These Oregon farmers and ranchers show us how sustainable production is done on working landscapes across the state. In their own words, they describe their history on the land and offer advice to future generations.
W and J Orchards, Inc., Albany, Oregon
I’m 73 years old and I was fortunate to be born on the farm where my family had been farming since 1905, here in the Dever-Conner area [north of Albany]. I started planting hazelnuts more than 50 years ago, before I was out of college. Originally they added diversity to the farm, and they spread out the labor into winter. Now they are my only crop. They’re just a nice crop to be involved in.
What’s neat about hazelnuts is that their timing isn’t really that critical. Many crops dictate what day to plant, what hour to harvest. With hazelnuts, it’s not that demanding. But you have to have patience, and some people just aren’t cut out to use a shovel or clippers. Fortunately, I enjoy it.
I also have a tree nursery, and that’s really been my most satisfying experience. I’ve worked with Oregon State in the hazelnut-breeding program for well over 25 years, testing new varieties. That program is second to none. It’s a privilege to work with those researchers and call them my friends.
I credit my dad for a lot of the sustainability of the farm. When I first started out, Dad really didn’t like farming as much as I did, so the more responsibility I assumed, the further he backed off. Over 40 years of farming together, he never once criticized me and was always supportive. Embarrassingly, we really didn’t have a set plan. But we were diversified; we’ve had good advisors and we’ve had good employees, faithful employees. It just worked out super.
Steven and Suzanne Fry
Fry Family Farms, Talent, Oregon
(Steven) We started farming in this valley 25 years ago. We started out with a half acre and five children, a tractor, and a tiller. Now we have 90 acres of certified organic vegetables and flowers; we’re selling to local stores, and florists, and the Organically Grown Company up in Portland; and the kids are all graduating from college.
We started out with a very diverse farm. We really haven’t changed our business plan from the very first day. We do certified organic plant starts early in the spring, then vegetables and flowers throughout the season. We have a CSA [community supported agriculture] as well as the markets. We sell to a wide variety of customers and we offer them a wide variety of crops. Mono-crops are not our deal.
We started out organic and we’ve been organic all these years. We experimented and found our own answers for everything we’ve wanted to try. It seems really strange to me that organic agriculture is just now recognized as a viable business. I’d like to see more research focused on the organic industry—programs on water, food safety and handling, organic weed and pest control, and seed development—especially since the GMO ban here in Jackson County.
(Suzanne) What has sustained our business for 25 years is that we’ve had lots of good help. And, most of the time, we enjoy what we’re doing. The work changes all the time, always new challenges. Every year, we say “Oh, I’m going to do it better next year, I’m going to try something different.” So you keep going and each year you get it just a little bit better than you had it the year before.
Wheatacres Ranch, Wasco, Oregon
(Sherry) Larry’s great-grandfather came here from Missouri in 1882 to homestead. Over the decades the farm, and the family, grew bigger. Larry’s grandparents raised their two children here. Then Larry’s father began farming, and he and his wife raised their two children here. When he retired, Larry and I began, and we raised our four sons here—Collin, Kevin, Cameron, and Chris. About 16 years ago, Chris and his wife Carrie moved into the main house, and they’re raising their two girls here.
It takes persistence to sustain a 2,400-acre, dry-land family farm for that long. And a certain sense of what the place means to you. And passion.
(Larry) Yes, very much so. I graduated from Oregon State in 1957 and started farming full time. Forty years later, when I was ready to slow down a little bit, Chris and Carrie carried on, doing a wonderful job as the next generation.
(Sherry) The key to a sustainable family farm is to be a good partner, 24-7. We all live here. This farm has passed down family to family for four generations, but as the economy has proven, it takes a bigger farm than this to support more than one family at a time.
(Chris) To keep things going, we have to innovate, and not be afraid to not do it the way it’s always been done. I think about when my great-grandfather farmed and bottom-plowed everything. And then in the 40s and 50s my grandfather did “trashy fallow” farming with tillage. And now we’ve gone to no-till. Conserving the soil is one of the biggest things for future generations. And technology is huge. We’re able to be more efficient with GPS. We can do prescription-based fertilizing so we don’t waste fertilizer. We’re learning new things every year.
(Carrie) You have to have a plan, especially as you try new things with equipment that is incredibly expensive these days. You need a 5- to 10-year plan on how to make it work and pay for it.
