Livin' the Dream

Grower Chris Payne of Ontario, Ore.

Published online: Aug 04, 2018 Feature
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This article appears as the cover feature in the August/September 2018 issue of Sugar Producer.

Malheur County, at the southeastern tip of Oregon, is hot in the summertime. And, for the last few years, even drier than normal. Looking up at the hills, populated mostly with sagebrush and lava rock, you have to wonder about the first fool who decided to try his hand at farming in this country. Whoever he was, he was a visionary. Today, the valley floor is covered in green, the fertile ground pushing up thousands of acres of onions, wheat, alfalfa, corn and, of course, sugarbeets.

Chris Payne is one of the growers responsible for this area’s continued bounty.

To sit and talk with Payne, you’d think he’d been farming forever. It’s evident he has a hundred things to do, yet he doesn’t seem rushed. He’s businesslike yet friendly, dedicated to his craft without taking himself too seriously. He is obviously very much at home on this farm ground outside Ontario, Ore., as if he had never done anything else in his life.

The truth is, Payne has been around agriculture almost his whole life; he grew up on his parents’ dairy in nearby Vale, Ore. But his youth involved very little of putting seed in the ground and helping it to grow. That all changed when, after a couple years away at school, Payne came back to the area, married his wife Darci, a local girl, and eventually started working for Wettstein Farms. Over the course of 14 years working for the Wettsteins, Payne gained a firsthand education of what it takes to run a successful farming operation. He bought some of his own equipment and started a custom hay business that quickly blossomed.

“The custom hay was originally just going to be a small project,” says Payne. “It turned into a rolling snowball. The last couple years, we’ve probably put up as much straw as anybody in the valley.”

When the Wettsteins retired from farming in 2010, Payne was in a position to purchase much of the operation, including shares in Amalgamated Sugar Company. Today, Payne grows about 365 acres of beets per year, in rotation with wheat, alfalfa, corn and onions—the most ubiquitous crop in the area.

“We don’t have a set rotation, but we love to follow onions with beets because it helps scavenge the nitrogen,” says Payne. “But I’m not afraid to follow hay or wheat or corn with beets, either. Some of our ground, we just use whatever is available.”

If a guy pays attention while driving around the fields of Payne and his neighbors, he will at one point notice something different from the farms on the east side of the Snake River: Very few sprinklers can be found. Hand lines, wheel lines, pivots—there simply aren’t very many of them.

“Our biggest difference is that so much around here is furrow- and flood-irrigated,” says Payne. While Payne has been and intends to continue adding about one pivot per year to his operation, he maintains that furrow irrigation remains a viable practice. “When irrigation in this valley was established, it was all put together for gravity flow. It used to be 100 percent furrow-irrigated around here. It’s still a good way to grow a good crop, even if it may not be the most efficient when it comes to labor.”

Payne’s sugarbeet season typically runs from mid-March into the latter part of October, with a lot of the beet calendar dependent of the progress of the onion crop. (Payne is a partner in an onion-packing shed.) When beet harvest time does come, most of his fields are around a very manageable five-mile haul to the beet dump.

Payne is a firm believer in the value of raising a family on the farm, and believes there is no better place he and Darci could have chosen to raise their three children. He is, however, also a firm believer in the value of childhood.

Whether or not they come back to the farm as adults, Payne hopes his kids can look back and appreciate it as he does.“I don’t make my kids spend every hour of every day of the 

summer on the farm,” he says. “Of course, they have chores to do. If we have something hard that needs done, like moving pipe, my kids are the first ones there. But they have 60 years to work. There’s a fine line between knowing how to work and the need to be a kid.”

“It’s been good to us,” he says. “I enjoy the sugarbeets. Amalgamated has been reliable. There have been some challenging times, for sure, but everybody’s got to adjust. And I’ve been around the beets and the company now for 21 years. Beets just fit.”