At age 80, Eastern Oregon farmer Don Lieuallen isn’t driving the combine anymore. But he shows up every day to his family’s 2,400-acre century farm to balance the books, check crop management schedules and, as he says, “feed the cats and the cattle.”
Three hundred miles away in Western Oregon, 20-somethings Jeremy and Ashli Mueller also spend almost every day on their farm. Unlike Lieuallen, however, the Muellers aren’t managing vast acreage; they’re making a living on just 1.5 acres.
The contrast between the Muellers and Lieuallen provides a glimpse into the wide diversity of farms in Oregon.
“Oregon farms are as diverse as the crops produced in Oregon and the different environments available to grow agricultural products,” says Ray Jaindl, director of the Natural Resources Program Area for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “From small acreage to large, opportunities exist for farmers to pursue their dreams and produce crops for a variety of markets.”
According to department records, the state sprouts new farms annually, but it is also home to more than 1,150 century farms and more than 25 farms that have been in operation for over 150 years.
On his Umatilla County farm, Lieuallen helps his sons, Tom and Eric, manage more than 1,000 acres of winter wheat, 200-plus acres of green peas for processing and over 350 acres of pasture.
Meanwhile, in Pleasant Hill, the Muellers grow 52 crops in an area a little larger than a football field.
Despite the differences in their farms, the motivation behind the career choices of Lieuallen and the Muellers are similar. In both cases, their love of farming beckons them each morning.
“I’ve always enjoyed what I am doing,” Lieuallen says. “I’ve enjoyed being able to get up every morning and know that I have things to do. And I’ve enjoyed being able to see what I accomplish each day. You either plowed the field or you didn’t. You either fixed the fence well enough to keep the cow out of the garden or you didn’t.”
“Being able to work with plants, being outside, there is something so productive about it that I really appreciate,” says Ashli Mueller, 26.
“I really love just going out and cultivating,” says Jeremy Mueller, 29. “And I like working with chefs and people at natural food stores that order from us. We have some really cool CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) members that have been with us through the ups and downs and getting this farm going.”
Lieuallen, who has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and economics from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., says at one point, he thought about becoming a lawyer. But his roots drew him back to the family farm in 1958, and he’s been there ever since.
Preserving the family farm for future generations is one of Lieuallen’s primary motivations these days.
“My grandparents and parents went through some real sacrifices,” Lieuallen says. “It was difficult for them to keep the farm during the Great Depression. So you think a long time before you want to sell it and walk away from it. In fact, that is something that I would never do.”
Conversely, the Muellers, now in their third year of leasing Excelsior Farms, aren’t looking that far into the future. Asked whether he will still be farming in 20 years, Jeremy hesitates. “Twenty years is a long time to project out,” he says. “Maybe we’ll still be here, if we can play it smart enough.”