An innovative wheat farmer looks to the future of Oregon agriculture
By Julie Pederson
As the average age of Oregon’s farmer creeps higher each year and families are forced to sell farms to afford retirement, Jack Hay has been devising a way to avoid this trend. Having lived on Hay Ranch in The Dalles for most of his life, his innovative plan for the future will not only ensure his retirement and the continuation of his historical ranch, but it is a vision for the future of agriculture and agritourism in his part of the state.
Hay’s grandparents moved to The Dalles in 1914. While many people at the time were settling in the valley, they braved the harsher conditions of the gorge to build their home and cultivate a wheat crop. Doing so would lay the foundation that would support the Hay family for the next three generations. “They had hard times,” says Hay. “Plots of land were small due to the Homestead Act and wheat was still bagged in those days.”
Despite the challenges his family faced, they remained on the farm and continued harvesting wheat. In 1974, following his studies at the University of Oregon and service in the Vietnam War, Jack returned to The Dalles to farm the land himself.
Returning to the small family farm and its inevitable challenges was daunting; however, Hay took on his responsibility with renewed energy and a vision for the future. He attributes his resolve to his mother. “Something my mother always said must have encouraged me: ‘If there is something you don’t like, or is difficult for you, work harder at it.’”
Hay did just that. Shortly after taking over the farm he leased acreage around the existing property to add to the wheat production capabilities, and thus earn a more substantial living for his family. He also immersed himself in the Oregon wheat industry, serving terms as president of the Wheat Growers League, chairman of the wheat commission and a board member of the US Wheat Association.
It was during his time on the US Wheat Association board that Hay had the opportunity to participate in global marketing trips – visiting their offices, customers and wheat stations internationally. As a result of these trips, Hay realized the sophistication of global wheat production and research. He returned to The Dalles with the impression that his wheat crop cannot compete in the global market.
“There is strong global competition [in wheat production] and it is difficult to compete against the centralized agriculture of other countries,” says Hay. “I decided I had to get out of the bulk commodity business and develop special crops that have special values.” With an idea, and some measure of luck, Hay has spent the past five years phasing out of the wheat business and focusing on the development of specialty crops, which he hopes will guarantee the survival and future growth of his farm.
A large portion of Hay Ranch is now divided into 320 acre sections and leased out to young farmers experienced in growing wine grapes, cherries and blueberries. With these long-term sublets established, Hay has not only ensured his retirement, he is eagerly developing agritourism and specialty crop production in his area of the state.
Hay’s vision includes not only high value agricultural products growing in abundance on the land, but a destination for people to come and enjoy the bounty. With the farm house already positioned on an international bike route, it is not difficult to envision people coming to enjoy a winery and tasting room, a bed and breakfast, or biking and walking trails that meander through the ranch and around lakes and ponds that will dot the landscape.
While Hay lights up discussing all the possibilities, it is clear that he feels sincere gratitude for the land that has sustained him his entire life. “We live in an ideal pocket for weather, without the cold of Walla Walla or the unwanted rains of the Willamette Valley,” says Hay.
Along with good weather for growing these crops, the ranch also has deep soil, plenty of water through drilled wells, slopes that offer diverse sun exposure to cultivate a variety of grapes and hillsides that were terraced to provide greater density and production of grape vines. “Just another blessing of the land,” Hay says as he ticks off the benefits of his natural resources.
While Hay knows that agriculture is always unpredictable, citing the dramatic and unexpected rise in wheat value in the past year, he also knows that diversifying the crops, entrusting the land to long-term leasers and cultivating crops that will bring in a higher value, is just good retirement planning. “I would like to build my own house on a hill somewhere,” he says, no doubt imaging the spectacular view of Mount Hood from one of the rolling hills surrounding his ranch.
As Hay reflects on his life in Oregon agriculture and discusses his plans for the future, his hopes extend far beyond his own well-being. “I don’t want to see Oregon agriculture become just sustainable – which to me means equilibrium – I want to see it grow and increase in value.” Hay is doing his part to make this happen.