Growing Optimism

Growing Optimism header image
New, young farmers cultivate their place in Oregon’s agriculture.

The young couple stood on a grassy hill and looked down on the farm they and family members had just purchased. Below them, their 37 acres edged along a creek, tucked between two forested slopes, with the hills of southern Oregon in the distance. In their minds Chris Jagger and his wife, Melanie Kuegler, saw an organic vegetable farm. But what they really saw were tired, old barns and a beaten-down pasture. When the wind blew, dust swirled everywhere.

“It was a mess. We knew we had so much work ahead of us,” Jagger recalls.

That was six years ago. Today, under the name Blue Fox Farm, they grow up to 50 different certified organic vegetables on about six acres of their farm near the hamlet of Applegate. Kuegler’s sister and brother-in-law, David and Valerie Kennedy, raise sheep, goats, and ducks in a separate enterprise on the farm.

All of them are in their 30s.

None of them grew up farming.

Alden Overbaugh photo by Tiffany Woods

Alden Overbaugh, 3, is steering a future course at Winter Green Farm. His parents, Chris and Shannon, both first-generation farmers, started working as farmhands and are now co-owners of the farm. Photo: Tiffany Woods

As young, first-generation farmers, they’re a minority in a graying industry. The average age of principal operators on Oregon farms and those across America is 55, according to the 2002 Census of Agriculture. Nationwide, the percentage of principal farm operators under the age of 35 dropped from 16 percent to 6 percent between 1982 and 2002, the census reported.

Despite the nationwide decline, some young city slickers see a future in farming. They might not have the experience of their elders but they’ve got energy and passion. They’ve got blogs, they’re having babies, and they’ve traded their Calvin Kleins for Carhartts. They’ve also got Oregon State University on their side.

When Jagger, 34, and Kuegler, 31, need help, one of the experts they turn to is Melissa Matthewson, a faculty member in OSU Extension’s Small Farms Program.

“She’s taken the time to investigate things for me,” Jagger says. “In the middle of the summer, I don’t have time to stop and look up a question, so it’s nice to be able to call her and say, ‘I’ve got this bug. Do you have any idea what it might be?’ A couple of hours later she calls me back with an answer.”

Chris Jagger photo by Lynn Ketchum

Chris Jagger is one of the owners of Blue Fox Farm near Applegate, where he grows up to 50 varieties of certified organic vegetables. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Matthewson and her colleagues in the Small Farms Program offer education and guidance for farmers—young and old—across Oregon. Their Web site includes an online newsletter, a list of upcoming workshops and farm tours, and dozens of publications on livestock, crops, pasture, soil, and marketing.

Farmers also have the opportunity to learn more about agriculture by partnering with researchers on specific on-farm projects. Blue Fox Farm became part of an organic potato research project that OSU spearheaded in 2005. It brought growers and researchers together to test different practices in the field and share their results.

“We got to see the test results, for example with nitrogen testing,” Jagger says. “We grew a test plot using no added nitrogen, and our yield didn’t change. It showed us that potatoes don’t need as much nitrogen, which is a money-saver for us.”

Acting on advice from OSU potato specialists, Jagger learned that when he reduced the spacing between his potato plants, his spuds were more uniform-sized and more marketable. The research project provided Jagger with new information and a new network of OSU expertise. “I feel confident I can shoot off an e-mail or call someone on the OSU team and know that I can get a response,” he says.

tomatoes photo by Lynn Ketchum
cilantro photo by Lynn Ketchum

In return, Jagger is tireless at sharing his own knowledge. He has helped Matthewson design Extension courses on labor management and business planning, and he has offered advice on cover crops to grow at the OSU research center in Central Point. “He’s definitely become a leader in the ag movement down here,” Matthewson says.

Another young leader is Chris Overbaugh. For him it all started in 1995 when he needed money and Winter Green Farm needed bodies. He had just graduated from college and didn’t know a thing about farming. Before he knew it, Overbaugh was tossing tons of burdock roots into a spinning vegetable washer and earning minimum wage at the farm in the tiny western Oregon hamlet of Noti.

That was 13 years ago. Now he’s a “damn good farmer,” says Wali Via, a co-owner of Winter Green Farm. So good that this year, the four farm owners made Overbaugh and his wife, Shannon, partners in the business.

harvesting photo by Lynn Ketchum

Quality of life, a connection to the earth, and a be-your-own-boss schedule compensate for long, exhausting days of plowing, planting, and harvesting. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Like Jagger, Overbaugh participated in the OSU potato research project and has consulted with other research and Extension specialists over the years, gaining advice ranging from marketing strategies to flea beetle control. OSU horticulturalist Ross Penhallegon has been a big help, according to Overbaugh. “When we’ve had problems in the field, we’ve asked Ross to identify the culprit. Sometimes he stops by our farm on his way home and I say, ‘Ross, come look at this.’ When we were having problems with our greenhouse tomatoes he helped us identify the fungus.”

