Exploring Oregon Agriculture through a Passenger Window
Agriculture always seemed straightforward to me because I grew up in Indiana; rows of crops, buildings with hidden livestock and the never-ending struggle to claim our state possesses more than corn. While progressing through my undergraduate studies, agriculture became more than straight rows of corn spaced out by thirty inches; I now see a network of individuals who grow different things using different practices and inputs. All I've wanted to do since declaring my major is capture as many aspects of this complicated, interwoven network as possible.
Early in the summer, an unexpected Facebook friendship sprouted from a random friend request. I found myself discussing tractors, crops and cattle with a virtual stranger from Oregon who shared my passion for ag. Within 24 hours of saying hello, this stranger named Tyler became a quick friend who loves John Deere tractors [unfortunately], grass seed and fighter jets. We joked about how maybe we'd seen each other at National FFA Convention before, and he shared stories of life as a farm worker on an organic dairy. As the summer started winding down and Tyler was learning how to drive a 10-speed, I decided to finally explore agriculture from another point of view by visiting Oregon before I flew to London for my semester abroad.
I wasn't initially excited about the idea of riding in a semi for three days, but I knew it was a perspective of agriculture not many will experience. Hauling manure for 8-10 hours, six days a week is not for the easily-bored-of-tedious-tasks individual, but I got up at 5 a.m. to play the part. Our days started slowly as the truck was prepped for work (for me this meant trying to stay as warm as possible) until we lined up among the fleet of trucks to fill our tank with sloshy manure from the designated lagoon. In these moments, I was awestruck by how efficient and intertwined each sector of the agriculture industry is. Jersey cows can produce organic or conventional milk, but they also produce waste worth spreading onto fields to enrich the soil, therefore reusing a natural byproduct of raising cattle and helping next year's crop thrive.
Here's what I learned:
1. Western Oregon's landscape is stunning at sunrise with a gentle fog resting atop its greenery
2. Rolling hills hover like a Midwesterner's idea of mountains
3. Wineries are tucked into each dip of land among rows of grapevines (and you'll never miss them because road signs alert you to every upcoming vineyard)
4. Filbert trees stand strong to grow hazelnuts while conifers extend in the distance
5. Grass is more than an ornamental desire
6. The speed limit signs are much too big
I hadn't anticipated learning so much about smaller details while I bounced around in the passenger seat, but people have a surprising way of letting you in on the fine points when they're showing you around their childhood home. I saw feed mills my eyes would never notice, barns stacked to the brim with square straw bales, backyards where best friends grew up playing hide and seek, schools and back roads and coffee shops.
The incredible thing about agriculture is it doesn't just teach you about growing grass seed or raising marketable beef; it teaches you about people and places. It makes you fall in love with the landscape and the culture, yet it brings hope for continual improvement. I know I've barely made a dent in learning what Oregon agriculture looks like, but I left Oregon with a sense of appreciation, awe and the need to discover more. My spontaneous trip to the West Coast is the beginning of what I hope to be a long life of exploring agriculture around the globe.