The 142-acre, bluff-top campus of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles is one of the most beautiful in the nation. Students look east to the lights of downtown Los Angeles and to sunsets painting the San Gabriel Mountains beyond. The Pacific Ocean is three miles away; its beaches bring collegians to the edge of what the explorer Ferdinand Magellan called “mar pacifico,” or peaceful sea.
This is where Brenda Kirsch (now Brenda Frketich) wanted to be. “I was going to live where life met me,” she says.
Brenda had a business degree in her sights and then law school. “When I graduated from high school with a class of only 15 students, the last place I saw myself was on my family’s farm,” Brenda says. But it was the summer before her senior year at Loyola Marymount when Brenda found herself thinking about the rodeo back home. The St. Paul 4th of July Rodeo is a decades-old event that draws 1,000 top competitors from across the U.S. and offers $500,000 in prize money. She was missing harvest, too — and the feel of the soil and, well, just about everything about her family’s farm.
Kirsch Family Farms, 1,000 acres and now 88 years in the making, is a short ride outside the small town of St. Paul, Oregon (pop. 322). It is set down in the Willamette Valley, in the French Prairie Region. William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, briefly entered the Multnomah River (today’s Willamette River) in 1806. The Willamette drains the valley named for the river. Clark noted reports of a great plain farther up river, but he never explored it. But for time, he missed seeing an immense natural wonder.
That grand, 4,000-square-mile valley today sustains more than 170 crops and livestock on a million acres of farmland. It is the “grass seed capital of the world,” known for its production of turf grass and forage seed, as well as wine grapes, wheat, oats, mint and hops. The Kirsch family produces perennial ryegrass seed, hazelnuts, wheat, crimson clover and peas. Hazelnuts are the money crop.
A CALL HOME
From Loyola, Brenda called her dad, Paul. She wanted to come home. He wanted her to finish her senior year and earn her degree. She graduated and came home with hope for an opportunity to become the third generation to work the Kirsch farm. Her father had been the sole manager since 1974.
“He offered me a two-year internship,” Brenda says. “I would be an hourly employee, treated just like everyone else, although I would be able to work closely with my dad on all aspects of the farm.”
She would be with Paul as he wrote budgets and sprayed the crops. Brenda walked fields with Paul and sat down in meetings with processors and seed companies. “People can change a lot when they are away; he wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just coming back because I thought it would be easy and something that I could do until I found a real job,” Brenda says.
“As kids, we worked all summer [on the farm], but our parents never pushed it on us,” Brenda recalls. Neither her older sister nor younger brother farm. Her sister, Jill Verboort, owns an insurance agency, and brother Kyle works as an engineer (and is the farm’s on-call engineer. “I wasn’t planning on farming, so I wasn’t paying a lot of attention,” she admits of her youth.
But just maybe she was destined to farm. Brenda was born on Oct. 28, 1983, several days after her due date and one day after planting was completed that year. Brenda writes about this in her humorous-to-serious blog she has named NuttyGrass.com. The blog brings readers along on word tours of the farm and records stories of family life. In a NuttyGrass posting she introduces herself.
“My name is Brenda, and I’m a farmer, firefighter, EMT, world traveler, fisherman, hunter and regular adventure enthusiast.”
She is a volunteer firefighter, a certified EMT, has traveled to Africa to teach farming practices and first aid, fishes, hunts (squirrels with a passion) and generally has, what she calls, an old soul.
“I’m still convinced that I will finally feel like I’m comfortable in my skin when I’m 82.”
Two lessons learned on the farm…
“Break things just a bit slower than you can fix them. Always have a pocketknife handy.”
Brenda married Matt Frketich last summer at a wedding on the farm (where he will soon be an employee).
“My brain has been scattered with details of irrigation timing mixed with linen choices…”
And, they now are expecting. Brenda posts an ultra-sound.
“They say a picture is worth a thousand words… But I’m going to guess that this one is also going to come with 10,000 new adventures! Baby Frketich, due May 8, 2014!”
Around the farm, Brenda has struck out on two lives, really. There is the farm life. The crops and irrigation consume long, long hours. There is another time spent advocating for agriculture. In her short, seven years of farming, Brenda has become a practiced voice in the ways of Oregon politics.
FEW ON THE JOB
Among U.S. women, Brenda holds a unique occupation. USDA says the number of women principal farm operators rose 30% between 2002 and 2007. But even at that, they number only 306,000 — just 0.4% of all women in the U.S. work force. A principal operator is the person primarily responsible for on-site day-to-day operations.
Brenda is counted among principal operators. At the outset of 2013, her father stepped back, and Brenda stepped forward to manage day-to-day operations. She owns shares in the family farming corporation, making her part owner in the business. She has come far in her thoughts of the farming business.
“I was sort of stuck in the mindset that I think most people assume of farmers, that we do what we’ve always done because that’s what we’ve always done,” she says. “It’s eye-opening to realize the research and forward thinking of the people in this industry as they find the best ways to produce food and fiber.”
