ADDRESS: 31567 Hwy 99W, Corvallis, OR
OWNER: Bob and Diane Wilt
YEARS IN BUSINESS: Farming since 1970
WHAT THEY SELL: Certified organically grown berries (blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries) – fresh, frozen, dried, and in spreads
WHY YOU SHOULD GO: Their blueberries are nutrient dense, and all of their berries are plump, delicious, and organically grown.
Most people in Corvallis know Wilt Farms through their farm stand on 99W, their booth at the local Farmers’ Market, or their fruit spreads and bags of frozen blueberries sold at local food stores under the “Sunset Valley Organics” label. What few people realize is that Wilt Farms is a year-round operation that also supplies its organically grown berries to markets far beyond Benton County. Owners Bob and Diane Wilt are committed to offering the most healthful, highest quality, nutrient dense products possible – a variety of berries that are also incredibly delicious.
Diane, when and why did you start your business? Bob’s family had been farming since the early 1900s, so he grew up on the farm, raising sheep and corn. After graduating high school in 1968 and attending OSU through his junior year, Bob asked his dad for a couple of acres to grow melons, which was his first crop. In 1971, he planted his first 8 acres in blueberries.
I grew up in Peoria and started picking strawberries at age 5. When I was 14, I started picking blueberries for Pimm’s. Bob and I married in 1977, and from 1977 to 2006 we had a conventional farm where we grew blueberries, corn, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, squashes and pumpkins. We started raising Christmas trees in 1982, but when the market tanked, we needed to raise other crops so we started planting additional berries – strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries. By 2002, the berries weren’t doing well, and something needed to be done. Conventional food lacks a lot of vitamins and minerals, and since he’s diabetic, Bob wanted more nutritious food. So we began to change our practices, and in 2006 we were certified organic.
Tell us more about your farm and your operations. We have 127 acres, and the buildings on our farm include the house, a shop for repairs, building for cold rooms, a packing shed, and a grading room for drying fruit and making candy. Our basic products are fresh and frozen berries, spreads, and dried blueberries.
After the berries are picked, they go to our cold room. We want to make sure the fruit is up to our standards, so we take a grade of the product every 10 minutes while we are packing our berries. We sort by number of berries per pound, number of stems, number of green/red/purple berries, and number of overripe or bird-pecked berries. All of the berries are fanned, destemmed and washed, run across two color sorters, hand-inspected by 6 people, run through a metal detector, then put in a box to be weighed, coded and put on a pallet. Every box has a code, including the variety and the field it came from.
Where are your berries sold? Our farm stand, where we sell both fresh and frozen fruit, is open from about mid-June through Labor Day weekend. We also sell directly to our customers at the Corvallis Farmers’ Market and the Winter Indoor Market at the Benton County Fairgrounds. We sell at grocery stores in Oregon (First Alternative Co-op, Market of Choice, Ashland Food Co-op, Capella’s, Sundance, Friendly Street, and Ray’s) and one in Seattle. We also take individual orders online, but our biggest market is wholesale. We sell by the semi-truckload to Scenic Fruit, which is a processing company based in Gresham. They re-package our berries in smaller quantities for sale at Costco in Southern California and Arizona. Also, Happle Pie Company in Iowa uses our blueberries and sells pies on-line, and Sweet Creek [based in Elmira, Oregon] has used our blueberries and strawberries in their products.
What challenges have you faced as an independent local business owner? It’s difficult to find people who want to work on the farm, but we’re very lucky to have a foreman who can find good seasonal help. He’s been with us for more than 20 years. Other challenges are higher taxes and all the rules and regulations. There’s a lot of paperwork, whether it’s for state and federal inspectors, third-party auditors, or certification auditors. All of these cost money, and there’s a lot more paperwork than ever. I have a notebook for everything since different inspectors want different things.
What is the impact of local independent businesses on Corvallis? Our local businesses are really good, and I like doing business with them. We use Franklin Press for package labels on our spreads and dried fruit, Sue Crawford to design our labels, and Cleland Marketing to help with promoting our products. Bob goes to Robnett’s rather than Home Depot.
What do you enjoy most about owning your business? What excites or inspires you? We’re outside, doing what we love. I’ve had indoor jobs, but I love being out in the country, in the fresh air. And it’s nice and quiet. We’re still developing the most nutrient-dense berry, and they’re getting better all the time.
What is your relationship to the community? I’ve been on the board of the Corvallis Farmers’ Market and served as president for a few years. And we’re members of CIBA.
How many people do you employ? We have anywhere from 7 to 60 or more employees, depending on harvest time. Strawberries are hand-picked, and blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries are machine-picked. We’re basically a family farm. Our daughter, Jenni, works 3 days a week and attends Portland Art Institute. She’s done almost all the photography for our website. Bob does all the growing and selling, and I take care of the plant and office.
How important is sustainability to you and your business? It’s important to treat the soils and environment with care. That’s why our products are all organically grown. Berries sorted out by color go into juice barrels, and Smucker’s buys the juice stock. We’re pretty efficient; there’s not much juice stock as the berries get better and better. We reuse as many of our shipping boxes as possible, and we’ve talked about installing solar if we can ever afford to build a new plant.
(Interview and article by Annette Mills – March 3, 2013)
The Local Business of the Week program is designed to help the Corvallis community identify our locally owned independent businesses by featuring one business each week. The program is part of the Buy Local First campaign co-sponsored by the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition and the Community Independent Business Alliance (CIBA).