Survival skills for farmers
EUGENE — There's a lot more to running a successful family farm than sowing seeds in neat rows or trucking hamburger-bound steers to the nearest livestock auction.
Jon Broome, instructor for Lane Community College's Farm Business Management Program, helps local farmers figure out which tricks of the trade are most likely to fatten their bottom line.
"There's a good number of farms that do well, but even more do poorly," Broome said. "The big difference is whether they know how to manage their business, so that's what we teach."
That doesn't mean just learning where to enter numbers in a ledger or which varieties of corn are most likely to be knee-high by the Fourth of July in the Willamette Valley, although those are important things to know, too.
No, Broome is more likely to ask a question like, "When is an apple more than an apple?"
And his students, a collection of full-time and part-time farmers with acreages from 1.5 to 300-plus, learn to furrow their brows as well as their fields to come up with answers such as, "When it's dried and packaged with other dehydrated fruits, or blended with berries and turned into fruit leather ..."
Those were two answers for Charles and Jessie Duryea, who own 26 acres of land two miles east of Junction City and who have been taking LCC's farming classes for eight years.
"Marketing is a big issue for a farm like ours," Charles Duryea said. "Through these classes, we've analyzed what's more profitable and have turned toward those crops. We've learned that wholesale farming is not the best way for us to make money — we prefer farmer's markets, selling directly to customers."
The change in approach has allowed Grateful Harvest Farm to become "a full-time, year-round job" for both Duryeas and their 29-year-old daughter.
The trio grow a "wide, wide variety of tree fruits, berries, herbs and vegetables" on the farm they purchased 15 years ago, Duryea said. "The classes also helped us realize that if we were going to produce tree fruit, the value-added idea was something we needed to do, to add something that was not fresh, perishable and seasonal."
Adding a commercial kitchen has extended Grateful Harvest Farm's active farming year to nine months, from April through December.
But Lane Community College's program just begins with improved growing and marketing skills, said Duryea, who grew up tending large family gardens as a youngster and majored in agriculture at Oregon State University.
"I'd been in business for 15 years, and I still didn't have a 'farm policy' in place," he said. "That was another thing we learned to do through this program."
A farm policy lays out the farm owner's underlying philosophy and covers work rules such as expectations for attendance, payment and problem-solving between employees as well as between workers and the employer.
In the case of Grateful Harvest Farm, which employs immigrant workers, the policy also specifies "incentives to encourage workers to stay for the entire season," Broome said. "The value of putting all these things down in a policy document that everyone can share is a revelation to a lot of farmers."
It's the hands-on aspects of the college's farm management program that first attracted John and Christine Deck, who market pastured beef, pork, lamb, goat, chicken, turkey and eggs from their 320 acres west of Junction City.
"We'd be moribund now if we did things the traditional way, shipping off cattle to feedlots in the Midwest," John Deck said. "Instead, we've learned that we can be an active part of the local economy, where people want to know what they're buying and where it comes from. People now want transparency."
Through their dealings with Broome, the Decks realized that, like vegetable growers who sign up customers through "community supported agriculture" subscription programs, "we could do the same thing with our livestock," Christine Deck said.
A year later, the Deck Family Farm already has more than 50 subscribers on the delivery list for their meats and eggs.
"The classes start with concepts and theory and how to implement practical ideas," she said. "It has all the financial stuff, too, but it also goes beyond what to do to make money, to what to do to feel fulfilled. ... I always feel so inspired."
Both Decks come from farm families — their grandparents farmed "but were pushed out for economic reasons, so our parents didn't," she said — so the younger couple felt a pull to reclaim their heritage.
Christine spends full time on the farm. Besides farming, John telecommutes on environmental projects, primarily with the University of California at Berkeley.
Besides the brighter side of farming, Broome's program also looks at the unthinkable: What would you do if your farming operation went under?
That kind of balance is another reason the LCC class is so valuable, John Deck said.
"Without it, we'd be a lot more stuck in the normal, traditional way of looking at things."
On the Net:
Lane Community College: www.lanecc.edu/
Deck Family Farm: www.deckfamilyfarm.com/