>Cookies are the favorite item for the home baker to tackle ... with cakes, brownies and muffins close behind. Baking plays an important part of Oregon's agricultural economy
Like bread dough in the oven, home baking is on the rise. That's a welcome trend for Oregon agriculture- from the Eastern Oregon wheat farmer and the Willamette Valley berry grower to the Portland-area specialty food company. All are ready to supply the needs of consumers who are returning to the kitchen to do their own baking.
   "People look at baking as a leisure-time activity," says Laura Barton, marketing specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. "On a rainy Saturday, people may often say let's get the goodies out and make some cookies or bake a cake."
   According to a Better Homes & Garden Consumer Panel, 84 percent of Americans who are baking at home are making cookies, 77 percent cakes, 64 percent brownies, 59 percent muffins, 58 percent pies, 52 percent breads, and 52 percent specialty desserts. That kind of home cooking translates into numerous visits to the baking ingredient aisle at the grocery store. National statistics show 80 percent of all primary grocery shoppers stop off at that aisle and purchase more than $7 million worth of products each year, including $1.17 billion worth of sugar, $1.48 billion worth of vegetable oil or shortening, $1.08 billion worth of baking mixes, and more than a half a billion dollars worth of flour and meal.
   Those kinds of numbers are quickly noticed by Oregon's agricultural producers. Popular baking ingredients often come from Oregon. Dried fruits and hazelnuts find their way into a baker's kitchen. The producers themselves see at least some potential.
   "Given that soft white wheat is generally used for cookies, crackers, flat breads, cakes, steam breads, and some types of noodles- but not standard bread- the home baking trend will probably have limited direct impact for Oregon wheat producers," says Daren Coppock of the Oregon Wheat Growers League (OWGL). Other Oregon commodities might also be in a good position to capitalize on the home-baking trend through innovation as well as quality.
   "An example would be our berry industry," says Barton. "The traditional packaging has been the individually quick frozen, or IQF, berry. Now there are some companies that are doing things like creating a berry puree and putting it into a squeezable bottle. The consumer can squeeze the fruit right onto the cake or other dessert. It makes a beautiful presentation that also happens to taste wonderful."
   While producers try to cash in on a spike in home baking, specialty food companies in Oregon have long been catering to the Betty Crocker-wannabes. Some of those companies confirm the notion that people are doing their own baking.
   Bob's Red Mill of Milwaukie produces a variety of healthy and natural whole grain products - many of which cater to the home baker. The company operates a mill outlet store that has seen business pick up in recent months.
   "We saw a frenzy of activity right before Y2K as people stocked up on our products," says Dennis Gilliam. "We are now seeing the same type of activity, but there is no Y2K this time around."
   For an older generation, a resurgence in home baking is most likely connected to nostalgia. But the comeback is being fueled by younger consumers, who might remember grandma baking in the kitchen but probably not mom. A loss of home economics classes in high school has made home baking a little more of a mystery. But that apparently is not enough to keep Americans out of the kitchen.
   There is one more side benefit from any increased interest in home baking, according to the OWGL's Coppock.
   "I hope it will also translate into a stronger connection between consumers and farmers- a link that is sorely lacking."
   For more information, contact Laura Barton at (503) 872-6600.
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