FAMILIES the Backbone of Oregon Agriculture

By Kira Sabin
Agrilcuture and Food Business Management, Class of 2022


he smell of cinnamon rolls wafted through the room as I watched my employer carry a squirming baby on her hip while speaking to someone about a tractor malfunction, her phone balanced between her shoulder and ear to free up the hand that was filling out paperwork, as a kitten attacked her shoelaces.

This is a family farm, I thought to myself.

Families are the backbone of agriculture in Oregon. Over 95% of farms in the state are family owned and operated. Ag, food, and fiber make up much of the driving force of the Oregon economy, supplying more than $42 billion dollars of revenue and 531,000 jobs. Oregon’s location on the 45th parallel allows for the rich diversity of more than 225 different agricultural commodities to be shared around the world with agricultural exports up 25% over the past seven years. It is truly amazing to think that this industry is almost entirely being supplied by families. And as impressive as those figures are, what is arguably more impactful is the intangible value family farms provide: community.

The relationships formed by agribusinesses are so unique compared with many other industries. Those relationships create the stories, history, and culture that keep family farms in operation despite the many barriers they face.

I learned of this fascinating business model first-hand while working at Justin Gross Farms (JGF); a 4200-acre grass seed farm, baling operation, and beef cattle ranch across Jefferson, Albany, and Kimberly OR that was started by Justin and his wife Sarah Gross in 2008.

Since I was 16 years old, I have been driving a hay squeeze, loading bales onto semi-trucks at JGF. Even though the long hours in the summer heat left me exhausted and covered in dirt at the end of the workday, the atmosphere of their company made me fall in love with farming. The agricultural community inspired me to study Agriculture and Food Business Management (AFBM) at Oregon State University (OSU), where I am now a soon-to-be graduating senior.

Part of the requirements for AFBM majors is to fulfill an experiential learning project. This means that outside of traditional classes, students must conduct a research project, internship, or international study experience. While completing this additional step seemed daunting, I am so glad that I was motivated by my advisors to do it.

Sons Jaiden and James spending a typical day in their summertime riding in a tractor with their father, Justin Gross.

In the summer of 2022, Sarah—an alumna from OSU with a bachelor’s in Human Development and Family Services—hired me as an intern at JGF. Instead of solely performing my hay squeeze duties, I was able to job-shadow many of JGF’s family member managers. I had worked many years at JGF, but I still had no real idea of how the company functioned as a whole. With my new role I learned the ins and outs of the company, and I soon realized that my usual task of loading bales onto trucks was a small piece of the huge puzzle that makes up the farm. This context helped me to take the information that I was learning in school and apply it directly to the tasks implemented at my internship. In my classes, I learned about management, business, and all the skills to think about those things. But my experiential learning at JGF taught me how to actually do those things. It turns out, I’m not the only AFBM student to feel this way.

Ally Gates grew up on a small grass seed farm in Hillsboro, where their family has faced many difficulties with the growing city right next door. This summer, she did an experiential learning project where she performed a cost benefit analysis of adding a grain bin and a farm management software program to her family’s operation.

Ellie Kenagy expanded her current role on her family’s beef cattle ranch near Oakland through investment, budget, and HR duties.

They both described how the projects changed their perspectives by allowing them to take a different approach to the farm that they were already a part of.

“It was definitely more challenging because in my traditional classes, it’s very theoretical,” Ellie said. “This project, however, was hands-on, applying what we’re learning in school directly to what we’re doing at home. I thought a lot of my coursework translated really well.”

Tim Delbridge, professor of Applied Economics and OSU Extension Economist shared why he thinks it is so crucial for students in the program to participate in experiential learning.

“Students learn better when they can put the concepts and material from their courses into practice in a way that makes sense and that’s relevant to their world,” he said. “I think experiential learning is really important and valuable to our programs and especially in agriculture.”

Delbridge also noted the value of family farms in Oregon.

“I think that the agricultural landscape in Oregon is so fantastic. Because there are so many different types of family farms, these students come from such diverse, agricultural backgrounds and bring that perspective to OSU to share with other students.”

Of course, life on the family farm is not without its struggles. In my personal experience—as I am sure many can relate— families are messy. Relationships are complicated. Family dynamics can sometimes be quite confusing and even contradictory. This is a key factor that makes family-owned businesses so unique.

Students learn better when they can put

the concepts and material from their courses

into practice in a way that makes sense

and that’s relevant to their world.

Tim Delbridge teaching students in the Department of Applied Economics on his first day of class at Oregon State University.

Sydney Diaz, an AFBM transfer student speaks of her family’s issues.

“I think family farms face a lot of challenges that non-family farms don’t in that they often have less formalized agreements or arrangements, and this can definitely create some issues when people come to make new business decisions, especially with finances and management.”

While families create a strong sense of loyalty, when things go south, it can also cause great resentment and disconnect.

“Right now, it’s to the point some would rather work with people outside of the family than with their own family members.”

The lines between work and life are blurred in this industry. When describing his time working for his family’s beef cattle ranch and hay operation near Burns, AFBM student Timothy Payne chuckled, “Relationships can muddy the water sometimes because not only are you just a part of the family, but you are also an employee. So you must remember that it is a job, and you can’t really get away with goofing off.”

But for all its obstacles, the ‘muddiness’ is what shapes the extraordinary and dynamic culture of Oregon agriculture.

“I do think that a lot of family farms have fewer resources than large farms at navigating anything from technical challenges, production, economics, and financial management,” Professor Delbridge said. “That’s really where OSU Extension hopefully can fill that need and students can take the lessons learned on campus back to their families’ operations. But family farms are so important for the makeup, not just of the agriculture industry, but of our communities, and we should do everything that we can to support them.”

So, the next time you are at a local grocery store or market, just remember that there is a 95% chance the products you see are there because of a family. Perhaps, it was thanks to an outstanding multitasking mother; bouncing a baby on her hip, answering urgent phone calls, and giving students like myself the opportunity to learn and grow so that future generations of Oregon family farms can thrive.

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