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Oregon's Deck Family Proving Family Farms Can Be Sustainable, Part 2

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.

Don't miss part 1 of this profile, Oregon's Deck Family Proves Family Farms Can Be Sustainable.

Barn at Deck Family Farm

A key to farming success is figuring out both what you can produce and what you can sell. One relies upon and informs the other. How you respond to either question has a significant effect on the farm’s financial stability. Naturally, so does the cost of labor.

John Deck points out that the family model can have a significant impact on this expense. “How many people you have living in the house and working on the farm makes a significant difference,” said John. “In our society’s prevailing paradigm, we’re all encouraged to leave home. Everyone goes out and finds their own place to live, gets their own washer and dryer, becomes an independent consumer. But if people would choose to not try to develop individually focused investment paths, and instead work to build equity in a particular farm, the financial model changes and provides a significant boost to that small family farm.

“We have two kids living in town, paying rent, and attending school. What happens if they come back to the farm, live and work here, and their work is at least partially paid by the equity investment of the farm itself? That would really help out our equation on multiple levels, but especially in the fact that we’re not having to hire other folks and pay workmen’s comp, payroll taxes, insurance and all the other stuff you don’t have to pay your kids. That may seem sad or a bit unfair to your children, but if it’s treated as an equity investment, then that helps make it a positive for everyone.”

Regardless of whether it’s family or employees, Christine believes making a farm successful requires the commitment of a number of people.

“Right now, with our kids going off to college, we’re relying heavily on interns,” said Christine. “They are making it possible for us to keep moving forward. And although having a continuous stream of interns come through doesn’t feel like a sustainable long-term solution, I am starting to believe that even if you don’t have to look outside the family for all your farm labor, a healthy farm system often will. Because a pretty significant number of different types of people need to be involved to make things work well.

“It’s funny, but the other day I was looking online for a dunk tub for our sheep, and I found all these images – I think from the 50s – that had like four men putting a flock of sheep through a dunk tub. And there were other images with five guys, grown men, working around a cattle shoot. Things used to be different. It used to be that as an adult you would engage in this work at a serious level. And I think about now when I’m out there doing that on my own with my eleven year old daughter. I would like to see this farm support a lot of people, but to do that, everyone has to be able to give some things up… or trade one way of life for another.”

Both John and Christine believe the trade offs are worthwhile. And they want to help as many people as possible gain the insights and understanding that comes from farm labor.

“I think the intern programs offer some really amazing opportunities,” said John. “I see a lot of folks come through our farm who are spending several years working on three or four different farms. They get to see the seasons and really get a sense for it, and I really think it’s an amazing educational opportunity. They may come away saying ‘I don’t ever want to farm again’ but at least they have an informed opinion about where food comes from.

Freezers of meat at Deck Family Farm

“We get a lot of customers who have no idea about what it takes to make food… all of the different factors that go into it. Many people look at labels and go ‘oh, you’re free range’ or you’re this or that and you can tell that these people don’t have a clue about what those systems are really like. And regarding labels, if you’re at the point where you have to distill food products down to labels, that’s pretty bad. People need to understand it at a much more fundamental level. I think if you lived and worked on farms for a few years you’d be way beyond looking at labels. So for a lot of reasons, I’d certainly recommend that young people become farmers. I think it’s actually revolutionary in some respects because it’s outside the dominant paradigm. It’s outside corporate America, and you’re going to be running in the face of so many things in our society that you’re certainly going to feel like a revolutionary.”

Christine echoes John’s passion… “It’s highly satisfying to get into farming. It’s hard work, but it means something. It’s being out on the land. Improving it. And improving the lives of the animals we’re caring for. I think bringing a product to market that is healthy is important. And is part of creating and maintaining a healthy ecosystem. I just feel like it’s a right livelihood. It feels like I’m doing something that… well, it just feels good inside and it feels like it’s making a positive impact on the world. And I guess I feel like I’m doing right by my people, too, by continuing a farming tradition.”

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

(Top) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Barn full of hay and straw at the Deck Family Farm near Junction City, Oregon.

(Bottom) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Freezers full of meat ready for customers. The Deck's produce beef cattle, hogs, sheep, chickens, eggs, and raw milk.

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