Rediscovering Agriculture

Mike Wilhoit '77 grows the hazelnuts— also known as filberts—on his 72-year-old Newberg family farm as an addition to his full-time job.

For Mike Wilhoit ’77, food is business. Wilhoit’s family has been farming hazelnuts in Oregon for more than 70 years, and today, he is a leader in agricultural development in the state.

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In 1839, Francis Fletcher heard Rev. Jason Lee speak in Peoria, Illinois. Lee was traveling the country, recruiting pioneers to move to Oregon country to oust English fur traders.
Though English by birth, Fletcher was moved. He joined Lee’s crusade and set out with the Oregon Dragoons, a group of 19 men determined for “Oregon or the grave.” Ultimately, he became one of only nine members of the group to reach Oregon (motto notwithstanding, the others just turned back). He took a donation land claim in Yamhill County, near what is now Dayton, and started his family farm.

He later signed at Champoeg to create the Provisional Government of Oregon (and, okay, became one of the founding trustees of Willamette University).

“We haven’t gone far since, and we’ve been involved in agriculture ever since,” said Fletcher’s great-and-then-some-grandson, Mike Wilhoit '77.
Though Fletcher’s home still stands in Dayton, the clan has since moved to Newberg, where Wilhoit’s grandfather began growing hazelnuts in an orchard that Wilhoit maintains today.

In his professional life, Wilhoit has been deeply involved in a wealth of agriculture activities in the state, with Evergreen Agricultural Enterprises and more recently with Wilco, a cooperative that operates farm stores and agronomy sites throughout Oregon.

At home, though, his heart still belongs to the family farm, where he spends his evenings and weekends keeping up the orchard—and tradition—72 years in the making.

Even as the population grows, urban areas expand and the state attempts to diversify its economy, agriculture remains one of the top industries in Oregon, yielding some $4.4 billion in 2010 alone, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture. It’s big business, but it’s also family business: The vast majority of Oregon farms are individual-owned and less than 200 acres in area.

It’s not an easy livelihood in a changing world, but Wilhoit believes now is an ideal time to be a grower in Oregon.

“Farming, it’s what’s keeping America afloat right now,” he said. “It’s a good industry for a young person to be into.”

Oregon is the No. 1 U.S. producer of 14 different crops and the country’s sole provider of blackberries, boysen and youngberries, hazelnuts, loganberries and black raspberries. The state stocks plant nurseries and Christmas tree lots across the country, and Oregon wine and beer have made its mark on the nation’s palette. A growing interest, particularly locally, in organic and close-to-home food is creating niche markets for Oregon farmers, and expanding international markets are raising prices that make farming a viable lifestyle for many.

Hazelnuts, for example, were a hard life in the 1980s and early 1990s. Eastern blight, a parasitic disease that kills the trees, hit Oregon’s orchards hard. At the same time, land prices were high, and several orchards turned into subdivisions.

“In this area, there was a lot of years of doom and gloom,” said Wilhoit, whose own trees have suffered the blight.

About 10 years ago, though, the Oregon State University hazelnut breeding program developed new tree varieties that had a disease-resistant gene. The new trees can replace the dying ones, producing after four or five years.

“There is a resurgence in the Oregon hazelnut business,” Wilhoit said.