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Economy | Rural Economy Project

Oregon Farmers Gamble On Which Crops To Plant

Oregon farmers have just experienced the biggest drop in sales in 30 years.

For some farmers — who followed the drive to specialize in just one crop — it's been catastrophic.

So now there's a new drive — to diversify: and grow several different crops.

As Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, it's a gamble and many farmers aren't sure what to plant.

It used to be that farmers grew all kinds of things, as well as chickens and hogs for the family. But for the last few decades, it's all been about "vertical integration" — that is specializing in just one crop and doing it very well.

It's efficient and it reduces the need for lots of different types of expensive equipment.

But last year, grass seed farmers in the Willamette Valley saw sales drop 40 percent. 


So the new drive is to stabilize business by growing several different crops.

The tiny town of Shedd is slap-bang in the middle of Oregon's Willamette Valley.

And slap-bang in the middle of town is the Shedd Cafe — it's where local farmers come to gossip, discuss the weather and nowadays — talk about what to put in the ground.

Don Wirth: "Yeah, we're always looking and evaluating and picking minds. I mean I just talked to a guy before lunch from Pennsylvania to see what he's doing. To see what he thinks the next crop of the future that they might be able to utilize or whatever."

Don Wirth has farmed the area since the 1950's. Up until recently, about 70 percent of his land was in grass seed — now its down to about half.

He says he's never seen anything like recent markets.

Don Wirth: "I cannot remember a time, until the last 18 months, that you couldn't go to town and sell one of our three major commodities. And you may not like the price, but you can at least come home with a contract and somebody  would say, yeah. For that I'll put my money in. There's been times over the last 18 months, it wouldn't have mattered what you'd ask, all you did was push the price down and nobody would buy it."

That's meant that many farmers round here have silos full of last year's seed. They're waiting for the price to go up, but of course if it does, everyone will sell and that'll drive the price down again.

Take a turn out of the Shedd Cafe, drive couple of miles down Pugh Road, and you find the Pugh Grass Seed Farm. George Pugh is the fifth generation of his family to work these lands.

George Pugh: "What we're doing is conditioning, or cleaning the seed up, taking it from the field run, which has weeds and straws and dirt in it. And get it into a 98 percent or better purity into marketing bags."

It's a clean and relatively high-tech operation — a very different place from where he grew up.

George Pugh: "Saturdays were cleaning out the hog barn before I could ride my horse with the neighbor kids. Before school was feeding the pigs and the chickens."

He worked hard to 'vertically integrate' the farm. But now he's rethinking.

George Pugh: "I look around and say what did I miss. And I think we should have gone broader maybe than vertical. And so I think us as a farm and neighbors trying to go broad so they have their eggs scattered around many more baskets."

But the question now is: What baskets? What else should he grow?

George's son, Denver Pugh, is digging a ditch to drain a large puddle that's formed on one of the fields. He's tried radishes here, which worked quite well, as well as turnips and cereal rye. But what he really wants to try is hazelnuts.

Denver Pugh: "It's a tree that can produce for years and years. The one orchard that I know of, it's been in for at lest 18 years now I think, maybe 20 years. And they haven't replanted, so you're looking at sustainability with that."

Denver's dad, George isn't so sure. He's worried about the seven years it takes to produce a crop; and he's just not sure how many hazelnuts people can eat.

George Pugh: 'Maybe there is still room for expansion, it just boggles the mind a little bit. Also the capital intensiveness and the permanency of going from a field crop to an orchard crop is kind of intimidating to an older guy such as myself, who hasn't done that before. It's probably takes a young enthusiastic farmer looking well into the future to make that decision, but it hasn't been made here yet."

Pugh prefers to get his ideas from driving past the fields of his neighbors.

George Pugh: "First year we don't know whether it's a good crop or not, unless they like to come to the coffee shop and tell us about it. And sometimes they do. But if they start to raise it for a second year, then we start to look around and say well maybe that's something I can do."

Pugh and his son followed the lead of a few other farmers last year and raised a field of radishes.

George Pugh: "But the market has already seen our eagerness to pick up the crop and the price has dropped from something over a dollar a pound last year to 70 cents a pound this year. So, if we're successful, well we'll probably grow our way out of business."

The gallows humor keeps things light round here.

But in addition to watching the neighbors, grass seed farmers here also get a lot of help from Oregon State University. 

Its extension service has staff whose job it is to seek out new crops. But the head of crop and soil science, Russ Karow, says next big thing isn't really new at all — it's wheat.

Russ Karow: "People are going to eat. You don't have to plant grass, you don't have to renovate your law, you don't have to renovate your golf course. But you do have to eat. And so we're the US, between Canada, Australia and the US, we are the providers of extra wheat for the world."

Back at the Shedd Cafe, cheese burgers are frying as farmers debate the benefits of wheat, radish seed, turnips and hazelnuts.

Picking a crop is really a massive gamble.

Don Wirth found himself in Vegas recently and says the crap tables just weren't that exciting.

Don Wirth: "And it dawned on me that if we can't sweat and stew on it for 18 months, 20 months, hell, it's no fun. It ain't gambling."

Kristian: "If the whole farm literally isn't on the line  it's not gambling."

Don Wirth: "That's the way it is."

Wirth says this year, he isn't even thinking about which crop will make him the  most money. Instead, he wants to know which crop will cost him the least — because he's not sure prices are going to cover his cost.

This story is part of our Rural Economy Project.  We’re looking at how small businesses and communities around Oregon are coping with the recession that began last year.

Next we visit Burns where a newly minted business owner has benefited from a state program to promote entrepreneurship.

The Rural Economy Project is a partnership between OPB and the Rural Development Initiative, Sustainable Northwest and The Oregon Consortium and Oregon Workforce Alliance.

The Rural Economy Project is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.