Keepers of the land
Tonya and Russell Kockx are not farmers. She’s a massage therapist and he’s a risk manager at a printing company. They had never even gardened. But that didn’t stop the couple from buying 31 acres of weeds in Central Point.
They didn’t know what to do with their new land, which had been neglected for the past two decades. What they did know, however, was that they wanted to bring it back to life so their five children and the neighborhood could enjoy it and so it could supplement their income.
So they signed up for the Oregon State University Extension Service’s Land Steward Program. Offered in Jackson and Josephine counties, the 6- to 10-week training teaches landowners how to create a healthy environment on their property. More than 100 people on 5,000 acres of land have completed the program since it started in 2009, said its coordinator, Rhianna Simes.
For each class, participants tour other properties, some of which belong to graduates of the program. They see firsthand how other landowners control weeds, care for their trees, enhance wildlife habitat, and safeguard their premises from wildfires. Graduates are required to spend 20 hours sharing their new knowledge with the public. They can pull weeds in their communities, plant trees, and help at schools or OSU’s local demonstration gardens.
The program is geared toward newcomers to the area and those who are thinking of passing their land to their heirs. “The Land Steward Program is necessary because we have thousands of people moving into the area who have little to no experience living rurally, let alone owning property. Also, we have a large percentage of retired folks, so we have a tremendous amount of land that is about to change hands generationally,” said Simes, adding, “We have quite a few couples take the program. Although we don’t offer marriage counseling, we do offer the opportunity for families to start those conversations about what their vision is for their property.”
Tonya, 38, and Russell, 40, certainly are planning for the future. On the first day of their land steward class, they wrote down their vision for their property, which they call Twin Creeks Naturals Farm: “Create a family-friendly farm for our children to grow up on and provide a little extra income for the family … Our goal will be to feed the curiosity and spirit of each child by encouraging their innate desire to play outside, rummage through the woods, care for animals, plan projects, watch things grow, and build mud pies. We will provide a neighborhood farm where we will extend the learning environment to local family and encourage the prospect of 4-H projects.”
[caption caption="Offered in Jackson and Josephine counties, OSU Extension's 6- to 10-week Land Steward Program teaches landowners how to create a healthy environment on their property. More than 100 people on 5,000 acres have completed the program since it started in 2009. Tonya and Russell Kockx are two of them."] title="Offered in Jackson and Josephine counties, OSU Extension's 6- to 10-week Land Steward Program teaches landowners how to create a healthy environment on their property. More than 100 people on 5,000 acres have completed the program since it started in 2009. Tonya and Russell Kockx are two of them." class="colorbox-load cboxElement">[/caption]
With vision in hand, their next class assignment was to draw up goals and create a map of what they wanted their property to look like. “If you ever get off track in your goals–I’ve done it a couple times–step back, go look at your map, look at your initial objectives and it helps refocus you,” Russell said, flipping through a hefty, three-ring binder bursting with handouts from his classes.
For the moment, their land, which they bought in late 2012, is bare except for their house and the teasel weeds and vetch. But the Kockxes see themselves one day sitting in a gazebo on a summer afternoon watching cattle graze and chickens chase bugs. They see residents across the street in the apartments and high-density homes walking over to buy duck eggs and squash from a farmstand. They see them feeding the cattle while their dogs frolic in a dog park. They also see corn tassels waving in the wind in a four-acre garden and neighbors catching fish in a pond or buying U-pick blueberries. They hear laughter and children playing at community barbecues and breakfasts.
If the statistics are any indication, the Kockx family is likely to succeed. “We find that when people intentionally create a plan around how they’re going to manage their natural resources, there’s a higher percentage of follow through,” Simes said. “We did a survey of the previous four years’ participants and found that 85 percent have implemented at least five projects on their land that they planned in the Land Steward Program. We’re proud of the impacts and community we’re building. As with this young couple with wonderful dreams, it’s going to affect the quality of life for all of us in the valley.”