Talk to her on a drive around the farm with Yukon, her ever-present yellow lab, and you hear hard-earned confidence in her farming skills. “I dedicated myself to learning about GPS technology,” she says, explaining the addition of auto-steering and variable-rate technology to the operation since she came on board.
Brenda invested heavily in a linear irrigation system. It waters 210 acres and is GPS guided. “Our irrigation timing has increased tremendously, and our efficiency in doing more with less has allowed us to increase yields on that farm in just one season,” she says. More, the work is being accomplished at a fraction of the labor costs the farm once paid.
With her father as mentor, Brenda is moving away from high-labor crops. She is looking to add additional linear irrigation systems to reduce the labor costs associated with moving pipe and wheel lines.
She wants to triple the farm’s hazelnut production. The trees don’t produce substantial yields for four years after planting. But at maturity, the crop becomes highly valuable. Oregon produces nearly all the nation’s hazelnuts. Sixty to 70% of the crop is exported to China, where it is eaten as snack food.
“It’s an interesting industry, because it has all sorts of [untapped] production value,” Brenda says. Older, established orchards require an intensive five-times-per-year spraying program to control Eastern Oregon Filbert Blight. Without the treatments, susceptible trees die. Newer tree varieties are blight resistant, and that has created a planting boom.
All jokes aside about husband Matt coming to work on the farm, she finds employee management challenging. She is a woman in a man’s world.
“…dang it if I feel like I can pull off a nice shirt for work one day, I’m going to do it.”
Brenda shows some anxiety about managing employees. She does make hard calls.
“And on a day [after Thanksgiving] that we always give our guys a break, I asked them to please come in [to replant]. We have a field of grass that got eaten by slugs…”
She is also challenged with the decision to let go.
“I finally trained someone to drive the John Deere. It went well, but as I drove away from the field, leaving a huge tractor in the hands of a 15-year-old with a cell phone, I had a moment where I was pretty sure I was losing my mind.”
“We work together, more than me telling them what to do,” Brenda says of her working relationship with the farm’s four employees.
“I have learned patience,” she says. “It seems so simple. But there is actually so little you can control — the weather, the markets. [I’ve learned] to relax and know that I did the best I could with what I could control and pray for the best result from all that I can’t control.”
OUT OF THE FIELD
It’s the same approach she takes to her advocacy work away from the farm. Out there, she pursues the interests of agriculture. This is where her time in Los Angeles is paying dividends for the farming community.
“[Her college] experience gave her wonderful insights into the urban way of life and the kinds of perspectives many Americans have about agriculture,” says Dave Dillon, executive vice president of the Oregon Farm Bureau. “That perspective motivates her in farming, but it has also inspired her to be a proactive voice for family agriculture.”
Brenda sits on the board of the Chemeketa Community College Agricultural Management program, which teaches farmers successful farming practices. She is a board member of the Marion County Farm Bureau, is vice chair of the Oregon Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee and was a top eight finalist in the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance “Faces of Farming and Ranching” campaign. Through the Agri-Business Council of Oregon, Brenda is an Adopt A Farmer participant. The program brings schoolchildren into contact with farmers and ranchers.
Add skilled lobbyist to the resume. Brenda was a statewide spokesperson for an effort to repeal Oregon’s estate tax — an effort that came with TV interviews and public meetings. She withstood plenty of criticism in the vocal repeal effort that eventually failed.
Brenda stepped out again in support of legislation known as the seed preemption bill. The bill would prevent individual Oregon counties from governing the use of genetically modified seeds. She testified in front of a state Senate committee about the issue.
“Three [counties] already have anti-GMO bills…my fear is that this is only the beginning to a statewide campaign to end the ability for us to use tools that…have been proven safe.”
SHOWING UP COUNTS
“I do this because I can see that as agriculturalists, if we don’t step out of our fields [and] show up in the cities, we will be forgotten,” Brenda says. “By being involved, I know that I’m at the table in those conversations. Be it with legislators or with a mom who happened to read my blog. I know that what I’m doing is worth the effort.”
Senate bill 863 passed the Oregon House and Senate during a special session last fall. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s signature made it law.
“I love this farm,” Brenda says at the end of one day. She adds a thought. “When you’re gone, sometimes you see value in what you left behind.”
“I did a lot of changing while I was down south [in L.A.]. Not only did I get a great degree in [b]usiness, [I]circumnavigated the globe on a ship and made some amazing friends. But I also learned how much I loved having seasons, how being dirty in the summer is oddly a necessity for me, that I wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer, and that my true calling and passion wasn’t something that I was going to find in L.A., it was something that was waiting for me back home.”
Editor’s note: Now in its fourth year, DTN/The Progressive Farmer’s America’s Best Young Farmers and Ranchers recognizes the next generation of farmers and ranchers who are building successful agricultural businesses and who are making positive impacts on agriculture and in their communities. This is the second in a series of stories highlighting the 2014 honorees. The stories were originally published in the February issue of The Progressive Farmer.