My earliest memories are in gardens.
My grandmother’s long, elegant fingers, with mauve-polished nails, caressing baby strawberries as she showed me how to identify which were ready to eat. A great-aunt giving me and my sister each a basket and sending us toddling out to her wild range of melons, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers to gather everything we could find ripe for the taking.
The joy found in moments of unmanicured plots and twisting vines is unmatched. Synonymous with spring and summer, these are the ties that bind many of us to the story behind each fresh item we touch. It is why produce is the department I don’t just shop—I explore.
“Over the years, we have been asked why we chose to grow and ship, on a fairly large scale, premium tree-ripened cherries packed by hand. The answer is ‘because of tomatoes,’” Brad Fowler says, and I do a double-take.
"We have always felt that if we take care of the shopper at the store, the person who puts the cherries in their shopping cart, that Hood River Cherry Company will be successful."
Kathryn Klein, Co-Owner, Hood River Cherry Company
Brad is one half of the duo that first planted the seeds of Hood River Cherry Company, an Oregon-based grower that brings the care of home-toiled fruit stands to the store. With his wife, Kathryn Klein, he set out to prove that the care of backyard gardening can reach across acres and acres.
“I love home garden tomatoes almost as much as cherries—those dark red ones with a rich flavor that only come from a summertime garden. Why, then, are many tomatoes we buy at the supermarket so dull and tasteless? And, why are many cherries on the store shelves usually as underripe and tasteless as well?” Brad asks, then takes me back as though he is still about to charge out into his own yard to find the answers. “I was sure we could do better! So, with stunning naiveté, we began to forge our path of tree-ripened cherries and, over the years, sharpened our focus and knowledge. We soon learned exactly why the rest of the industry didn’t do it this way.”
That garden-tended flavor and feel we all adore, either by nostalgia or sheer imagination, is a Herculean effort. When the acreage of your backyard spoils can be meandered in a brief half-hour, it is more love than labor to put tenderness and time into each root and tendril.
As that acreage expands, the hands that touch each plant multiply by necessity, as does the amount of water, soil, time, and everything else that brings a single cherry to bear. But, to maintain the level of affection Kathryn and Brad began with meant knowing everyone they hired felt that same swelling in their hearts for every fruit that came off a Hood River Cherry tree.
While this might seem impossible to prove, Brad points out that its success shows in the moments he, Kathryn, and the team have seen their tenderness returned to them.
“The most satisfying part of our year is the customer comments that flow into our emails from people all over the U.S. who bought our cherries,” Brad remarks. “Last year, there were more than ever before—hundreds and hundreds. Of course, every once in a while we get a complaint, too, but that’s okay, we want to hear the truth and learn to be even better. We read every single email and try to respond to all of them.”
Kathryn echoes that this is not just a heartfelt sentiment, but a tested and rewarded business strategy.
“We have always felt that if we take care of the shopper at the store, the person who puts the cherries in their shopping cart, that Hood River Cherry Company will be successful. That is more true today than when we set out 32 years ago,” she shares.
"Our challenge is to always produce the cherry that our customers expect, year after year, and that is hard."
Brad Fowler, Co-Owner, Hood River Cherry Company
It’s these moments, too, Brad and Kathryn share, that prove why a premium effort needs to wear a premium price tag as they fight to keep a precious piece of agricultural purpose in the marketplace.
“It is almost like ‘gravity is pulling us toward mediocrity,’ but we have to resist and stay true to our original goals of tree-ripened premium cherries. There is no way our cherries can be sold in the market at the same price as commodity cherries. Our challenge is to always produce the cherry that our customers expect, year after year, and that is hard,” Brad confesses. “Weather is the biggest decider in our crop, and it is out of our control, but we work hard to control the things we can.”
In fact, what might have blown down a house made of these efforts for control only managed to further strengthen it. When COVID-19 became a global pandemic, Hood River and its leaders were not exempt from the fear of what consumers’ panic-saving would mean for the 2020 Oregon cherry season.
“At this time last year, the pall of uncertainty swept our company up just like everyone else in our nation. We weren’t sure if our customers would buy cherries. We didn’t know if we could get enough workers, but we did know one thing: This crop was coming regardless of the nightly news, and we had better get things figured out,” Kathryn shares with me.
Then, she and Brad add, a strange and heartwarming thing happened.
“People flocked to the store to buy cherries,” Brad smiles. “Almost as if Mother Nature provided some kind of reassurance that things were going to be okay, Americans ate more cherries than they ever had before.”
And as Mother Nature sent reinforcements, so did the employees who have helped make possible Hood River’s continued expansion. In the most uncertain of times, Brad tells me everyone proved to be even more committed than ever.
“It was very humbling to witness and be a part of. Our workers were more resilient and dedicated than we could ever have expected,” he says. “With the risks of COVID-19 exposure, masks, shields, social distancing, and a generally miserable experience in the summertime heat, our workers got it. They didn’t complain—they helped out in ways we had never seen before. They worked 42 days straight with twelve-hour shifts. Their faces were disguised from protective masks and gear, but they knew that we needed them.”
"Little did we know then what a long and wild ride this would be."
What was forged in the heat of that summer was an understanding of the culture Brad and Kathryn had both laid the groundwork for and inspired—one they continue to inspire in leading Hood River as an extension of their backyard garden and of their family.
“Every year, we plant new acreage as our company grows, and likewise, every year our family continues to grow,” Brad says with a smile. “Amid the challenges of the past 15 months or so, we have focused a lot on the little joys, most of all are our five grandchildren, ages two to six.”
They, Brad and Kathryn tell me, are both the center of the world and the future of it.
Because if it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a community to raise a garden the likes of which Kathryn and Brad have cultivated. Luckily, there is no place like Hood River for such a dream.
“Virtually all the farms in our Hood River Valley of Oregon were generational,” Brad recalls. “My parents were teachers. When we bought some bare land 32 years ago, we decided to plant fruit trees because, well, that’s what you do in Hood River. That’s just the way it is.”
Kathryn brings a similar testimony to the land which she and her husband have called home.
“My father was a carpenter. He and mom had a small hobby farm with apples and cherries, so we chose cherries because we like them more than any other fruit! Little did we know then what a long and wild ride this would be,” she shares, remembering how she would help her own parents as a small child. “Dad taught me how to drive a tractor when I was 10 years old, and I cannot wait to do the same with our grandchildren.”
As Kathryn tells me this, memories of sitting with my own grandmother in her garden shine through.
Every seed is an embodiment of all that came before it. Who’s to say which fingers will point out the next fruit to a child, and plant within them the passion to make a garden that feeds the world?
Sitting in front of these Co-Owners, gardeners, grandparents, I can think of a couple.