It ain't easy being a hundred and fifty - The internet highway leads
to the Oregon Trail
By Madeline MacGregor, Oregon Department of Agriculture
“Go ahead and order those six-inch valve openers,” Kenny Reynolds says—as
he holds the farm office phone in the right hand—and then speaks to his wife
from the cell phone in the other hand, “Okay, hon.” Reynolds then flips back
to the office phone, “Oh—and get one of those six-inch threaded valves while
you’re at it.”
At 47-years old, Century Farm owner Ken Reynolds runs a tight operation.
He moves in pace with technology, yet is acutely aware that the lessons from
his farm’s past became the lodestar that guided him onto the fertile ground
of the present.
Located on Hwy 20 in Corvallis, Reynolds’ office is infused with tangible
connections to his family’s history and is a hub of activity and contradiction.
From the flat screen computer and phones that never stop ringing to the bear-skin
rug hanging beneath a wooden horse buggy, the proof of how he has integrated
both the past and the present of farming is everywhere.
Reynolds is eager to fill in the missing details of his great, great grandfather,
Daniel Morgan’s original Donation Land Claim (DLC). He has used the Internet
to compile evidence that Morgan was scheduled to arrive at his Willamette
Valley homestead in the year 1847. Reynolds points to the computer screen,
“RootsWeb.com was the place where I just typed in ‘Morgan’ into the Benton
County pioneer database index, and two Daniel Morgan’s showed up.” Reynolds
navigates to a new page, “It turns out that they were father and son.”
New information gleaned from Reynolds’ Web search revealed that the older
Daniel and his first wife Rachel were traveling the Oregon Trail when Rachel
died during childbirth. Their infant daughter, Morgan, expired only three
months later at Summit Meadows. The Oregon Trail was a harsh road to travel—claiming
perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 emigrants over the 2,000 mile journey; an equation
of 10 graves per mile. Childbirth was a dangerous and iffy event on the trail—there
was no time for recovery, poor nutrition, and little if any medical assistance.
Daniel and three remaining Morgan children, Thomas, Anna, and Seth, continued
onward to Benton County and filed their Donation Land Claim for Parcel #47.
Reynolds notes that some details about Daniel’s marriage to Mary Taylor (which
may have occurred along the Oregon Trail, after their arrival in the Willamette
Valley) remain a mystery. Either way, the daughter of Mr. Taylor, owner of
adjoining DLC Parcel #46, became Daniel’s second wife. This marriage expanded
the original Morgan homestead site to approximately 640 acres.
Daniel and Mary became the parents of a baby girl, Minerva Jane.
While Minerva Jane was quite young, Daniel died of consumption. John Sylvester,
a farmhand living at the neighboring Knotts family claim, began helping newly
widowed Mary with chores. They eventually married and, although more a marriage
of convenience than romance, they remained good friends, keeping the Morgan
land claim and family of young children intact.
Minerva Jane, or Dolly as her mother and stepfather affectionately called
her, grew up and married Reuben Columbus Kiger. Reynolds describes Reuben
as “a young up-and-comer” in Corvallis. Reuben purchased the same livery stable
that he had worked in as a thirteen year-old, but not willing to curtail his
adventurous spirit, “Reuben sold the livery, packed everything up, and drove
a herd of cattle over the Cascades to Eastern Oregon.” relates Reynolds.
Reuben, Dolly, and their three children, John, Will, and Minerva (named
after her mother), settled into Redmond, starting a new ranch. “Now they
about froze to death that first winter. And, it was right in the middle of
the Sheep Wars. Instead of fencing the cattle in, Reuben used a natural gorge
(still known as Kiger Gorge) that was 13-miles long with an opening only 900-yards
wide, and built a rim-rock wall to corral them.” Reynolds pauses in his narrative,
answers another ringing phone, but then resumes the story without missing
a beat. “But there were a few problems—Dolly was not much of a pioneer. To
her, basically every snake was a rattler.” During the Bannock Indian War
in 1878, white homesteaders all around the Steen Mountains were under attack.
When Dolly saw an Indian woman wearing one of her dresses from off the clothesline,
she told Reuben “That’s it!”
Reuben sold off their cows to cattle baron Pete French, packed up the family
belongings, and moved back to the Morgan-Sylvester homestead in Benton County.
Reuben’s in-laws, Mary and John Sylvester, came over the mountains to help
the young family move out. But Mary never made it back; she fell to her death
when the bridge over the Calapooya River collapsed.
Reynolds chronicles Reuben’s next steps, “When he gets home, Reuben buys
back the livery stable, and buys some more land on a small island nearby,
which he and Dolly name Kiger Island.” Reynolds leans forward in his office
chair, tabulating. “At that point, they have about 1,200 acres of farmland—and
then it all gets a little discombobulated in 1907. That’s when Reuben dies
from internal injuries following an accident removing a tree stump on the
farm. So the farm is passed to the two sons—Uncle John, and Uncle Will—and
the Kiger Island property goes to my grandmother Minerva.” Reynolds stops
to answer the phone again, while his elderly Labrador retriever, snoozing
on the sofa, stretches her long legs, and yawns.
“Uncle Will and Uncle John were not real interested in being farmers. They
liked the benefits of the work, but not the work,” Reynolds jocularly explains.
“So they decided to swap the farm with my grandmother—and let her have it,
while they took over the Kiger Island house. In 1912, Minerva ends up marrying
Jay Merrit Reynolds, that’s my grandfather, and then they have one son, Edward
Jay Reynolds, and that’s my father.”