Duckwall Fruit, Odell, Oregon
My dad was a banker back in Indianapolis when he moved to Hood River in 1910. But after seeing the opportunities, he decided to get into the fruit business. He planted some fruit trees out in the Wy’east area of the valley, and sent some of his early fruit shipments by rail to his brother in Indianapolis. Those sales did pretty well and made a pretty good profit for my dad. The next year his neighbors began inquiring if their fruit could be included in his next shipment. So, in 1919, the firm of Duckwall Bros. was born. It evolved out of a dream.
In 1929, my dad established his first export market in Sweden. Now, exports are more than one third of the company’s total sales volume. Today, we work with about eighty growers in the mid-Columbia area. We pack over 2 million cartons of premium Northwest pears and ship them throughout the world.
It’s been almost 100 years now, and there have been good years and difficult years. You have to be prepared to ride through the tough times and keep focused on your goal. Our goal is to provide a good return for our growers so they are profitable and successful, growing high-quality fruit for us to pack and ship.
We work closely with the Extension and Experiment Station office here in Hood River. It’s provided a lot of valuable service to the industry. It’s made the growers successful through fruit physiology and fruit pathology programs that have allowed them to increase and improve their fruit quality. That’s what really helps us from year to year: to get our crops off the tree and into the box with the highest grade, the least blemish, and the least physiological problems. That’s how we maximize our returns.
Orchard View Farms, The Dalles
My grandparents came here in 1923 and set up a farm near where our headquarters are today. They expanded, buying mostly pastureland on the hills. My dad started farming with them after he graduated from Oregon State in the late 30s. My brothers (Bob and Tom) and I joined them in the 60s, about the time they were beginning to plant into orchards.
Bob and I expanded the farm some more, and later we set up a packing facility, packing apples and cherries. Other family members worked for the farm over time; it’s been a real family enterprise. Now we’re turning over the operation to the fourth generation—Bob’s daughter Brenda is our president and general manager and my nephew David Ortega is the plant manager. They’re running the operation today.
We give them advice on what we did and what mistakes we made. They listen. But I think the best thing is for them to determine what it is they want to do and go ahead with things that might be different from what we might have done. You have to put trust in the people. Brenda and David are not afraid of taking some risks; they do it with a lot of thought and go on from there.
At the beginning, the farm was very mixed, and cherries were just a minor portion. It was mostly processed cherries until the 80s. Today we’re primarily fresh cherries; they’ve done the best for return-per-acre over time. Maybe there’s a little more risk but there’s a little more reward, too.
47th Avenue Farm, Portland, Oregon
I started farming almost 20 years ago on a double lot in southeast Portland. I knew I wanted to farm, but I wasn’t from a farming background and I didn’t have access to land or capital. Farming was something I really wanted to do, so I started small. I grew a big garden and talked my friends into joining me. I pieced together little properties in and around town until I had seven or eight different places in three counties.
That got logistically really challenging. So about 10 years ago I started consolidating. I was selected to run the CSA (community-supported agriculture) at Luescher Farm for the City of Lake Oswego. And I bought property on Grand Island and added that to the mix. So now we’re doing CSA and restaurants throughout the Portland area.
Growing the business really slowly made it possible for me. I started small and I didn’t get over-extended in time or finances. I started with a double lot in Portland and, in the coming few years, I’ll have 50 acres in production. That kind of incremental growth is possible with lots of help: from researchers at OSU and from great customers.
Portland is a great place to be a farmer. I feel very appreciated by our customers and the restaurants and chefs we work with. There’s a great appreciation for good food here in the Portland area. We provide a great service for people and for the community.
People said it couldn’t be done 30 years ago, but we’re doing it. There are a lot more resources now than there were, resources for small, sustainable, organic agriculture.
Wong Potatoes, Klamath Falls, Oregon
My grandfather came to America from China and started growing potatoes in the early 1920s. He went broke two or three times, as potato growers do. Finally he made a go of it in the Klamath Basin, and we’ve been farming potatoes here since the 1930s.
We grow potatoes, we pack potatoes, and we ship potatoes all over the world. My wife and I bought the farm from my mom and dad in 1999. We’ve made a lot of changes in the farm since then. The farm used to grow almost exclusively russet potatoes. Now we grow specialty potatoes—reds, yellows, whites, purples, and fingerlings—and 80 percent of our potato acreage is in organic production. We find a potato that meets the customer’s needs, and those are the potatoes we select to grow.
