Oregon's Unusual Fruit
Updated: Jul 11, 2021
What is Oregon's most important fruit? I originally answered this question on Quora.com, which you can read here: https://www.quora.com/What-fruit-is-Oregon-known-for/answer/Kent-Slocum
The answer to this question depends upon a lot of variables; time being the most important. Oregon is a big state, and very rich in history. As such, it has played host to an enormous variety of famous fruits.
If you looked at Oregon today, you would probably associate it with grapes. Vineyards dot the hillsides all up and down the Willamette Valley, and many towns are reinventing themselves around this sophisticated and valuable crop. Although wild grapes have always been a part of Oregon and wine grapes are well-advertised, grapes are still a relative newcomer.
In order to find what is Oregon's most truly important fruit, we need to travel back in time. I grew up in Eugene, Oregon; a beautiful city surrounded by farmland at the southern end of the lush Willamette Valley. In the old days, one of Eugene's major thoroughfares (known as “River Road” because it followed the Western bank of the Willamette River) was a country lane bounded by hundreds of acres of fruit trees. Apples and pears were of course present, but the cash crop at the time was prunes.
The father of a good friend of mine actually built a prune-processing facility that dried most of the area’s prunes in a gas-fired oven. Trays of prunes would be slid onto racks, and then those racks of prunes would be rolled into the long, narrow dryer on train tracks. The doors at either end would be closed, and the heat would be turned on for days to dry the prunes and dehydrate them for packaging and shipping.
Nowadays, there is no evidence that such a massive fruit growing, drying, and packing operation even existed. River Road is a major four-lane urban street with commercial and residential developments all around, and the former site of the dryer is now low-income housing. So prunes, though once important, don't have the staying power to be closely associated with Oregon.
The thing Oregon is known, for, however, is Hazelnuts. In fact, it's the Oregon State Nut. Now I know what you're thinking: “Are you nuts? Hazelnuts are NUTS, not fruits!” But their name is deceiving; botanically speaking, they actually ARE fruits! And best of all, Oregon still grows lots of them! My mother actually grew up in a house surrounded by a hundred acres of hazelnut trees, which makes sense, given that Oregon grows 99% of the U.S. crop (Turkey grows 70% of the world's supply, but the U.S. doesn't have to rely on them!).
The official Oregon hazelnut-growers’ website (http://oregonhazelnuts.org/about/production/) is a fascinating read. It reminds us that farmers have been cultivating hazelnuts in Oregon for over a century, and many of the hundreds of hazelnut growers are third- and fourth- generation farmers. Over 8,000 new acres of hazelnut trees are being planted each year, and I can believe it!
For the four years I was attending college, I had a part-time job on a former Christmas-tree farm (another major Oregon export) that also happened to have dozens of acres of hazelnuts. The farmers keep the ground beneath the trees scraped perfectly bare, all the way down to the dirt, so that when the hazelnuts fall to the ground in the autumn, they can sweep them up like a vacuum on a hardwood floor. It's efficient, but incredibly dusty!
If you're still unconvinced about how important hazelnuts are to Oregon's heritage, let me tell you a fascinating story. One long-running debate is whether to call this fruit a “hazelnut” or “filbert.” Theories abound, such as the French colonists mentioned here: (http://oregonhazelnuts.org/happy-st-philiberts-day/). The reputable publication The Oregonian also doesn't seem to know exactly where the “filbert” moniker came from: (http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2014/08/filbert_or_hazelnut_oregonians.html).
However, the article does mention George Dorris as being the “Father of the Modern Hazelnut Industry,” and Dorris Ranch is actually located in Springfield, Oregon, just next door to Eugene. The working ranch not only grows hazelnuts to this day, but has become a living history museum, interpretive center, community park, and cultural icon (I've been there myself multiple times: (https://www.willamalane.org/dorris_ranch.php). So it seems appropriate that the best explanation regarding the origin of the battle between the terms “hazelnuts” and “filbert” comes from the old rivalry between the neighboring cities of Eugene and Springfield.
As the story is told by the Springfield Historical Society, Eugene Skinner, the founder of Eugene City (later renamed to the City of Eugene) got into a debate around 1850 over what to call the nuts being planted by his rival, Elias Briggs, the founder of Springfield, Oregon. Being well-traveled and something of a chef, Elias Briggs knew that the European (English) term being used for the nuts was “hazelnut.” However, Eugene Skinner was feeling patriotic, and wanted to name the nuts after his favorite marching band leader, John Philip Sousa. However, since information traveled mainly by word of mouth back then, he had misinterpreted the true spelling and pronunciation, and thought Sousa's middle name was “Philbert.” This, Oregon locals (mainly those in the Southern Willamette Valley) still call these nuts “filberts.”
But please remember, whatever you call them, they are Oregon's most important fruit!