An Addition to Oregon's Artisanal Food Manufacturing

Jul 6, 2018

Ben Jacobsen
Credit Williams Sonoma

For the first time since Lewis and Clark arrived on the coast, Oregon has a salt works. Located in Netarts, it's typical of a significant and growing number of artisanal food manufacturing businesses around the state.

Hard to tell from a kayak, but Netarts Bay is so clean because there are few fresh water outlets to bring in pollutants, all the oysters filter the water, and salinity is high.  Ben Jacobsen thinks it's a great place to harvest salt:

"We're at the very south end of the bay and as a result you end up with this perfect storm of great sea water that we then pump into our facility and let it settle and then begin our process."

Salt is an essential mineral, although the federal government says more than a teaspoon a day can do you harm.  Salt was used as money in the Roman Empire and wars have been fought over it, but the Jacobsen salt works, west of Tillamook, is a peaceable place:

"This is our boil shed and we're boiling water down over and over again, filling it up and boiling it back down until it reaches a certain salinity."

Manager Rachel Phaxsuwan says the salt is filtered and heated in custom-made pans:

"We come around with our shovel and we harvest the salt very slowly."

It's then put on drying racks:

"They sit there for four or five days until they're dry at which point we kind of hold the tray at an angle and we tickle the salt."

Releasing the delicate flake salt from the coarse clusters. It's the first salt works in the Pacific Northwest since Lewis and Clark set up shop in Seaside in 1805.  It was Ben Jacobsen's idea:

"I was living in Scandanavia for close to five years and moved back home to Oregon and realized that nobody in America was making really great salt.  I would come out to Netarts Bay to go crabbing or just to go camping at Cape Lookout State Park here and always bring back some seawater with me to see if I could make salt."

Jacobsen salt
Credit Williams Sonoma

The briny, pure white product looks like shaved ice. Jacobsen Salt is distributed to a couple of regional grocery store chains and nationally through Williams Sonoma:

"We've definitely kick-started a revolution. It's an industry that before us did not exist."

"You're like the Starbucks of salt?"

"That's an interesting metaphor, yes."

Viewed another way, the salt works is one of dozens and dozens of small Oregon businesses that is producing artisanal food products.  That, according to economist Josh Lehner, makes Oregon stand out:

"Food manufacturing more broadly, and you can throw in beverages, particularly with the wine and the cider and the beer in the state, provides a larger share of our regional economy than it does nationwide. And it's been growing significantly faster than nearly every other state."

Lehner, who works for the state of Oregon, says the number of breweries in the state has tripled in the last eight years.  There are more than six-thousand Oregonians employed making craft alcohol.  Then there's cheese, coffee and tea, and soft wheat exported to Japan to make premium candy.  Lehner says these value-added jobs are not likely to be taken over by robots:

"They generally speaking remain much more labor intensive, require many more workers than obviously a lot of other industries, like office work."

Lehner attributes it to the farm-to-table culture in Oregon, ability to find niche markets in other states and countries, and to ingredients like Oregon hops, the climate for wine grapes or  resources like the Pacific.

In Jacobsen's Portland tasting room, those products come together:

"Feel free to take a spoon and I also recommend our pinot noir salt.  We use a local Willamette Valley pinot noir from Grochau Cellars for that one."

Not sure what Lewis and Clark would have made of that.