I think diversity is important to sustaining a family business through three generations. We rotate crops, including wheat and dairy-quality alfalfa. And with potatoes, we supply our customer with the very best product, graded to the highest standard.
My father is an OSU alum and all six of us kids went to Oregon State. My mom is an Oregon Duck. In our household, the civil war is a big deal!
Here in Klamath Falls, we work a lot with the potato researchers at the OSU Extension and Experiment Station. They’re always coming out with new varieties for us to test—maybe it looks better than one we already have, or maybe it tastes better or cooks better. We’re always looking for something even better.
Mark and Susan Doverspike
Cattle ranchers, Hotchkiss Company, Burns, Oregon
(Susan) “You can’t starve the profit out of a cow.” That’s what my father used to say. We are the fourth generation on this ranch, and [suddenly, she says] the fifth and sixth just walked in the room!
[At this point, the Doverspikes’ son and his family, with a new baby in arms, walked into the room. Mark and Susan bounced their grandkids on their laps while they continued the conversation.]
(Mark) Susan’s family, the Hotchkiss Company name, has always had a good reputation, and we continually strive to make sure that reputation is furthered. I imagine that our three boys and their families will continue to expand the ranch and improve the business after us.
(Susan) Our cattle fit the natural beef market niche. They’re raised naturally without antibiotics, and they’re fed native meadow hay during winter. In the spring and summer, the yearlings are grass-fed on crested wheat pastures, and the mother cows with calves graze native grasses on the high desert and in the forest. Taking care of the range is an essential part of what we do.
For example, cattle prefer drinking from still water. We were one of the first ranches to install solar pumps to move water from forest streams into troughs, which keeps cows out of sensitive riparian areas.
(Mark) We work closely with the Agricultural Experiment Station, especially on subjects like riparian restoration, sage-grouse, and on-the-ground production issues. The Austin Family Business Center has also helped us with succession planning, passing the ranch to the next generation.
Seed farmer and irrigation leader, Vale, Oregon
My grandfather came to this area in 1938 when the Vale Irrigation District first started. He transformed land from sagebrush to farmland. I’ve lived here most of my life. I’ve always focused on seed crops, while my brother works with livestock.
Problems with water quality arose in the early 2000s, when the valley and Willow Creek were put on the 303d list [a list of impaired streams and rivers that do not meet water quality standards]. There were issues with runoff from flood irrigation in particular.
It was scary for the farming community here. The farmers in the area got together and we formed the Willow Creek Working Group to focus on how to improve water quality in Willow Creek [a tributary of the Snake River]. Because the irrigation water comes from a reservoir with a main canal and side laterals, we decided that the best bang for the buck was to enclose the side laterals in pipes. That produced a lot more head pressure, which made it possible for people to convert from flood irrigation to sprinkler irrigation with no pumping costs, because it’s all pressurized through the system.
We’re blessed in this area with people willing to work together as a team. We’ve had a lot of support from the Malheur Experiment Station. When we started the water project, there were only about 1,000 acres under sprinkler irrigation; now there’s around 12,000 acres. With flood irrigation you lose about a yard of soil per acre per year; so now there’s about 12,000 yards of material that’s not going into Willow Creek and the Snake River. And attached to that material are all of the fertilizers and herbicides and other stuff that are not going into the water. That’s the number one thing…we are finding win-win solutions for the environment and the landowner.
Oregon Oyster Farms, Newport, Oregon
I always wanted to be a farmer, but I never expected to be an oyster farmer. I moved to Oregon in the 1990s to work in water chemistry at OSU. I began work with the Oregon Oyster Farms almost 17 years ago. I own the farm now; it is the oldest and largest oyster farm in Oregon. It covers 500 acres of Yaquina estuary and wetlands and has been continuously farmed since 1907.
To sustain a farm for that long, you have to understand Mother Nature in the place where you are. You need to know the carrying capacity of your water and the biological, chemical, and physical conditions of your water. Then you balance all that to calculate how many [oyster spat] you can plant and how many [mature oysters] you can harvest.
The Yaquina Bay is a multi-dynamic estuary. The exchange of water is huge. And the water is very clean. Quality of water is always important for growing the best oysters. We are working to grow even better oysters, better quality, better growth rate, better meat content.
Aquaculture is a science and an art. It is like playing music. Everybody can put notes together but only a few musicians can make wonderful music. For aquaculture, you try to put different notes together to make a sustainable production. And if you can put those notes together just right, you can make a wonderful business.