Oregon has historically been a magnet for farmers. The state has lush forests and fertile soil for raising crops and animals, as well as a temperate climate that’s well-suited for agriculture. These conditions have inspired many to start farming in Oregon, coming from all kinds of backgrounds. From keen-minded investors to creative botanists, agriculture in Oregon has been shaped by a variety of people united by their hard work and dedication to farming.
In particular, the Hudson’s Bay Company, Oregon Trail pioneers and innovators have had the most influence over how agriculture has developed in Oregon. Thanks to their vision, the state now has a thriving agricultural industry, producing over $5 billion in crops every year.
Hudson’s Bay Company
The Hudson’s Bay Company was a major economic player in the Northwest in the early 19th century, before the Oregon Trail became popular. At first, the HBC was mainly focused on furs, lumber and fish, but by the 1820s, they controlled almost all trade in the Pacific Northwest—including agriculture.
The company maintained a strong presence through its headquarters at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, which it established in 1824. The HBC wanted Fort Vancouver to be self-sufficient, so the company began to invest in farming operations. Grain fields, gardens and orchards were planted, and livestock like cattle and sheep were brought in from California or from other Hudson’s Bay posts. Dairies were built on Sauvie Island, close to Fort Vancouver, to supply traders and HBC employees with milk, butter and cheese.
These agricultural efforts were a great success, allowing the company to effectively monopolize regional trade and settlement. With little to no competition, the HBC was able to exert some control over who settled in the area. The company had a policy of discouraging Americans from settling north of the Columbia River, and land for farming was mainly given to retired Hudson’s Bay employees, especially in the Willamette Basin.
However, the company’s dominance didn’t last forever. Its power over the region started to diminish in the 1840s, as thousands of Oregon Trail pioneers poured into the area. Most settled south of the Columbia River, drawn to the fertile soil of the Willamette Valley. Although they resented the company’s power, they were set on staying. They created their own farms and businesses, eventually causing the company to lose its influence in Oregon.
Oregon Trail Pioneers
After surviving the 2,170-mile Oregon Trail, pioneers had to begin a life in Oregon essentially from scratch. Many chose to pursue farming, particularly after seeing the success of the farms supporting Fort Vancouver. Many crops flourished in the cool weather and abundance of rain. For example, orchards with hazelnuts and cherries produced large yearly yields.
Still, pioneers didn’t have easy access to seeds and seedlings at first. Agricultural trade was dominated by the HBC until 1847, when a pioneer nurseryman named Henderson Luelling traveled from Iowa to Oregon with his wife, eight children, and over 700 fruit tree sprouts. Traveling across the continent with a nursery was ultimately worth the effort. After setting up a nursery near Milwaukie, Oregon, Luelling became the go-to businessman for Oregon farmers. His nursery allowed pioneers to bypass the HBC and get their homestead orchards going. Even now, the success of certain crops in Oregon, such as pears, can be traced back to Luelling’s nursery.
Not all agricultural efforts were so immediately successful, however. The climate of the region did vary, and getting certain crops to thrive required some adaptation and experimentation. Gradually, pioneer farmers found the perfect places and methods for growing various crops. For example, the marshy land of Gaston, Cipole, and Lake Labish was great for growing onions, and the Willamette Valley became wine country. Some farmers stuck with staple crops like wheat, corn and potatoes, while others loved innovation and molded the future of food and farming.
Agricultural innovation in Oregon is perhaps most obvious in the cherry industry. The state is the birthplace of the Bing cherry, now one of the most popular cherry varieties in the world. It was first cultivated by Seth Luelling, the brother of Henderson Luelling. He first came to Oregon in 1847 to help out in his brother’s nursery, then took over the business himself ten years later. He used the business as a way to develop and introduce new varieties of cherries, grapes, rhubarb and golden prunes. His biggest success, the Bing cherry, quickly spread beyond Oregon to the rest the world, becoming the main variety grown in countries such as Chile.
The modern maraschino cherry was also born in Oregon, developed by Ernest H. Wiegand, a horticulture professor at Oregon State University. In 1919, Wiegand was enlisted to help find a way to preserve the Queen Anne cherry, which grew wonderfully in Oregon but turned mushy when preserved. Wiegand worked hard on this problem from 1925 to 1931, trying to find a new preservation process. He ultimately came up with revolutionary solution—adding calcium salts to the cherry brine—which has since become the current standard in the maraschino cherry industry. His research also made Oregon into a world competitor in the industry, both for production and research.
Innovating farmers and horticulturists like Luelling and Wiegand are still part of Oregon’s agricultural industry, helping the state remain at the top of agricultural production in America. If their stories and discoveries have inspired you, take a look at these farms and ranches we currently have for sale and consider adding your own story to Oregon’s farming history.