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American News Service

November 18, 1999

Tribe Revives Culture and Fortunes by Raising Cranberries

Claire Hope Cummings

(ANS) -- While cranberries are an important element on the American Thanksgiving table, the hard, red little fruit represents much more than just a sweet-sour side dish to the Coquille Indian tribe of Coos Bay County, Oregon.

            For this native American tribe, cranberries have been a key to retrieving a rich tradition and sense of home that, until recently, had been lost. 

            Raising a cranberry crop without chemicals is regarded within the commercial industry as impossibly expensive and difficult, but growing organic cranberries is part of the tribe’s overall economic comeback plan, which includes reestablishing the tribe on its seaside forest homeland on the west coast of Oregon.

            Operating under a self-sufficiency plan begun in 1992, the Coquille Economic Development Co. has become the second largest employer in the county. As part of its economic program, CEDCO has built and operates "Heritage Place" a full service assisted living center, a popular casino hotel property, manages 5,400 acres of forest for timber, recreation and wildlife habitat, and grows organic cranberries.

            Today, the tribe is the leading commercial grower of organic cranberries on the West Coast.

            For the past several autumns, members of the tribe have gathered together to harvest the cranberries. After a "cranberry blessing'' by the tribal chief, members of the tribe go into the bogs and pick berries off the bush, placing them in small hand-sized baskets, which are then combined into one large central basket.

            This communal activity evokes the years the Coquille provided the labor for the commercial cranberry growers at the turn of the century and of gathering wild berries in traditional Coquille tribes.

            The Coquille organic cranberry project began in 1996 with a loan from the United States Department of Agriculture intended to encourage organic farming.             Although advisors told CEDCO that cranberries could not be grown organically on a commercial basis, the Coquille still persisted. They hired a long-time local grower, Reg Pullen, who researched the old, traditional ways of growing cranberries, experimented with fish fertilizers, paid members of the tribe to continuously hand weed and fought off threats to the entire investment posed by erosion and irrigation problems.

            "The first few years were very difficult," said Brady Scott, a member of the tribe and CEO of CEDCO. "The cost to us has been high."

            The Coquille Cranberries are certified organic under the rigorous standards of Oregon Tilth, which inspects the bogs to insure that no chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides are used.         

            These environmentally sound practices are expensive, and the consumer cost for organic cranberries can be ten times higher than for conventional brands. But the tribe is already getting a premium price for their fresh berries and production is climbing to almost equal the output of a typical conventional grower.

            "We have yet to prove that we will be successful," said Scott. "The bogs are not yet mature. They are only three years old, and it takes years to reach full production. But we are optimistic."

            The Coquille are selling their high quality bright claret berries through organic produce distributors under the "Lady Bug" label. As resources permit, they plan to diversify into other organic crops.

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Claire Hope Cummings is a lawyer, journalist and Food and Farming editor for KPFA radio in Berkeley, Calif.

Contacts:

Brady Scott, CEO of CEDCO (Coquille Economic Development Company) Coquille Indian Tribe, North Bend, Ore., 541-756-0662.

The Mill Casino, North Bend, Ore., 541-756-0662.

Deanna Scott, publicity contact; and Greg Aldridge, production, CEDCO (Coquille Economic Development Company,) North Bend, Ore., 541-756-0662; fax: 541-756-0431.

Reg Pullen, consultant to CEDCO, North Bend, Ore., 541-347-9542.

Oregon Tilth, Portland, Ore., 503-378-0690.