Gabrielle Rysula and Chad Hahn didn’t have any farming experience before they quit their jobs as line cooks in Chicago and moved to Grants Pass to farm part of a 12-acre parcel owned by parents of a friend. Matthewson recalls meeting Hahn, 26, for the first time. He was standing near a 1946 tractor and throwing a ball for his dog when she drove up. She noticed the tattoos, the hooded sweatshirt, the baggy pants.

“He didn’t look like a farmer,” she says. “He looked like a hip urban kid.”

Her impression quickly changed. This guy has a head on his shoulders, she thought after listening to him outline his goals for the farm. “He seemed like he had done a lot of research,” she says. Still, she drove away wondering if she’d ever hear from him again. That sometimes happens. Wannabe farmers, perhaps intimidated by the dose of reality she gives them, sometimes just disappear.

greenhouses photo by Lynn Ketchum
radishes photo by Lynn Ketchum

But not Hahn and Rysula. Hahn soon enrolled in a course on growing organic vegetables taught by staff at the OSU Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center. And Rysula, 29, signed up for OSU Extension’s Master Gardener training even before she left Chicago. “I was going to Master Gardener classes even before I went to the doctor,” says Rysula, who is expecting a baby any day.

Then reality hit. The couple enrolled in a class called Exploring the Small Farm Dream, taught by Matthewson and colleague Maud Powell. The course makes sure aspiring farmers understand what they’re getting into. “That was the depressing class for us,” Rysula says, “but it was really, really necessary.” The class led them to scale down their plans and plant less acreage.

Melissa Mattewson photo by Lynn Ketchum

OSU Extension’s Melissa Matthewson knows firsthand about being a young, first-generation farmer. She and her husband own a small farm and market their produce at the Ashland Farmers’ Market. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

But Hahn and Rysula possess an unyielding desire to succeed. Despite the deer that enjoyed a midnight snack in their greenhouse or the time their tractor got stuck in the mud, they’ve persevered with boundless optimism and a sense of humor, which they share on a blog about their farm, Mud Puddle (appropriately named after the tractor incident). And they keep learning. Rysula enrolled in a grape pruning class at the Extension office and a class on small orchards taught by OSU researchers Rick Hilton and George Tiger. And she has found support in the League of Women Farmers, a group that Matthewson and Powell facilitate to help female farmers connect with each other on farm tours, discussions, and at potlucks.

Recently, Hahn and Rysula joined a group that Matthewson organized for local farmers who want to grow hops for brewers. The farmers agreed to each plant different varieties and compare their results before they invest time and money in planting a larger crop.

Nick Andrews photo by Lynn Ketchum

OSU Extension instructor Nick Andrews (right) helps a grower on Sauvie Island identify insects captured in a sticky trap. It’s all in a day’s work for Andrews, who helps small farmers—new and old­—solve a myriad of problems from organic pest control to finding a niche at the farmers’ market. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Helping farmers establish connections with fellow farmers and others in the industry is one of the vital services provided by the Small Farms Program staff. Nick Andrews, for example, is a well-connected Small Farms faculty member at OSU’s North Willamette
Research and Extension Center
in Aurora. “He’s one of the most actively involved Extension agents I know,” Jagger says. “Nick has interacted a lot with Willamette-based vegetable growers, and he has a real grasp of the organic certification industry. He knows how to contact folks when we have questions.”

The folks at Blue Fox and Mud Puddle farms run small operations, but some young farmers get into the agriculture business on a large scale. At age 22, Nick Moxley is already leasing 330 acres of organic alfalfa, grass hay, and wheat as well as 60 acres of pasture near Klamath Falls. He’s also a full-time student at OSU.

During the school year, Moxley makes about 20 trips to his farm, which is about 250 miles from Corvallis. On Friday afternoons, when other college students are making plans for the weekend, Moxley hops in his Dodge Ram, dials in some country music on the radio, and speeds south. The next morning, he’s out of bed at 6 a.m. to repair irrigation pipes, inspect equipment, mend fences, plow, or plant. He eats lunch on the go, in his tractor, and calls it a day when the sun goes down. Come Sunday night, he heads back to Corvallis for the week’s classes at OSU, where he’s majoring in agricultural business management.

Nick Moxley photo by Lynn Ketchum

While other college students might kick back on weekends, OSU student Nick Moxley heads to Klamath County where he farms nearly 400 acres. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Moxley’s farm work gives him real-life examples to apply to his studies. One class, for example, taught him to use software that calculates the cost of working an acre of ground. He used it to calculate the cost of converting his irrigated pasture into organic wheat, and found that the latter would be more profitable.

After he graduates next year, Moxley plans to return to his farm. He hopes to eventually buy the property as well as a couple hundred more acres. He’s off to a good start. His operation has been breaking even since he signed the lease three years ago.

His advice to aspiring young farmers? “Learn all you can about the crop you want to grow and then take a risk. Otherwise you’ll never make it farming.”

Published in: Innovations