These days, especially for us lucky Californians, finding a year-round assortment of produce at our local grocery store or increasingly popular farmers’ markets or pop-up stands is pretty easy. But fruit always seems brighter and vegetables tastier when plucked in season, and even more so when we pick it ourselves at the source. A drive dubbed the Fruit Loop in Oregon’s scenic Hood River Valley lets you do just that. Grab one of the well-marked maps and follow your taste buds to more than 30 family-owned stands, farms and shops.
The 35-mile Fruit Loop begins and ends in Hood River, a flower-box-filled town on the Columbia River, just 60 miles east of Portland’s airport. The two-lane road follows Highway 35 on the west side of the valley and Highway 218 on the east and S-turns its way toward the town of Parkdale, into a bygone era where locals trust strangers to leave money in a basket next to the cash register for a few nectarines (as at the Draper Girls Country Farm).
The trip can be done in a day or stretched into several thanks to homey lodges like Sakura Ridge Farm & Lodge (rates from $170), where stellar views of Mount Hood and a farm-fresh breakfast of pears, lamb sausage and eggs, cooked by owners Deanna and John Joyer, are reason enough to linger. During summer and fall, the valley brims with plump fruit the color of traffic lights, just hanging there waiting to be picked, such as at Kiyokawa Family Orchards at the far end of the loop.
Third-generation farmer Randy Kiyokawa oversees operations on 107 acres,and a sign leads visitors from Main Street in Parkdale to his fruit stand and orchard, where he grows 80 varieties of apples and 14 varieties of pears. The house where he’s raising his three children is the same one he grew up in and is surrounded by trees planted by his grandfather in 1911.
When Kiyokawa left home to attend Oregon State in Corvallis, 145 miles away, he wasn’t sure he wanted to return. “Growing up here, sometimes you think the last thing you want to do is stay,” he says. “But like anyone, you don’t appreciate what you have until you go away, and now I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
The Kiyokawa story is similar to that of many around here, with farms, wineries and other family businesses now run by third or fourth generations. Pears are especially big along the Fruit Loop; the region accounts for more than two-thirds of the state’s production. But the drive delivers plenty of other temptations as well.
Pies (that really do cool on windowsills) and a stockpile of jams and jellies are sold at Apple Valley Country Store, still run by the White family, who helped create the Fruit Loop back in 1992. Pop some blueberries into your mouth and basket at Wilinda’s Blueberry Patch, pet some alpacas (or buy some yarn) at Cascade Alpacas, or tie a scented sachet with selections from 70 types of organic lavender at Hood River Lavender Farms.
Summer and fall is also festival season, and the calendar is chockablock with fruity fiestas on weekends. Last summer, farm-to-fork dinners arrived in the Hood River Valley via Matthew Domingo, founder of Farm to Fork Event Co., who plunked down a harvest table amid the rows of trees at Kiyokawa Family Orchards and invited local farmers, winemakers, visitors and a chef to break bread. The events sold out instantly, and he hopes to bring them back again this year.
“These dinners, and similar ones throughout the state and country, are about creating a community and spreading the message that family farms like those here in the Hood River Valley are to be celebrated and preserved,” Domingo says.
Kiyokawa, meanwhile, has sowed the seeds for his family’s future by planting a few hundred new trees on an adjacent parcel of land. “Even if my kids tell me they don’t want to be a part of the business now,” he says, “I want them to know they still have roots here, just like my grandfather and father left for me.”