Whether starting their own farms or joining multi-generational family operations, young farmers are putting down deep roots in Douglas County.
Story by Jennifer Grafiada, Photos by Thomas Boyd
Bright, blonde and smily, Erika Wolfe may not have the variety of produce that the more established farms at the Umpqua Valley Farmers’ Market offer, but her microgreens frequently sell out by noon. A few booths down, her boyfriend, Rylan Guillen, is pouring cold-brew coffee into glass mason jars.
“We wanted to gain more control over where our food came from and we wanted more control of our future,” Wolfe, 21, responds when asked the motivation behind her farming ambitions.
She and Guillen, 28, founded Champion Club Farms in 2017 on a borrowed fifth of an acre, finding ways to make ends meet with select produce and a small CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Champion Club Coffee was added to supplement income by providing beverages like coffee and iced tea to market shoppers.
“It’s not like a nine-to-five job,” Wolfe concedes. “Sometimes you’re putting in more hours than the average full-time job, working all year, holidays included. But we love the ability to work from home, create our own schedule, and work as hard as possible to make our dreams come true. We both come from backgrounds where we had been growing vegetables as a hobby for years and couldn’t think of anything we would rather pour our hearts into than feeding our community healthy food.”
Farming is a challenging way to make a living. The costs of land and equipment, unpredictable revenue and complicated regulations deter many young people from pursuing careers in agriculture. According to a recent report, only 24 percent of Oregon farmers in 2012 were beginners. Of those, only 15 percent were younger than 35.
More frequently, young farmers enter the field by inheriting the land and occupation from their parents. These farmers and ranchers not only have their crops and customer base ready made, they also benefit from years of learning from their elders.
Ashlynn Lehne, 17, has been helping out on her family farm since she was 6. Her parents, Wendy and Glen, are third-generation farmers and partners with Glen’s parents, Norm and Cinda, in Norm Lehne Garden and Orchards.
Also called Lehne Farms, their well-irrigated 70 acres off Garden Valley Road offer more than 100 types of fruits and vegetables, as well as U-pick hazelnuts. The original 10 acres were purchased in the 1940s by Glen’s grandparents, Myron and Helen, who kicked things off by planting daffodils and walnut trees. When she steps into a partnership role, Ashlynn plans to continue to expand operations and possibly add a farm stand and cafe.
“Generational succession is a core value for our farm,” says Glen. “In addition to my two daughters, my two sisters, one of whom is living on the piece of land next to me, have eight kids between them. I see the farm as a large factory with many areas where the next generation can find their niche and earn a living.”
Out in Glide, Matthew and Mary Brady (ages 34 and 29) produce hay on 96 acres originally owned by Matthew’s maternal great grandparents. A small orchard planted in 1913 still produces fruit for the family. In Azalea, where the couple lives, they raise lambs for meat and wool and run a small U-pick pumpkin patch on 230 acres originally owned by Matthew’s great-great grandparents.
Back in the 1890s, this verdant mixture of pasture, hay fields and timberland provided grains, apples, hogs, beef and milk to local grocers and hotels.
“This is my heritage, and I want to continue the family tradition of stewarding God’s creation,” says Matthew. His wife, Mary, also comes from a long line of family farmers who continue to produce alfalfa, hay and other crops in Central Oregon. Both Matthew and Mary have degrees from Oregon State University. His is in forest engineering (he works full time for Douglas Forest Protective Association); hers in general agriculture with a minor in crop sciences.
“I love the physical aspect of working outdoors with my hands and having a tactile fruit of my labor,” says Matthew, who hopes to be able to farm full time soon. “I love seeing the lambs frolic and cavort about the pastures on a sunny day. I love seeing a field of hay bales get loaded and driven off down the road.”
Both Matthew and Mary are members of the Douglas County Farm Bureau, from which Matthew earned a scholarship while in college. “Farm Bureau is a great way to network with other farmers, but its primary purpose is to advocate for local agriculture, of all kinds, so that we can continue to produce the food, fiber and shelter that everyone depends on,” he says.
“For young people in an established farm or ranch family, a common challenge is figuring out how to pass the operation down to the next generation,” says Anne Marie Moss, Oregon Farm Bureau communications director. “About 97 percent of Oregon’s farms and ranches are family owned and operated, so navigating those family roles, dynamics and traditions from one generation to the next can be challenging.”
"THIS IS MY HERITAGE, AND I WANT TO CONTINUE THE FAMILY TRADITION OF STEWARDING GOD'S CREATION" -Matthew Brady
According to a 2016 report, the average age of Oregon farmers is 60. As older farmers retire over the next two decades, more than 10 million acres, or 64 percent of Oregon’s agricultural land, will pass to new owners.
“In our organization,” Moss says, “we’re seeing the next generation of farm and ranch families start to take over the business. Within the past decade there have been more resources and programs at the federal, state and local levels geared toward supporting new and beginning farmers.”
Suzanne Porter, 44, and her husband Asinete Tibwe, 30, of Big Lick Farm are intrepid first-generation farmers who started with three acres in 2008 and now produce more than 70 varieties of fruits and vegetables on 15 acres in Winston.
Porter holds a degree in environmental conservation and has a passion for organic farming methods. Her husband hails from the small Pacific island nation of Kiribati, where the population relies on fishing rather than farming. But Tibwe has taken to it like a natural.
“He loves driving the tractor, talking to customers and setting up his gorgeous displays at the market,” says Porter, who loves “being outside, being my own boss and working directly with the land. There is a deep intimacy with the earth when you farm.”
Porter names the Oregon State University Extension Office, the Women’s Farmers Network and the Farmer-to-Farmer exchange as helpful organizations. They also received grants such as the Aggie Bond from the Northwest Farm Credit Service that have helped them expand their farm and purchase a greenhouse.
"I SEE THE FARM AS A LARGE FCTORY WITH MANY AREAS WHERE THE NEXT GENERATION CAN FIND THEIR NICHE AND EARN A LIVING." -Glen Lehne
She also mentions Brosi’s Sugartree Farm and Norm Lehne Garden and Orchards as being helpful as they’ve navigated their farming journey. For first-time farmers, peer networks and older mentors can be invaluable.
“We are thankful for the way other farmers in the area, who have been here a long time, have been kind to us and helped us along the way,” Porter says. “Farmers only make up 2 percent of our population. I like that we can stick together and have a sense of camaraderie.”
For those who dream of getting their hands in the dirt, many resources and mentors are ready to help. But the key to success may be good, old-fashioned grit.
“Douglas County has been known for quality produce for a long time, and our community needs members of our generation to continue that tradition,” says Wolfe. “Not owning land can seem like an insurmountable barrier to entry when you’re getting started. But you can borrow a small patch of grass and grow as many vegetables as you can.
“The amazing thing about vegetables is you always get what you give. It takes hard work, attention to detail and a passion for what you do just like anything else. But we love it.”
Future Farmers of America (FFA)
Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF)
Oregon State University Extension Service
Small Farms Program
Rogue Farm Corps
What’s a CSA?
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It’s a way for people to enjoy weekly farm-fresh produce while providing financial support for hard-working local farmers. Sign-ups usually begin in the spring. Give it a try. You know you need to eat more vegetables!
Champion Club Farms CSA
Lehne Farm CSA
Big Lick Farm CSA