette Valley are ideal for a number of high-value crops, and they saw it as a perfect medium for fruits and vegetables. They started their vegetable venture with pumpkins grown for seed.
“That was the crop that took us into vertical processing,” Chambers says. She explains that when they saw how much of the pumpkin was wasted after the seeds were sold, they started on a new course. Within a decade, they began building processing facilities, and now 100 percent of their fruits and vegetables are processed.
Why no sales of fresh crops? Chambers says that berries, one of the biggest segments of the farm’s production, are a good example of why the farm has chosen to freeze or can all of its produce. Berries typically have a three or four-day shelf life, and from harvest to point of sale they are a precarious crop.
The Chambers began processing produce with pumpkins, which could be grown for seed for canning.
“We have a very short time frame on harvest,” she says, and the farm produces strawberries, blueberries, black raspberries, red raspberries, boysenberries, cranberries and Marion blackberries. With the need to get the fresh crop to the market in a timely fashion, the farm would have limited exposure to the type of consumer they want to attract: those shopping in natural food stores. The farm’s brand would only be in the stores for a few days of the year with fresh berries.
However, by freezing those berries on their own property, the farm not only is able to rapidly preserve the fruit and keep it viable over a long period of time, it is also making its brand visible year-round. There is huge consumer demand for frozen berries, especially for the Northwest varieties they grow that are high in natural sugars, and Stahlbush Island Farms is simply following that market to its natural end.
When corn is taken to the Stahlbush Island Farms plants, it can be processed into seven or eight different products.
Sweet corn is another crop that is well suited to processing. Chambers says that corn can actually be processed into seven or eight finished products on the farm, and that gives the family operation great flexibility. It can be used under its own canning or freezing labels, or it can be processed under contract for other companies’ labels.
As a result of these kinds of opportunities, the farm grows and processes some 20 crops on about 5,000 acres of land. Plus, they work with outside growers when necessary to supply their processing plants’ orders. The facilities required a lot of capital investment over the years, but the Chamberses feel that kind of commitment is what’s needed to supply markets across the country with their produce year-round. They also export to 25 countries. There is some extra price premium returned to the farm when they package their own produce, but Chambers says that is limited and is not the sole reason for processing.
She says that there is an entire philosophy wrapped around the idea of sustainability that encourages vertical integration. It starts with the soil, which is the basis of quality produce, and runs all the way through organic production and into the marketplace. There is a movement in the U.S. toward the consumption of more natural foods and awareness of how it is grown, and their decision 25 years ago to go in this direction now seems to be synchronizing with this movement.
“You have to follow the market,” Chambers says, noting also that this type of farming and participation in the natural foods movement conformed with their predictions as ag economists and fit their personal philosophies, as well. It happens that they were early in the game, and now there are many followers. “We were the first farm in the U.S. to be certified as sustainable by the Food Alliance.”
Stahlbush Island Farms grows on 5,000 acres in the Willamette Valley, all of it destined for processing plants.
The company started processing some of its produce in 1990 and has found these operations to be successful. Currently, the farm processes and markets produce under two brands. The Stahlbush Island Farms label is for frozen fruits and vegetables, but it also grows and processes a line of frozen grains and legumes. The Farmers Market label is for canned veggies. All are grown as organic crops. Looking at the farm’s website, www.stahlbush.com, it’s easy to see that the company has been very “entrepreneurial” in product selection, as Chambers puts it.
The website also reflects the farm’s commitment to informing the public about its operations and innovations. The company has a large marketing force that for the most part takes the traditional produce broker out of the middle of a transaction, but the website remains the face of the farm. It emphasizes the pure, natural, sustainable nature of the business from top to bottom, from grower to consumer. It also emphasizes that this is a family operation. In fact, the Chamberses’ daughter, Katie, designed and runs the site, and Chambers herself is an artist who designs some of the labels.
“We want consumers to know what we’re doing,” Chambers says. The site also leads to a Facebook page and a blog that emphasizes company innovations and gives testimonials and other features such as recipes for the farm’s products. There is even a store locator that allows consumers to find stores near them that sell Stahlbush Island Farms’ products.
The final testimonial to the farm’s sustainability movement is its recently built biogas plant (above), which utilizes farm byproducts to produce methane. The biogas is used to generate the farm’s electricity and produces enough to power the farm’s operations two times over. Or, it could be used to power 1,100 homes. This was Bill’s pet project, Chambers points out, and it makes sense. She notes that after the harvest of 1 pound of cut corn, 2 pounds of husk and cob are left over. It is no longer considered waste on this farm.
The biogas plant has been in operation for three years now and cost over $10 million to put into operation – the state of Oregon contributed some funding for the experimental facility. By using its own byproducts and selling some power back into the grid, the plant pencils out to a payback within seven to 10 years. Chambers emphasizes that this facility is just one more building block in the farm’s attempt to establish itself as a truly sustainable operation.
When asked how the farm’s philosophy fits into the future of food production in the U.S., Chambers says that two things come to mind.
“I think the consumer is really looking for people they can connect with in values,” she says. They are looking to buy what they eat from family farms that prove the value of their foods through such features as certified organic labels and sustainable operations that protect the soil, wildlife and other resources. They connect good growing practices with good taste.
Second, by using striking marketing and packaging, a farm can make a visual connection to those customers and establish a solid brand based on those values. In the same way that wine labels are often done artistically and colorfully, so will the packages for frozen and canned foods attract shoppers if they are done right. These are methods that Stahlbush Island Farms has been using for a long time, and they deftly illustrate why the farm has been so successful.
There’s one other thing. “You know, we love the food business,” Chambers says. “My goal is to convey that to our customer.”
Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.