The market outlier

The market outlier

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BY PETER BELAND

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Don Kruger at his farm market in Southeast Portland. After years of ups and downs, his farm-direct markets are thriving.
// Photo by Alexandra Shyshkina
Don Kruger paced fretfully but purposefully in his denim shirt and puffy vest, contemplating his next move like a futures trader going over the latest economic indicators. He scanned rows of squash and broccoli one last time at his farm stand in southeast Portland before scuttling off for tea and a pastry at a nearby bakery. “I used to be perfect. Everything was perfect and everything was expensive. But I was losing,” says Kruger about the demise of his high-end produce markets of the 1990s.

Kruger, owner of Kruger’s Farm on Sauvie Island, started as a produce manager at the now-defunct Daily Grind market in southeast Portland in 1984. Two years later he started Holiday Market in Lloyd Center and then co-founded City Market in northwest Portland in 1990 as its produce vendor. “I was on fire, I was on a run,” he says. “Then it started to erode. Zupan’s Market opened up. That hurt. Then the farmers market started to ruin our summers.” By 1996, he lost his lease to Holiday Market and was heading for disaster if he didn’t change something.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kruger did a TV spot for a local news channel called Green Grocer at Noon. On the show, he visited a farm on Sauvie Island. “I thought some day it was something I might want to do,” he recalls. In 1999, Kruger ran into Dennis Grande who was retiring and couldn’t find a buyer for his 75-acre farm. “I’d never farmed before. I had a garden and it wasn’t even that good,” says Kruger of his initial scouting mission. “I walked away from it a dozen times. Ultimately I took the plunge and signed a 10-year lease.”

As Y2K fever swept the country, Kruger wrote in his journal about his desire to grow produce and then sell it in his high-end markets. But when he took on the farm, he got with it a traditional farm management plan geared toward maximum production for the commodities market.

By late 2000, he was broke after losing $150,000 that year. He sold his share in City Market and another market to pay the $100,000 he owed to produce vendors. He went bankrupt in 2002.