Central Point rancher Straus honored
As cattle rancher Dalton Straus peers toward a couple dozen yearlings grazing on his Upton Road spread on a damp November morning, a rainbow emerges over Lower Table Rock.
It's roundup time for the owner of Straus Ranches as he gathers in cattle from as far away as the Illinois Valley for winter. Patience, a trait developed over nearly eight decades, comes with the territory. The rainbow masks more rain clouds on the horizon, which will delay moving cattle from the other side of the Rogue River to his 110-acre headquarters.
"We'll try again tomorrow," he later decides.
Born and raised in the shadow of the Table Rocks, Straus, 79, has worked the land, nurtured animals and promoted better stewardship practices. Whether waiting out the weather, driving cattle, raising crops, supporting improved animal science or negotiating with bureaucrats, Straus has been steady in the saddle and a guiding hand in the beef industry.
On Friday, he will receive the 2010 Agriculturalist of the Year award from the Agri-Business Council of Oregon at the 13th Annual Denim & Diamonds Dinner and Auction in Portland.
The honor is a tribute to decades of demonstrating the importance of agriculture to Oregon's economic, environmental and social well-being through his efforts with the Oregon Beef Council, Oregon Cattlemen's Association, Oregon Farm Bureau, Northwest Credit Services and state Board of Agriculture.
"If I had to boil it down to one phrase, I'd say he's been the voice of reason for the cattle industry," said fellow rancher Jon Elliott, who has known Straus for 30 years. "The cattle industry has really started to go through tough times in the past 10 years. We thought it was that way before, but it wasn't compared to the water problems we have now. Cattle herds are shrinking, the nutrition guidelines are getting tougher and the debate over public lands is intensifying. All those things are piling up on the industry."
Straus' list of accomplishments and honors is lengthy. By his own account, helping bring a veterinary school to Oregon State University and encouraging agriculture studies, protecting land and marketing cattle are among his major achievements.
"There's been a great change in public perception about agriculture," Straus said. "Maybe there was less than good stewardship in the past."
In 2005 he was named one of OSU's "Diamond Pioneers" and inducted into its College of Agriculture Sciences Hall of Fame.
Tam Moore, a former Jackson County commissioner and family friend, said Straus has the community's interest at heart.
"Dalton has a very broad view of things," Moore said. "He cares about farming and his heritage. Straus cattle have traditionally brought premium prices, and he's been a tremendous hay producer, too."
Straus' grandfather traded an Iowa farm for a Sams Valley ranch, sight unseen, and moved west in 1913 with the majority of his 11 offspring in tow, including Albert, Dalton's father. His mother's family arrived in Jacksonville in 1874. Dalton grew up chasing cattle in the hills and working at the family dairy. Day-to-day operations, rather than the future, occupied his mind and time.
"I don't think it ever entered my mind that someday I might have to take over the operation when I was growing up," Straus said. "I enjoyed the work, the hard work, the exercise. To me, it was enjoyment."
While many of his youthful contemporaries chased rainbows to faraway places, Straus decided there was no place like the Rogue Valley, even though duty called him away from time to time. Straus went off to Oregon State College to study agriculture after graduating from Medford High School, but came home when one of his father's hired hands quit.
When the Korean War broke out, Straus tried to join the Navy. He hoped to become a pilot, but a lengthy waiting list led him to enlist in the Army.
"On my first leave from Camp Cook — now Vandenberg Air Force Base — I got home in the dark," he recalled. "The next morning I went out in the front yard and couldn't believe the beauty of the mountain out there that I had never seen before. I didn't realize the beauty until I had been away for a while."
When he returned home with Ruth, his Texas bride, in the mid-1950s, he was still "in awe" of the surroundings.
When active duty ended in 1954, he remained in the Army Reserve until 1986, rising to the rank of colonel, earning two Meritorious Service medals and Army Commendation medals.
"It was the smartest decision I ever made, because I was still able to fulfill my ambitions to be in a leadership role and still have the ranch," Straus said. "It also gave me an education."
In 1954, he joined his father, uncle and cousin working 1,760 acres in Sams Valley, along with a parcel called The Meadows near Evans Creek and nearly 5,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service rangeland. In 1964, the old ranch and dairy were sold, and in partnership with his parents, the beef-cattle operation expanded, including operations on their Fort Klamath ranch.
Today, Straus operates on 2,500 acres of family-owned property and leased pastures, in addition to Forest Service rangeland. In recent years he's averaged 300 head of cattle, down from 550 head 20 years ago.
The debates of an earlier era were precursors of more recent times.
"I was very involved trying to educate those folks — mostly the forest managers — as to what we needed and what was proper range management," Straus said. "In many ways, we compromised. We were looking at it from an economic standpoint and they were looking at it from an environmental perspective."
That doesn't mean he would turn his back on the land for a quick buck. He remembers a rash of land sales on adjoining timber property in the years after World War II when Cal-Ore Ranches, an investment firm, bought up land and then sold it off in small chunks for $5 down and $5 a month.
"(The new owners) would take a little bit of timber off the land, throw up a tar-paper shack because that's all the money they had and stay a few months until they got tired of living like that and get a divorce and leave," Straus said. "The company took it back and the process was repeated."
The end result, he said, was massive soil erosion.
"My uncle said it was nothing to see the same property sold five to seven times in a period of 10 to 15 years," Straus said. "Each time they would take smaller trees down. When they took the trees off the small creeks and drainage ditches, there was nothing to hold the soil when there was a major rain event, and it would create huge canyons."
When fellow cattle ranchers wanted to pursue a campaign against John Kitzhaber during his first stint as governor, Straus dissuaded his peers, explaining it wasn't worth wasting political capital on such efforts.
Economics, like weather, is always at the forefront of agriculture chatter.
"The economy is always a challenge with the ups and downs," Straus said. "For every upside, there is a downside. If you are lucky to have a good relationship with your banker, you can survive the down times."
More recently, for a six-year period in the mid-2000s, Straus Ranches were part of the Country Natural Beef program, a cooperative of cattle ranchers begun in Central Oregon, whose direct-sale clients included Burgerville USA, Whole Foods Markets and New Seasons stores. While he had high praise for the program, the time away from home and the associated costs didn't pencil out.
For all he has meant to Oregon's cattle industry, Straus has yet to figure out his own exit strategy from the business.
His son, Jim, a West Point graduate, is doing well as an account manager for Applied Materials in Hillsboro. His daughter, Teresa Kelly, lives with husband Scott on The Meadows land near Evans Creek. Neither offspring has aspirations of taking over a major ranch operation.
"I can't see either of my kids taking over active management of the ranch," Straus said. "It's too complex without considerably more experience than either have, even though they worked on the ranch when they were younger. It disturbs me, but there's not much I can do about it."
Ultimately, he thinks the 280-acre Sams Valley ranch, which has been in the family for nearly a century, will go to his son and the remainder of The Meadows to his daughter.
"I'm really struggling with what to do, realizing age and realizing the realities of our uncertainty of time of demise," he admitted. "I'm struggling how to downsize without damaging the economy of scale that we managed to achieve by the acreage and the size of equipment we were able to grow into. How we get there is the question. We have some dedicated employees, and I'm uncomfortable about selling and leave them to fend for themselves. But I keep thinking, I can't go on forever."
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.