When Ed married his college girlfriend Jean, they continued to work the
same land Reuben farmed. When Ed was ready to retire, their only child, Kenny
Reynolds, took hold of the reigns. Because both Ken and his parents are Oregon
State University graduates—they returned to the farm with a well-rounded sense
of the world—applying it to the business they love. But the Reynolds also
experienced, firsthand, the tenuous nature of farming in the Valley.
The boundaries are blurred when the city is your next door neighbor
When asked if there is a caveat to describe how to farm in modern Benton
County, especially so close to Corvallis proper, Reynolds sums it up in one
word, “Carefully!” The combined acreage from the homestead and land he leases
creates precariously placed puzzle pieces in-between development; Reynolds
has urban neighbors bordering all of his fields. “Because we are very visible,
we need to tow the line.”
Reynolds articulates the disparities, “I’ve got to raise the most perfect
crops under the most environmentally sound conditions—yet the consumer goes
and buys fruit from Chile, beans from China and Mexico, and seems to care
nothing about the fact that the restrictions on how to raise these things
only apply to me, and not the foreign growers.”
Reynolds wonders if the public will be willing to sacrifice a little, in
order to effect change. Shopping for inexpensive imported goods produced under
questionable standards, versus purchasing local goods produced under good
handling practices, may not be an easy choice for some families to make. “There’s
a kind of realization that you don’t know if you’ll ever be able to make
the public aware—or that they’ll be willing to do anything about it. The
price of gas goes up, and there are a few things you can do about that—you
can change your habits. But when the price of food goes up, it’s pretty tough
to change your habits.”
Twelve-hundred acres and no mule; the risks are big and the returns are
Part of Reynolds’ dilemma hinges on how much diversification can be realized
when land and money are not readily available. “About the only way to be successful
these days is to get larger, but there’s almost nowhere to go around here.”
The competition for land in the area is undeniably fierce—emphasized by
a recent auction Reynolds attended. “You’re not going to make much, if any,
profit if you have to pay two million for a farm. About the only way, is if
you can pay cash and then wait for it to catch up in value. The bigger guys
can achieve economies of scale, but about all I can really get at a time
is a piece that’s maybe 45 to maybe 145 acres.”
Reynolds’ fescue grass and bean fields are on the opposite side of the road
from his farm office, home, and barns. Reynolds must maneuver lumbering combines
and other large farm machinery across the highway (and between cars whizzing
by at freeway speed) in order to work his crops. He shakes his head, “It can
take me 20-minutes to cross Hwy 20, when in the 60s, I didn’t even have to
look both ways.”
And, as Reynolds notes—there are numerous roadblocks to realizing a robust
financial portfolio from farming. “In the early 80s when I came back here
to take on the business from my dad, interest rates were through the roof.
I ended up switching crops around a lot, and I lost a pile of money. I’ve
seen my prices go up a little, but I’ve also seen my costs go up a lot.”
Reynolds gives a clear example of the squeeze mid-size operators feel, “They
say wheat might hit six bucks this year—and if it does, it’ll hit what it
did for my dad back in the 80s. Well if I could buy a combine now, for what
I could in the 80s, wheat should be at about $25.” The offsets are rapidly
gobbling up any discernable profits. As prices for machinery, fuel, and supplies
spiral upward, the costs are not balanced by rising profit levels. “So I don’t
know—I think farming’s a great lifestyle but a terrible business,” he says
with mixed emotion.
Because Reynolds’ major crop is grass seed, he has felt the squeeze in a
unique way. “I look at the industry I’m in, and it’s such a weird deal to
contract our crop for a yet-to-be determined price, that’ll be paid at a yet-to-be
determined time. In this industry, everything seems to roll downhill to us,
“My margins are variable, from positive to negative, but it seems like if
you go one level beyond me (to large operations) they work to a minimum margin
that is always positive.” Reynolds would like to get off the unpredictable
back-and-forth seesaw of margins and achieve a modicum of well-being for his
wife and three young children. “Security is a good thing to have,” he says.
“All of this is very cyclical, and now it’s weather factors (climate change)
and ethanol. And ethanol is having a huge effect on grass seed. In my industry,
the hot topic is alternative fuel—because they’re making it from the straw.
Yet the price I pay for fertilizer is almost two-and-a-half to three times
higher than it was last year, and the price I’m getting for my product hasn’t
really gone up at all.”
The bottom line—a stool with three legs
For Reynolds and his family, the farm is the place where it all comes together.
He’s not ready to give it up anytime soon, although at times feels more like
he’s in the business of real estate than raising crops. Land values skyrocket,
while farming in the Valley can be a liability.
However, Reynolds feels grateful for the opportunities given him and shares
the secret of how his family retained the homestead through five generations,
“I stood on the shoulders of my dad, who stood on the shoulders of his dad—and
hopefully my three kids will stand on my shoulders and start at a higher level
than I was able to. That’s how it works.”
Sitting at his office desk beneath the icon of Reuben’s livery buggy, Reynolds’
pledge to retain the family homestead is not just symbolic. “The bottom line
is the land is not going anywhere. There are trials and tribulations in every
business, but I’m not going to be the one to lose it.”
He likens the business that began 150-years ago to a three legged stool.
For each of his children, the endowment may mean three different, separate
businesses; with one leg representing the farm. When speculating on what the
other two legs of the stool might bring, Reynolds jokingly predicts, “We
just might go back to hops and garlic and turn this place into one giant brewery."