your-news image

For Roger Ortega, Northwest cherries are part of the perfect brew

In May 2003, fresh out of college and armed with a bachelor's degree in food science with a concentration in fermentation science, Roger Ortega had plans to use his new skills at a rather well-known St. Louis beermaking operation.

"I had interviewed to work with Anheuser-Busch and wanted eventually to return to the Northwest to open a brewpub/ microbrewery," Mr. Ortega said recently.

But rather than head east from his home in The Dalles, OR, Mr. Ortega took a closer look at his options and made a decision that June to join the sales team at Grant J. Hunt Co., which has marketed for Orchard View Farms since 1996.

In fact, one might say that Mr. Ortega, one of many family members involved with Orchard View's operations, cherry-picked a career that has turned out to be an exceptionally good fit.

Orchard View was founded in 1927 by his maternal forebears, Walter and Mabel Bailey, and Mr. Ortega's mother, Cheryl Ortega, is among several third-generation Baileys who continue to farm some 1,400 primarily cherry acres along the Columbia River.

Also working at the farm are Mr. Ortega's uncles, Bob, Ken and Jon Bailey. His uncle, Tom, is retired, and his aunts, Betty and Gloria, have other pursuits. But his mother, a grade-school teacher most of the year, "still comes back and works the cherry harvest every summer," Mr. Ortega said.

Mr. Ortega himself, at age 25, is one of the fourth-generation of Baileys in leadership positions. That, however, is but half of the Ortega family involvement at Orchard View.

"My father, Juan Ortega, is from Mexico and is the oldest of 10 children," Mr. Ortega said. The elder Mr. Ortega is also part of the farm's operations, and "some of my fraternal uncles work as orchard managers."

Roger Ortega summed up his connection to the land and the cherry industry: "I grew up one-half mile from the packinghouse, with cherry orchards all around me, and I can't throw a stick very far without hitting someone I'm related to."

He said of the family enterprise, "It's what we know and love, and even in the winter when we don't have any fruit, we talk about them. Cherries are a special crop, and they take a lot of special care. The season is different every year, and that's what's exciting to me."

If his love for cherries reads like a heart-felt Valentine, it would seem that Mr. Ortega's fast-paced sales job for Grant J. Hunt was also in the cards.

"I work with my uncle Jon at Grant J. Hunt [offices at Orchard View in The Dalles], and we represent Orchard View Farms," he said. "But I started actually working on the farm at age 14. I worked in the orchards, drove truck and then ran the Rainier line for a couple of years during college."

Following another fine family tradition, Mr. Ortega attended Oregon State University and he continues to follow the Beavers with unabashed fervor.

"My brother, Ed, who is a mechanical engineer for Armstrong Industries, my sister, Alicia, who's on staff at OSU, my brother, David, who works for Genie Lifts and I all went to OSU, and all my uncles did, too," he said.

Mr. Ortega's focus on food science at OSU has also meshed well with his role in cherry sales.

"From that background, I know about some of the phytoceutical and antioxidant studies coming out of my old food science department," he said.

And from his many years of hands-on experience at the farm, he is well aware of consumer demands as well.

"The demand is growing for larger fruit, and Orchard View has always grown larger, high-quality cherries," Mr. Ortega said. "We know bigger cherries are more attractive to consumers." The Rainier category is "just exploding," and organics are also gaining ground. Grant J. Hunt offers both options from the Columbia River region, he added.

If it sounds as though his existence is all cherries and no play, Roger Ortega is quick to make clear that the orchards and his sales job are absolutely his primary love in life right now.

"In college, during the summer, I would come home and work 60 or 70 hours a week, and now I'm doing pretty much the same thing," he said, adding that he has "no marriage plans at this point."

The ski slopes of Mount Hood are 45 minutes from his front door, but Mr. Ortega said, "I've been skiing once, and that was in Italy. And you couldn't really call it skiing - I had skis on, and I fell a lot." What's more, despite the reputation of the Columbia River for good windsurfing conditions, Mr. Ortega doesn't find much appeal in the sport. Nor does he climb.

However, he does find time for an occasional round of golf, a game he's taken up recently and plays under the tutelage of his brother, David.

"For some reason, I got the wild hare, and I'm jumping into it. I want to get better, and I'm playing once or twice a week when cherries are not in season. But when the cherries start, it could be every three months. And once football season comes around, I'll be out of town, following the OSU team," he said.

"And I'm also working on refining my Spanish language skills and hope to begin work on a third language, maybe Italian," Mr. Ortega said.

Cheerfully immersed in his craft, Mr. Ortega said, "I'm really happy to be where I am, and I want to help the company grow as a shipper. We plan on doubling [production] in the next few years, and we could even triple within the next decade.

"I plan to help keep the Grant J. Hunt Co. a strong, respected presence in the produce industry," he added.

And as he looked at where his options have brought him and where they could someday take him, Mr. Ortega said there might just be room for something else, something fermented. "Maybe someday," he said, "I will open that brewpub in the Northwest."