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Direct from field to food bank

Farmers dedicate a share of their harvests to feed the hungry


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - John 'JP' Palanuk offers up thousands of pounds of his Hood River pears from his 2-acre farm to the Oregon Food Bank each year for the Farmers Ending Hunger initiative, a statewide urban-rural effort to address the hunger crisis.The sun-kissed Bartletts, red Bartletts, Bosc and D’Anjou pears hang from the trees, firm and not yet ripe, still a month or two away from harvest.

Soon, as fall descends on the Hood River Valley, the plump fruit will be harvested by dozens of volunteers from the Portland Fruit Tree Project who make the 60-mile drive from Portland. About 30,000 pounds of pears will be loaded into large plastic bins and placed in cold storage until mid-winter, when they’re needed the most. Then, around holiday time, the Oregon Food Bank will use the pears in food boxes for the needy.

It’s just one slice of the nonprofit Farmers Ending Hunger, a statewide network of farmers and ranchers who’ve signed up to plant extra acres or raise extra cattle to help feed the state’s hungry.

Participating growers sign on to give large and small batches of almost every crop Oregon has to offer: peas, carrots, potatoes, onions, cabbage, green beans, corn, cherries, cauliflower, broccoli and winter squash, as well as beef for hamburger and wheat for pancake mix.

“Luckily, we live in an abundant environment,” says John “JP” Palanuk, surveying his 2-acre Fazan Farm in Hood River, which produced 40,000 pounds of fruit for the Oregon Food Bank in its first two harvests. “If we could find a way to efficiently harvest everything in orchards in the state,” Palanuk says, “there’s a big volume that could make a dent.”

Now in its seventh year, Farmers Ending Hunger has become the state’s most sustainable way to address hunger, advocates say. Providing 6 million pounds of food crops in 2011, it was one of Oregon Food Bank’s top six donors, alongside Fred Meyer, Albertsons, Pacific Foods of Oregon Inc., Walmart and National Frozen Foods Corp.

The farmers know the need is still great. Consider the numbers:

n More than half a million Oregonians were food-insecure in 2011, based on a U.S. Department of Agriculture study. That means 13 percent of Oregon households lacked consistent access to adequate amounts of nutritious food.

n One in five Oregonians rely on food stamps.

n Emergency food box distribution has increased 17 percent since the Great Recession began in late 2007, according to the Oregon Food Bank. More than 240,000 people per month — one-third of them children — eat meals from the boxes.

n Oregon’s hunger problem cost state taxpayers an estimated $2.1 billion in 2010, according to a 2011 report by the nonprofit Feeding America. The public pays through lowered academic and economic productivity, hunger-related illnesses and greater reliance on human services and emergency food programs.

John Burt, executive director of Farmers Ending Hunger, wants to spread his organization’s concept far and wide, hoping to boost capacity and extend its reach. This summer, the organization is using informational booths at Portland farmers markets to help spread the word.

“It made sense to us to reach out to the foodie demographic,” Burt says. “People care where their food’s coming from. Maybe they’ll care where it’s coming from, to the food bank. It’s high-quality, fresh, Oregon-grown and not moving very far. It’s an intentional donation.”

Networking farmers

The farmers’ collective came together like most ventures in Portland: someone knew a guy, who knew another guy. Fred Ziari, Farmers Ending Hunger’s board chairman, owns businesses in both Hermiston and Portland and was invited to a meeting at the Oregon Food Bank around 2005, when Oregon was making headlines as the nation’s hungriest state.

As Burt explains it, “Fred’s driving home, thinking to himself, ‘I’m a smart guy and I didn’t have any idea this was going on. Who better to feed hungry people than farmers?’ ”

Ziari spoke with his farmer friends who donated to food banks and he spoke to Norpac Foods, the growers cooperative.

One of the farmers was Ty Hansell, a well-known Pendleton rancher who has since passed away. Hansell’s response, according to Burt: “He said, ‘What’s taken you so long to think of this? This is the kind of thing that will keep my boys in farming.’ ”

Hansell’s three sons now operate the farm and donate to Farmers Ending Hunger.

The first year, $40,000 from the Oregon Food Bank got the group operational. The organization has a five-member board, with leaders from Norpac and the Oregon Food Bank. Burt was hired in 2006 for his agriculture and food-bank experience.

The first donation of 173,000 pounds of frozen peas was made in November 2006; the next year donations jumped to nearly 800,000 pounds of food crops.

In 2008, donations from farmers rose to almost 1.1 million pounds, and in 2009 that figure nearly doubled, to 2.1 million pounds. Today, 12 farmers and ranchers participate.

Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman sends 20 cows per month, which get processed into hamburger. Pendleton Flour Mills and Continental Mills in Pendleton produced 175,000 pounds of pancake mix last year, ready to use by adding water.

Fresh produce like the pears is the latest addition.

A pear endowment

Back at Fazan Farm, Palanuk admits he took a huge leap of faith when he used the profits from his medical-supply business sale to buy 2 acres of pear orchard from Pheasant Valley Winery.

He isn’t completely new to farming — he comes from a family of dairy and berry farmers, picking berries while growing up in Eugene, before attending the University of Washington to study finance and economics.

A move to Alaska landed him a job as a Merrill Lynch stockbroker at age 21, which he plowed through for four years before moving back to Oregon. He worked for his family’s medical-supply company, then structured its sale in 2006, bringing in a healthy profit.

Sitting comfortably, Palanuk says he “had to find something to embrace my desire to garden and cook, so I wouldn’t go crazy.”

He landed in Hood River, producer of Oregon’s No. 1 fruit crop and, along with Washington state’s Yakima Valley, one of the pear capitals of the world. Palanuk says he didn’t exactly have a plan in mind when he purchased the plot, but he knew it would be a labor of love, not a business venture. “I made a decision I was not in the business of profiting but the joy of giving,” he says.

Since he made the deal in summer, Palanuk recalls that the winery owners negotiated to keep that fall’s D’Anjou harvest. But the market wasn’t that hot, so they left many that had fallen to the ground.

With a bounty of pears on his hands, Palanuk called Katy Kolker, founder of the Portland Fruit Tree Project. Within 10 days, Kolker mobilized 16 volunteers to show up at the orchard with vans, cars and cardboard boxes. They grabbed 800 pounds of pears.

“I said, ‘I love this; why don’t we make this a reality?’ ” Palanuk says. So he perpetually endowed the site.

Then came another crucial piece of his puzzle: a friendly neighbor, Craig McCurdy, who agreed to offer all the expertise he’d need to prune, organically spray, mow, irrigate and otherwise tend to his crop.

McCurdy, owner of the 40-acre McCurdy Farms, grew up on the farm purchased by his parents in 1968. He sends pears to Yakima to be stored and then shipped all over the world.

Over the years, McCurdy says he’s always sent his extra bounty of pears to the Oregon Food Bank. “It’s what was left, what we weren’t able to move,” he says. “It was convenient, instead of using it for mulch.”

He knows of other orchards in Hood River that do the same.

Giving fruit away simply flies in the face of farmers who must make a profit to feed their own families, McCurdy says. But he likes the concept of Farmers Ending Hunger — especially the awareness it brings to Oregon’s farms.

“We’ve always found the one thing we do a poor job of is educating the public,” he says. “We’re perceived as a big, evil empire. What people don’t get is we’re the first people to be concerned with what happens in the environment.”