Growing up during the Great Depression in a family that believed in giving back shaped Ordean Oen’s life. When the native North Dakotan retired in 1989 as a research physicist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, he thought about his grandfather’s farm, where he and his grandmother had picked chokecherries, and his fond memories of attending Park River (N.D.) Bible Camp, a few miles from his home.
He decided to combine these memories and began picking chokecherries again—this time so he could make jelly and sell it to raise money for the camp. It took a couple of years to get going, but at the end of 10 years Oen had raised $13,000.
Oen then began thinking about a more specific goal: raising $90,000 by his 90th birthday. When he turned 90 in June 2017, he not only met that goal but is still going strong. To date, he’s given $65,000 to the Bible camp and $25,000 to other Lutheran charities.
Oen then began thinking about a more specific goal: raising $90,000 by his 90th birthday. When he turned 90 in June 2017, he not only met that goal but is still going strong.
His journey began by donating nine jars of jelly to the Bible camp’s annual lutefisk dinner held in September. Making an estimated 800 to 900 jars every year since he started this venture, Oen estimates he has sold a total of 18,000 to 20,000 jars to friends and family, and at festivals such as the lutefisk dinner and the annual North Dakota picnic in Mesa, Ariz. The jellies sell for $5, and Oen doesn’t deduct any expenses, giving every dime to the charities he’s chosen.
Oen, who didn’t used to cook, started this venture by learning the process of canning. “I made mistakes, but I learned a lot too,” he said. “I found out early that the most important part of canning jelly is to get the pH right. Chokecherries taste puckery but contain no acid, which is needed for jelling to occur. That’s why I add citric acid.”
After Oen picks the wild fruit in August and early September, he uses a special steam extractor made in Finland that produces a more concentrated juice with intense flavor. The juice can be made into jelly or syrup. Oen sometimes cans as many as 70 jars per day.
In the past several years, he has begun making jellies from other wild produce, too, such as Juneberries, raspberries, highbush cranberries, fresh-from-the-garden rhubarb and more. Oen and his wife maintain homes in North Dakota, Tennessee and Arizona, with a garden at each. In Arizona, he uses citrus grown in his yard to make a triple citrus marmalade.
Oen’s jellies have been praised by former North Dakota governor, now senator, John Henry Hoeven, who calls them “fantastic,” and by Stephen Talmage, former bishop of the Grand Canyon Synod, who said in a note to Oen, “The background stories of this hobby and the philanthropic outcome are a testament to God’s grace and generosity.”
Oen said he’s glad to give the money he raises to charities, not just because he is able to, but because it “feels good and it strengthens my faith.”
So what’s next for the nonagenarian? Raise $100,000 by his 100th birthday? Oen said he’d like that very much.