H&N photos by Joel Aschbrenner Cody Heath, 22, plows a field near Stewart-Lenox. Like most young farmers, Heath rents land now, hoping to buy his own farm one day.
Securing land and getting capital are the biggest challenges for young farmers trying to break into the industry in the Klamath Basin. Still, dozens of young farmers here are working to get their own operations off the ground.
Beginning farmers can lease land from the government, rent land from private owners or, if they have the financing, buy some acreage of their own. Each presents its own challenges.
Jason Flowers, 28, grows 400 to 1,000 acres of grain depending on what leases he can secure. He bids for tracts of Bureau of Reclamation land near Lower Klamath Lake. It’s a sealed bidding process, with the highest bidder winning the lease, usually lasting five years.
If commodity prices are strong, more established farmers will sweep up most of the land, Flowers said.
“The uncertainty is terrible,” he said. “I have to put a couple bids out to make sure I get a good piece of dirt.”
Cheyne rents about 300 acres in the Henley area to grow hay, wheat, oats and barley, in organic and conventional varieties. It’s common, he said, to rent a tract of land, only to find out later the land-owner found a new tenant willing to pay more.
“It’s quickly coming to the point where you have to own the land if you want to farm,” he said.
The Farm Service Agency offers low-interest loans for beginning farmers, up to $300,000 for operations or to help buy a farm. Almost all farmers need some kind of backing to get started, said Chris Kirby, farm loan officer with the FSA in Klamath Falls.
“Farming is very capital intensive: If you want to buy a new tractor that’s 100 grand; if you want to buy a new baler, that’s another 100 grand,” he said. “It takes a lot of money to get started.”
Cody Heath, 22, of Keno, used an FSA loan to buy a fleet of farming equipment. He didn’t grow up on a farm and had to start his operation from scratch.
This summer was his third year farming. He split his time between farming about 600 acres near Keno and working for other farmers 60 miles north near Sprague River.
“You got to work your butt off all day and all night,” Heath said, while driving his tractor Tuesday evening. “It’s real tough the first few years but it gets a little easier every year.”
|Rodney Cheyne looks out over his parents’ farm near Spring Lake.
‘The only thing I ever wanted to do’
As soon as he finds a deal that pencils out, Rodney Cheyne wants to buy some land of his own.
The 23-year-old farmer grew up in the Henley area, riding in a booster seat in his dad’s combine at age 4 and running his own 20-acre hay-cutting operation at 13. Klamath Basin farming is the only work he’s ever known.
“I love the work,” he said. “I drive my wife crazy when I’m in the house. I’m like a cat on a hot tin roof; I have to keep moving.”
Despite his roots here, Cheyne said he is ready to leave the Basin if he can buy a piece of land elsewhere.