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Oregon's Deck Family Proves Family Farms Can Be Sustainable

Christine and John Deck at Deck Family Farm 

Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement spotlights 18 Oregon farms and farm supporters who are committed to a return to ecologically sound agricultural practices. This group reflects the diversity of people, both young and old, who are reshaping our state’s food system and reclaiming our right to eat well. In their stories you will hear how they came to be where they are, learn something about the challenges they face, and share their happiness at the successes they’ve enjoyed thus far. The following profile has been excerpted from Planting A Future.

As I turn off High Pass Road to the Deck Family Farm there’s a gate across the driveway. Cattle nose through fencing on either side, perhaps wondering what to make of this latest visitor. Unfastening the chain reminds me of the many pasture gates I opened growing up, and when I close it, like when I was a kid I try to chain it in a way that makes it easy to open next time.

The place looks like a working farm. A cluster of buildings on a bit of high ground. A mix of livestock braving the drizzling rain. Occasional water-filled potholes in the long, winding driveway. A dog standing beneath a shade tree barking at my car’s approach. The line-up of work boots sitting on the porch beside the front door.

Based on the research I’d done, I wasn’t surprised by anything I saw. But curiously, what did surprise me was the compelling nature of the conversation I encountered inside the house. Not that I was expecting it to be otherwise, but John and Christine Deck are genuinely intelligent people who, in a very comfortable and engaging way, shared some profound insights into our country’s broken food system, why they believe a new farm movement is underway, and the part they’re trying to play in all of that.

“I think people realize that the train we’re on is going to crash,” said Christine. “We live in an economy with externalized environmental and humanitarian costs. Finally, that discussion has moved outside the realm of economists and more and more people are understanding that we have to internalize those costs because we don’t live in a world with unlimited resources. We can no longer base our economy on the belief that there’s always going to be more… that there’s always going to be growth. Sustainability depends more on not growing.

“We clearly need to develop some new paradigms, but they won’t come easily. I honestly don’t see any significant shifts occurring across society until there’s some kind of collapse. Our government currently is a democracy of corporations. It’s the time we live in, and money is dictating policy. But change has to start somewhere, and I think the organic and sustainable agriculture movement to some extent is about beginning that process. I feel like I’m doing my part. I’m trying my best to create a system I feel good living in and I feel can be sustainable. So I’ll keep doing that.”

Christine is clear about her intentions, but I wonder aloud if there is anything that would stop her from pursuing a farming life.

Sheep at Deck Family Farm

“Financial ruin. I couldn’t do this without John, and he wouldn’t do it without me. So we lean on each other pretty heavily right now, but finances represent our biggest challenge. We came here with no real debt, but after our first several years getting this operation up and running we had created significant debt, and we’re working to pay that off. It’s not easy, and I hope we get there. Not getting there represents the chief reason why we may not continue. But I believe we will get there, because one of our main goals is to help reestablish farming as a viable economic endeavor.”

Not continuing to farm is probably one of the least favorable outcomes Christine can imagine. She is the first person in her family to graduate from college, and her degree from the University of California-Berkeley means a lot to her. But in her words, she comes from farm people, and it always has been her intention to farm if she could. That’s not necessarily so for John, who admits that idealism has a lot to do with why he’s now trying to create a sustainable farm. Idealism, family history, and Christine.

John and Christine first met at the beef barn and feedlot at UC-Davis. Christine was an animal science major at the time while John studied biology. And though John’s upbringing was more urban, he was but one generation removed from a farming life and grew up hearing old farm stories from his uncles. As time passed, John and Christine developed a shared passion for farming and committed to giving it a go.

To help make things work at their current location, John brings his technical orientation to bear on the farm decision making. He still works for UC-Berkeley as a software developer… apparently a pretty good one because the university flies him all over the world working on special projects. So when he begins planning for the farm, he takes a scientific approach.

“I wouldn’t call it science because I’d have control variables if it was scientific,” said John, “but I am trying to be mechanistic about it, or at the very least organized.”

After a fairly lengthy discussion of farm management that explored questions like how many pounds per square inch of pressure cow hooves exert on wet winter soil, the savings one can obtain by certifying farm land to grow livestock feed then allowing the animals to self harvest it, and the variables involved with getting an accurate measurement of the farm’s overall dry matter production, John brings the conversation around to two things that he feels have a significant influence on making a farm sustainable.

What you can sell at market, and your ability to control costs… especially labor.

Hogs at Deck Family Farm

Market demand, he says, is what helped lead to their decision to raise a variety of different types of animals… demand and the need to break parasite life cycles. “If we’re only selling beef then we kind of limit ourselves in terms of what we can sell, so we’ve learned to show up with a variety of products. Eggs are a good example. We decided to increase our egg production because we found a really strong demand for eggs. They help bring people into our market booth. So growing eggs is a really nice complement to our other products, and expansion of the egg operation kind of helped us ramp up.”

John explains that in responding to the market demand for eggs, they increased the number of chickens that in the summertime are grazed on a set of organically certified fields of good quality grass with multiple water sources. Then the chickens are pulled off and sheep graze those fields during winter and early spring. This rotation is better for the fields, plus, it helps keep parasites from building up, which happens when you keep only one type of animal on the plot.

So when an adjustment is made in response to what will sell at the market, that change doesn’t just show up in the market booth. An increase in the amount you’re selling means more animals are needed on the farm, which affects the amount of resources (like land) that are needed. Which affects the operational system that includes all the animals, all the planting, the crop and animal rotations, the feed budget, and everything else. These aren’t John’s words, they’re mine. But I think it’s what John was trying to help me understand. There’s a ripple effect that runs all the way through your operation and has to be accounted for.

Click here to read Part 2.

Order your copy of Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon's New Farm Movement.

(Top) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Christine and John Deck at their farm near Junction City, Oregon.

(Middle) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Sheep grazing pristine pastures at the Deck Family Farm. The Decks raise cattle, hogs, sheep, chickens for both meat and eggs, and keep a small dairy herd for their raw milk business.

(Bottom) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Hogs help cultivate the soil. The Deck family produces Red Wattle, Berkshire, Hampshire and Yorkshire hogs.

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