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Survey cites financial hardships of Jackson County farms

Ron Bjork runs cattle on 80 acres straddling Little Butte Creek that his family has owned near Brownsboro for more than 50 years.

Like many farmers in Jackson County, he considers himself a hobby farmer. Feeding and caring for his herd has been an increasingly expensive and time-consuming sideline, while his real estate business pays the bills.

"I have a fairly good income with the ranch," said Bjork, who leases land outside Central Point, Eagle Point and Roseburg for his herd. "I do the same as most of the people here, I'm a hobby farmer with a fairly good income."

Of the 1,722 Jackson County farms identified in the National Agricultural Statistics 2012 Census released last week, just over 3.3 percent reported farm-related sales of more than $100,000. In fact, barely 7 percent generated sales of more than $50,000, indicating those families relied on other jobs, investments or retirement income.

The census reported the net cash loss for county farms was more than $2.5 million.

Farming was the chief job for 967 principal operators — including those who are retired — and an avocation for 755. However, 916 of the principal operators reported they worked off the farm at some point during the year, while 503 of that group worked at something else 200 or more days annually.

"I pay my bills, but dollar-wise I've never gotten rich," Bjork said. "At the end of the year. I look to see whether I make profit or don't. The real estate (business) is more profitable."

When Bjork's family moved to the Brownsboro area in the late 1950s, the cost of doing business was low enough that local farmers and ranchers could provide for their families without taking on outside employment.

"When we first moved here, we were able to make payments on the ranch, able to buy a new car, buy a baler — on time over a couple of years — and a tractor, and still make a living."

The Bjorks ran 100 head of cattle at the time, but starting in the 1960s, he said, the margins began shrinking.

"The guys that were running cattle on Forest Service or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) lands were having to cut back all the time," Bjork said. "The guys were getting squeezed and it got harder, tougher and tougher."

When assessing local agriculture, geography, terrain and broader economics enter into the discussion. Southern Oregon is a long-haul destination for many cash crops, and unlike miles of rolling hills conducive to grain production in northeastern Oregon or the endless flatland devoted to corn production in the Midwest, crops here are diverse.

That mix works well for growers' markets and community-supported agriculture sales, but it doesn't necessarily translate into large-scale production.

"Being diverse becomes their specialty, in that case," said Joe Hess, the local Farm Service Agency executive director. "The most unique thing about Jackson County is the climate, because it sits in its own basin. It doesn't have moisture and precipitation you see in the Willamette Valley, yet it's warmer and the growing season is longer than the east; in Klamath, you can have frost any day of the year.

"That leads to diversity in the kinds of crops and allows for a bigger variety of operations."

Commodity growers and producers continually cast wary glances at market reports, trying to time sales. They will also keep an eye on USDA lending rates, Hess said.

In many cases, the larger the operation, the harder it is to produce a profit.

"Our experience is that farming is uneconomical," said Jack Day, whose family operates Hillcrest Orchard and RoxyAnn Winery.

The key to survival in agriculture is adding value to the raw material.

"In the grape industry, you won't find someone going out to lease a vineyard, sell the crop and make money," Day said. "When we combine the winery with our other operations, then we control quality and get the fruit we want, and the value of our product is close to the cost of the operation."

When the old Hillcrest Orchard honor barn was converted into a tasting room after the winery was built in 2001, Day said the idea was to keep things simple.

"When I did my research in the Willamette Valley, almost to the number of people who had built big show places they said, 'Don't do what we did, you'll never get a return.'"

When the labor is divided, hobby farmers can make it, Day said.

"The wife feeds them at night and he feeds in the morning before work, takes them to the slaughterhouse," Day said. "They can determine by the pound and project exactly what they're going to get."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, friend him on Facebook and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.

The Bjork family’s 80 acres support several dozen cows and their calves near Brownsboro. - Jamie Lusch