Friday, March 26, 2010

The backstory...

This first post is to familiarize you with our farm and what has led up to this decision to transition from conventional farming to organic farming. My father, Mike Robinson, moved to Philomath from Pincher Creek Alberta at a young age. His family ran cheviot sheep for years before deciding to cultivate their small fields. After growing wheat and grass seed for years he moved to Washington and began working in the timber industry. He knew that he wanted to get back into farming, so he took his family back to Oregon to work for one of the largest farms in the valley, Vennell Farms. Vennell Farms is directly adjacent to the south side of what was then Allen & Allen farms, close family friends of my father and his father for many years. My dad used to work for Fred Allen as a teenager. Fred was still running his farm with his son Steve and daughter Linda, but they needed some extra help. They offered my dad a job managing their farm, so he moved onto the farm in the mid-90s. Mike helped make the operation more efficient and the farm became more profitable during his tenure as manager. At that time the farm encompassed around 770 acres at the home place, with about another 600-700 acres of leased ground located nearby in various chunks. The bulk of the acreage was in grass seed, the most widely grown crop in the Willamette Valley. They also grew wheat and oats as rotational crops, but never in large acreages at any one time. Those unfamiliar with the farming industry may wonder why grow mostly grass seed? Well, the Willamette Valley has the perfect climate for growing all types of grass seed. Willamette Valley grass seed is used all over the world for lawns, golf courses, and pastures. The price of grass seed, while never astronomical, was high enough to afford most growers a decent living. After managing the farm for almost a decade, Mike knew that some big changes had to happen to make the farm truly efficient and profitable. One major addition that was badly needed was a seed cleaning facility. For decades Fred and his family had been driving full seed trucks directly from the fields to a seed cleaning warehouse in Tangent. Tangent is about 15 miles as the crow flies from Corvallis. The amount of time and money required to truck all the seed to Tangent was enormous, not to mention the cost of the cleaning itself. As Fred was getting older, (he's now 90), and Steve and Linda were getting close to retirement age, my dad knew that if the farm was to keep going, he should purchase it from the Allens. Mike bought the farm in 2005 with my stepmom Kathie. They renamed it A2R Farms. Allen 2 Robinson. Clever, eh? (farm humor...) Mike got a loan from OSU Federal Credit Union for the property, as well as a loan for putting in the new seed cleaning facility. The seed cleaning warehouse became operational in the fall of 2005. We now clean around 2-3 million pounds of seed per year. That includes several other nearby farms' crop that we handle. When Mike purchased the farm the price of grass seed was strong, so the plan was to keep going as usual. Grass, grass, and more grass. Its not that difficult to farm conventional grass seed, especially with modern fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. The farm was spending almost 200,000 dollars a year on chemicals at that time. Unfortunately, that first year was a total disaster in the valley. There was a massive plague of voles, the largest in over 70 years. The voles destroyed over half the grass crop. With an already tight margin imposed by the terms of the loan, the farm started off its new ownership era in a major hole. The next few years were record good years. So the farm looked like it might be able to dig out of the hole, but then grass seed prices began to take a nosedive. This is right around the beginning of the US economic recession. Far fewer homes were being built, so grass seed was not moving. Warehouses were stuffed to the rafters with 1 and sometimes 2 or 3 year old crop. One thing I should mention here is that because grass seed is not traded as a commodity the grower is essentially at the mercy of the seed brokers to get rid of their seed. Conversely wheat, a commodity, can be sold very quickly. Meaning farmers get paid faster for wheat and oats than they do for grass. We need to wait until the seed company calls up and says they want to take a few lots of grass seed, then wait up to 30-60 days AFTER it ships to actually get a check. With conventional wheat we just truck it up to Portland and get paid within 3 days. As a result of the poor grass seed prices and the few missed payments to the bank, OSU Federal decided to initiate foreclosure. They gave us one choice, sign a deed-in-lieu of foreclosure, essentially turn over the farm to them, lock, stock, and barrel, or face immediate foreclosure. As a carrot they said they would wipe the slate completely clean, basically we would have zero-debt if we signed. We agonized over the decision for months, finally deciding NOT to sign, but to hire an attorney and file for chapter 12 bankruptcy protection. All of this was happening during harvest, which we managed to pay for with a generous loan from a family member, as the bank had cancelled our operating line of credit. As part of the chapter 12 case, we had to come up with a new way of farming that would be more profitable. Well, what could be more profitable? What could we possibly grow that would make us enough money to both pay back our creditors AND cover all of our operating costs? During our research into this we met several like-minded farmers, one of whom was the owner of a very large farm 10 miles east of us. She told us that there was a huge demand for locally grown organic beans, grains, and seeds. Furthermore, she said that her farm was transitioning hundreds of their 9000 acres over to organic, and that they already had over 150 certified organic acres. She also told us about a group called the Southern Willamette Valley Bean & Grain Project. A group of growers and buyers interested in developing the local food market. This was definitely the right person to meet. Through the people we met at the Bean & Grain Project we were able to come up with a list of crops that we could easily grow on our land, using the machinery we already had, that was in high demand for a premium price. Perfect! Just what we needed. We had always dreamed of growing food, I think most farmers do, but the grass seed way of thinking was just too dominant. Farmers are an inherently conservative group when it comes to their crops. Now, our hand had been forced, but it couldn't have been a better time. As a result of our dire financial situation, we had adopted a whole new way of thinking. The final decision in the months-long chapter 12 case finally came down on March 8th, 2010. After many hours of testimony by both sides over several different hearings, the judge ruled in our favor! We were given a period of 8 years to pay back the loans. The new crops we are growing are hard red wheat, brown flax, pinto beans, garbanzo beans, and sunflowers. Well that's the story so far. In subsequent posts I'll get into more detail about what we are planting and when, and who is buying them and for what price.

1 comment:

  1. Clint,

    This is awesome.... we wish you all the luck in the world and will be back for updates!

    Russ and Jackie