EUGENE —It was two weeks before Valentine’s Day, and workers were dipping and dusting truffles at the Euphoria Chocolate Company in Eugene.
It was like a scene from “The Nutcracker”: Chocolate ganache twirled in vats. Smells of cinnamon, cocoa and vanilla danced in the room. Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” was playing. Feb. 13 and 14 are the company’s biggest individual sales days. Store manager Tim Matterson said that in 2019, Euphoria Chocolate sold more than 13,000 truffles for Valentine’s Day.
The holiday is big business. Last year alone, U.S. consumers spent a record $20.7 billion on candy, flowers and food, according to the National Retail Federation.
But behind the flurry of treats and blooms, there are human stories: of hail storms, border agents and beet seed breeders.
Around the world
Euphoria Chocolate buys most of its ingredients from Oregon producers, said owner Bonnie Glass. Fruits from Meduri Farms. Hazelnuts from local orchards. Mint from Junction City. Wine from Oregon vineyards. Cream — 100 gallons for Valentine’s Day — from Lochmead Dairy.
These local flavors mingle with domestic and international ingredients: peanuts dug from soil in the American South, almonds from California trees, cocoa from West Africa.
Each represents an industry.
In the mood for love
“Cow milk’s role in Valentine’s Day is absolutely huge,” said Monica LaBelle, spokesperson for the National Dairy Council.
In 2018, according to a dairy economist, about 3.1 billion pounds of milk went into making confections, enough to fill 562 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
“Candy, confections and baked goods for holiday celebrations like Valentine’s Day,” said Matt Herrick, senior vice president of the International Dairy Foods Association, are “part of the fabric of America.”
Nuts about you
Oregon’s Willamette Valley produces 99% of the nation’s hazelnuts, many of which go into candy and other treats, according to Oregon State University. Even bigger are the peanut and almond industries.
“Peanuts and chocolate are a match made in heaven,” said Lauren Williams, spokesperson for the National Peanut Board.
Snickers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and M&M’s are the most popular peanut candies, said Williams. Every day, 99 tons of peanuts go into 15 million Snickers bars. The bar was named after its founding family’s favorite horse.
“I was raised on a farm,” drawled Andy Bell, a Georgia peanut farmer. “We’ve always grown peanuts. I plant a seed, watch it sprout, irrigate; I love the process.”
Almonds also earn their time in the limelight Feb. 14.
California’s 1.24 million acres of almond trees churn out 80% of the world’s almonds.
Almond growers have close ties with chocolatiers, said Darren Rigg, sales manager at Minturn Nut Company in Le Grande, California.
“It’s cool how global this is,” Rigg said. “Every country has a different relationship with almonds. They’re popular in every country’s holiday season, and Valentine’s is huge. To think we supply it here in California is remarkable.”
Bee my honey
The almond industry is braided with another strand of agriculture — honeybees.
On Feb. 5, John Jacob, a beekeeper at Old Sol Apiaries, was on the road toting crates of bees from Rogue River to California almond country.
“I love working the seasons,” said Jacob. “It’s appealing to my biology background and my nature-loving side. I get to call the outdoors my office, and the scene changes every three months.”
In February, pollination season for almond orchards, more than 50% of U.S. beehives are transported to California. Without bees, Jacob said, trees produce 90% less almonds, so producers are willing to pay beekeepers $200 per hive for pollination.
America is Candyland.
High fructose corn syrup, made from milled corn, is a major sweetener. As consumers have become more health-conscious, USDA data show the industry has shrunk 40% since the 2000s.
But the same data show refined sugar deliveries have increased 5%. Ranking sixth in global production — after sugar behemoths like Brazil, India and China — the U.S. makes about 9 million tons of “white gold” annually, according to the USDA, or 55 pounds per American.
Sugar doesn’t just come from cane fields in the South. According to the USDA, the sugar beet, a root vegetable related to chard, produces 55% of the domestic supply.
Most sugar beets are grown in Idaho, North Dakota and Minnesota, but Oregon State University says the Willamette Valley is the nation’s only significant production source of sugar beet seed.
Floods, cold snaps, plundering hail storms — growing winter strawberries isn’t easy, farmers say. But buyers must have their berries.
“Chocolate-covered berries, strawberry shortcake, just stem strawberries like candy on a stick. Valentine’s Day is a hugely important day for us,” said third-generation farmer A.G. Kawamura, founding member of Gem-Pack Berries and former secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. His farms are in California and Mexico.
For the holiday, Kawamura estimates, he sells hundreds of thousands of trays, each containing 4 to 8 pounds of strawberries.
During Valentine’s Day 2017, according to the Nielsen Company, a market research firm, fresh strawberry sales generated more than $52 million.
“The weather sometimes doesn’t cooperate, and it’s not a hardy fruit,” said Kawamura. “Sometimes one hail storm makes me lose everything I could’ve harvested for 20-something days. Farming is not easy.”
Say you’ll be wine
“There’s always an uptake in wine sales during the holidays,” said Gladys Horiuchi, spokesperson for the Wine Institute.
Valentine’s Day is a top-selling moment for U.S. winemakers, according to the Nielsen Company, a market research firm. Feb. 14 is the sixth-biggest sale day for wine in the year. In 2017, the industry generated $630 million during the holiday.
Landing on a chocolate bar
“I have loved chocolate for as long as I have memory as a human being,” said Kristy Leissle, a Ph.D. who follows the cocoa and chocolate industries. “I reached a point when I realized it was bizarre that I knew almost nothing about this food. It sparked my curiosity; I wanted to understand where it comes from.”
It was evening in Ghana, Leissle’s home, in one of the world’s largest cocoa-producing regions.
“It’s an industrial product. Those beans pass through many machines,” she said. “There’s nothing about a chocolate bar that suggests farming. I think the fact that cocoa grows on a tree as a fruit is often a revelation to people.”
A rose from any other place
At 5 a.m. the week of Valentine’s Day, workers at the Portland Flower Market, an Oregon wholesaler, were unloading shipments. The room flowed with rivers of color.
February is peak season for the flower industry.
At the market, Scott Isensee, a manager at Frank Adams Wholesale Florist, said during Valentine’s week he sells 3 million flowers.
Isensee mainly works with local growers, but most roses come from South America.
“We wish we could have Valentine’s Day in July,” said Isensee.