Surviving tough times with an optimistic look toward the future.
By Julie Pederson
In the early 1970s, grass seed began to take hold as a predominant crop in the Willamette Valley. At the forefront of this movement was Bob Doerfler, a farmer who had learned the grass seed business from his father and was eager to find a way to expand his small, diversified farm. Doerfler Farms, which started on 1,800 acres in Aumsville, has grown tenfold, and today it is considered one of the largest grass seed operations in Oregon.
When Bob passed away in 2003, his children, Kent, Kevin and Amy Doerfler, came together once again on the farm of their childhood to take over the operation. The siblings have willingly formed a partnership that will honor their father’s legacy while also keeping the operation viable in the coming years.
While Bob was focused on the growth of the farm, which was necessary for the time, Kent, Kevin and Amy have a more conservative approach for success. “Growing the business was his mission,” Amy says. “Today, the mission is to become more efficient.” To do this, the siblings have created a division of labor that plays to each of their strengths: Kevin is manager of sales, Kent is manager of field production, and Amy is manager of finance and properties. In each area the goal is to “work smarter, not harder,” says Kent.
Over the past six years, other changes have taken place on the farm. For example, the existing safety program was revamped to include a number of committees focused on different areas of the farm, such as tractor safety and seasonal orientation. In addition to monthly safety meetings, the entire safety program is reviewed annually to identify achievements and challenges. In the years that safety goals are met, employees are rewarded with a pizza party and a variety of prizes. The work of the committees and the safety inspections conducted each quarter by farm employees have produced real benefits for Doerfler Farms. Their safety record has improved significantly, and there are fewer injuries each year.
“A key part of the success of the program is to get each person involved,” Amy says. “That way, people can take ownership of the program.”
Doerfler Farms also started a scholarship program to support the high school and college students who work on the farm during the busy summer season. Each year five students are awarded scholarships based on performance reviews and an essay. Offering this opportunity has been mutually beneficial: Students can receive funds for their education, and Doerfler Farms sees a high retention rate of young, dedicated seasonal employees.
Even with all of the improvements and the effort to streamline business operations, Doerfler Farms has not been immune to the economic downturn that has affected every segment of agriculture. However, the Doerflers realize the importance of good humor and optimism in tough times, and they believe there is a positive future for agriculture. Their goal is to “make it through the downturn to make it to the good times,” Kevin says. “The future is optimistic for agriculture. A growing world population will have a greater need for agricultural crops.”
Although the farmhouse that the Doerflers grew up in now serves as the farm’s office, the feeling of home has not left these walls. The unexpected death of their father, followed by a reevaluation of their own life goals, has not shaken the bond of these siblings, only made it stronger. Doerfler Farms will surely see the benefits of that family bond for years to come.