By ANDREA BARKAN
Pilot staff writer
In early December, when most American-grown cranberries have been plucked from their vines, many of Ron and Mary Puhl's Cape Blanco cranberries stay put, growing darker and sweeter with each passing day.
The Puhls started Cape Blanco Cranberries in 1990 on a farm just north of Port Orford.
That farm now has 44 acres of cranberry beds. Last spring, the couple more than doubled their operation by buying 69 acres of cranberry beds on a farm near Bandon.
This way they don't have to buy berries from any other farmers.
"This allows us to grow our own fruit," Ron said. "To have complete control."
And quality control is at the heart of their business.
Most commercial cranberry growers harvest their fruit between September and October, but because of Oregon's mild climate, some Cape Blanco berries stay in bed until Christmas.
"Ours stay on the vine and increase in color and sugar content and just get better and better," Ron said.
This allows Ron and Mary to deliver truly fresh fruit, picking and packing for each new order.
"We literally custom pack," Ron said, adding that theirs is the only U.S. company doing that.
Almost a quarter of the cranberries Ron and Mary grew this season about 250,000 pounds will be sold fresh.
Another part of their crop is sold to make cranberry concentrate.
They also recently started making Cranberry Fruit Trio, a cranberry, apple and orange relish, that's being sold in Ray's and Safeway supermarkets.
For Curry County residents, right now the fruit trio is the only way to get a taste of Cape Blanco Cranberries without a road trip.
The closest retailer for the company's fresh cranberries is in Eugene.
The Puhls ship their fresh fruit to Washington, California, Utah, Kansas, Texas and Arizona.
On Tuesday, the 16 employees packing fresh berries at the company's processing plant north of Langlois finished a pallet headed for Japan.
"Our company is growing," Ron said. "We're gaining new customers every year."
He and Mary hope next year that could include local customers; it seems C&K Markets may soon sell their fresh fruit.
That fruit has to pass a series of rigorous quality tests before it even hits the picky fingers of the company's hand sorters.
Mary said they process about 8,000 pounds of fresh berries during one seven-and-a-half hour shift.
In a corner of the red warehouse processing plant just off Highway 101, thousands of berries fall off a raised truck bed and into a chlorine wash and potable water rinse.
A couple of industrial blowers blow out leaves, stems and bad berries.
A belt sizer eliminates berries that are too small, while a computerized color sorter ejects those that don't meet the pre-programmed color standards.
"Our berries are so dark it really doesn't throw out too many," Mary noted.
Eventually berries make their way to a classic wooden bounce board, circa 1920.
Round spindles turn, pushing berries out and onto a series of flat wood slats.
"For the most part, a good cranberry bounces and a bad one doesn't," Mary said.
"This is still the best technology there is for this type of sorting," she said of the antique tool.
Worthy berries bounce to hand sorters, who make the final cut.
Mary said they're trying to find ways to capitalize on the special quality of their berries.
The price they get when they sell berries for concentrate, for example, doesn't reflect their product's high quality.
Hence the new Cranberry Fruit Trio and the expansion of their fresh fruit operation.
Ron said they plan to build another 20 acres of beds this summer, earmarked just for fresh fruit production.
The next new product on his list is 100 percent cranberry juice.
"I like showing people how good cranberries can be by making products that are healthy and taste good," he said.
Ron wasn't always so crazy about cranberries.
Before 1988, Ron was a commercial salmon fisherman and urchin diver.
But in that year, his first son was born and his priorities changed.
"It became quite important that I return home from a day's work," Ron said.
Plus, he and Mary needed a stable income.
"At that time, cranberries had been very stable," he said.
So after extensive research, the couple turned land that had been in Mary's family almost 100 years into a cranberry farm.
Ron said it costs $25,000 per acre to build, plumb, power and plant a cranberry farm.
"It isn't something you do lightly," he said.
As fate would have it, when the farm started producing, the price of cranberries crashed.
They went from 81 cents a pound to 12 cents a pound, Ron said.
But the Puhls kept their farm and their cranberries afloat.
During harvest, many growers flood cranberry beds with water so the berries float to the top, making them accessible.
People sometimes mistake this practice for the general method of growing cranberries.
"Contrary to popular belief, cranberries do not grow in water," Ron said.
Tuesday, Ron waded into 2 feet of water covering a bed and hoisted himself onto the beater that would shake berries from their vines.
Ron built that beater specifically for fresh fruit collection.
This is one example of how the couple "had to evolve our operation around gentle handling," Ron said.
That may seem like a lot of trouble, but for Ron and Mary it's well worth it.
"There's a lot of satisfaction for both Mary and I in showing people across the nation what cranberries can be," Ron said.
For information, visit http://www.capeblancocranberries.com or call (541) 332-1345.