It’s morning meeting time at Kirsch Family Farms, and Brenda (Kirsch) Frketich ’06 is seated in the double-wide trailer that serves as office and nerve center for the sprawling, 1,000-acre operation. Harvest season has been in full swing since June, when Brenda and her crew harvested enough peas to fill more than 350,000 commercial freezer packs. Crimson clover and grass seed came next, and 50 acres of mature hazelnut trees stand nearby in military precision, waiting to drop their bounty in late September. This morning a 50-acre stand of ripe wheat waves gently in the Willamette Valley breeze, enough to make more than 650,000 loaves of bread — more in the long run, as this crop is destined to be used as seed for wheat farmers around the world. But first it needs to get from the field to the storage bins, hopefully by the end of this clear August day.
Plenty of other things will need to happen today, and Brenda orchestrates tasks through phone calls, two-way radio and face-to-face instructions. The combine needs to be fitted with the proper parts; the wheel line irrigator needs work; dinner needs to be prepared for the family and crew; and her 3-month-old son, Hoot Hammond Frketich, needs all the things a newborn baby demands. Her husband, Matt, is working his first harvest season, so today is his first time with the wheat. Relentlessly cheerful and positive, Brenda is looking forward to some “good boots-on-the-ground farm work,” in her words. One thing is apparent as everyone heads out: Brenda is the boss, and the success or failure of this family business rests on her shoulders. She wouldn’t have it any other way. This isn’t just a job or a responsibility; it’s a privilege. This is home.
The Kirsch family has farmed in the lush Willamette Valley for three generations, near the small city of St. Paul, Oregon, population 322. In a state with more than 35,000 farms, this area stands out as one of the most diverse agricultural regions on the planet. More than 170 products are raised here, from beef and poultry to nursery trees, shrubs, wine grapes and marionberries. Measuring 150 miles by 60 miles, the valley is filled with deep, rich soil deposited by the great Missoula Floods that took place more than 10,000 years ago. Carl Kirsch, Brenda’s grandfather, started farming here in 1925, and Brenda’s father, Paul Kirsch, assumed management with his brother in 1974. He has owned the farm with his wife, Karen, since 1984, and by all appearances, Brenda intends to continue her family’s legacy.
Brenda and her siblings grew up taking part in farm life and helping with the harvest, but they never understood the business aspect of what their dad was doing. For his part, Paul Kirsch had no desire to pressure any of them to pursue a career in agriculture.
“I didn’t want the farm to be a fallback position for anybody,” he explains. “I’ve seen too many cases where a kid never leaves the farm. When that happens, it’s hard for them to make a name for themselves, to create their own identity.”
Brenda agrees. “I hadn’t thought I was going to be a farmer; it never crossed my mind. I wanted to do something different, go a different route.” So off she went to Loyola Marymount University to study business management, with an eye toward earning a law degree.
Just before her junior year, Brenda had second thoughts. “I stayed in California that summer, and I missed the harvest. I missed everything I love about Oregon. I realized I missed getting dirty. I thought I really screwed up, that if I went back to farming, my business degree would be worthless. All my friends who wanted to work in agriculture had gone to Oregon State, so I looked into transferring there.”
The time came to call her father and tell him she was thinking of leaving LMU. “He told me no,” she says, “that I had made a decision to study business, and I needed to finish what I started. He reassured me that I could apply my degree to anything I wanted to do, and I’m glad he did. I didn’t see it at the time, but business management was a perfect fit for what I’m doing now.”
Brenda returned home, degree in hand, in summer 2006. “I decided on a two-year internship,” her dad says. “I told her she could do everything I was doing — negotiating contracts, dealing with payment schedules, taxes, budgeting, human resources, regulations, working the fields, how to use farm equipment — and then we’d talk about making her part owner of the corporation.” Brenda readily accepted.
Brenda proved to be a fast learner, but switching roles has been challenging at times. “Dad has been very good about letting go,” she says. “But when I started doing our morning meetings, he was still showing up, and after I told the guys what to do, we would all revert back to listening to him.” Paul realized what was happening and asked Brenda what he should do. “I told him to quit showing up,” she laughs now, “and he did! That’s been a big help. It shows that he trusts me to come to him for advice if I don’t know what I’m doing, but that I can manage on my own, too.”
"I missed everything I love about Oregon. I realized I missed getting dirty. I thought I really screwed up, that if I went back to farming, my business degree would be worthless."
A FARMER’S VOICE
Brenda has also taken on a role as a highly visible farm advocate. Traditional farming is not immune to controversy, spawned in part through the environmental movement and Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
“I think we’d gotten ourselves behind the eight ball when it comes to staying in front of rumors and unfair situations,” Brenda says. Transparency is a big part of her mission now — the idea that Oregon farmers have nothing to hide, “that we’re not out in our fields dumping chemicals in the ground, that we follow strict guidelines and regulations for pesticides and fertilizers, that we’re regularly inspected and get in trouble if we do it wrong.”
While Brenda bristles at the notion of the organic industry trying to make money on the backs of traditional farmers, her stance has mellowed thanks to her advocacy work. “We have the demands of a growing population to meet. Organic farmers have a role in that, consumer-supported agriculture has a role in that, and we do, too.” Her approach now: We’re all farmers; there’s room for everyone.
As for the future, Brenda and Matt hope to continue working and raising their family on the farm. While he’s actually an employee, Matt is comfortable leading Brenda’s crew and loves the work. “The nice thing about Matt is when I ask him to do a project I know it’s going to get done,” says Paul, still a part owner of the farm. Praise like that from a farmer is right up there with a Nobel Prize, so his role seems secure. He and Brenda and Hoot live a mile away, with cropland of their own. Paul thinks the next step will be to figure out a purchase agreement with Matt and Brenda on the corporation stock, in three or four years, “once they have their feet under them a little bit.”
REPAIR, ADJUST AND WAIT
Brenda heads over to the corrugated steel building where they store the massive John Deere combine she will drive today. In walks her father; Brenda is surprised to see him.
“You’re going to help me?”
“I thought I might, yeah.”
They set to work, changing parts and settings for wheat, climbing over and under and inside the machine. Few words are needed as they communicate through eye contact and muttered instructions. The combine roars to life, a startling reminder of how quiet it is here. Brenda drives to the field followed by two grain trucks and Matt in his pickup. It’s about 10:30 a.m. now, and hopefully the wheat is dry enough to harvest. Wet grain in a hot silo is a farmer’s worst nightmare.
Things don’t go as planned. Right away the combine’s hydraulics start acting up; the front reel and cutters can’t operate efficiently. Matt and the crew rummage for tools, and after some banging and adjustments, the problem seems fixed. The first grain sample is too moist; you want less than 12 percent or it’s back to every farmer’s nightmare. Maybe it’s because this row is in the shade? They mow in full sun and retest. Still too moist. Nothing to do but wait for the sun to do its job. It seems less and less likely they will harvest the entire field today. But as Brenda and her crew sit in the shade of a grain truck eating lunch, nobody is upset, nobody is pacing around cursing their fate.
Brenda and Matt take it all in stride. “The grain will dry, we won’t finish today, but that’s OK. It’s a beautiful day. This is how farming works.”
Marc Covert is assistant editor of Portland Magazine and managing editor of Smokebox, an online magazine about culture, commentary and fiction. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two children.