Eugene, Oregon woman returns to roots, find happiness in farm work
EUGENE, OR (AP) — Marie Bowers never thought she would spend her life working on a farm.
But the 32-year-old woman — who graduated from college and started a career in the financial industry — has returned to her roots as a family farmer.
"I don't want to say that I don't like rules," she said with a laugh. "But I love this. I love farming. I love that I get to physically work hard and do something that I enjoy every day. Plus, I don't have to wear makeup."
Bowers and her husband, Tristan Stagg, work at the Harrisburg-area grass seed farm owned by her parents, Eric and Vikki Bowers. And she and her husband recently bought a farm north of Coburg.
Her parents' business, Bashaw Land and Seed, specializes in growing and harvesting different types of ryegrass and fescue. The company is named for the area's clay-like soil, which isn't ideal for growing many crops but works well for annual ryegrass, Bowers said. The family farms roughly 52 square miles of fields in Linn and Lane counties, from Brownsville to Creswell.
About 39 percent of Oregon farmers are women, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Bowers has been driving tractors and other farm equipment since she was 12 years old.
There's never a shortage of work to be done, she said.
"My dad always treated me and my sister like, 'The job needs to get done, so go do it,'" Bowers said recently, as she drove a red pickup truck through a 184-acre field north of Coburg. "There was never really a second thought about the fact that I'm a girl."
Long days in the fields
Oregon is the world's major producer of seed for grasses that grow well in cool weather. The Willamette Valley is recognized as a center of expertise in seed production, according to the Department of Crop and Soil Science at the Oregon State University Extension Service.
These days, Bowers' family is busy with the grass seed harvest and baling the leftover straw.
Bowers, who is 4½ months pregnant, spends 10 to 12 hours per day in the fields. She serves as an air traffic controller of sorts in the fields, directing workers as they go about their tasks.
On a recent day, Bowers managed a crew of nine teenage employees in a large field near Coburg as they bailed fescue straw. Each of the young people were responsible for big jobs, including operating tractors and other machinery. One teenager drove a tractor that pulled metal wheel rakes, which arranged straw in long, neat piles for a trailing baler that collected the material and put it in tightly-packed bales.
Each straw bale ideally weighs about 1,200 pounds and has a moisture content of less than 13 percent. If the bale was too small, it needed to be re-baled. If the moisture content was too high, Bowers and her crew were forced to wait until the straw dried.
The work started about 11 a.m. Employees communicated via two-way radios as Bowers took turns driving alongside or behind each one as they worked. She stopped the truck every few bales to shove a long thermometer into the middle of the compacted straw to check the moisture.
"It's right at 12 percent," Bowers said with a smile.
The two employees operating balers communicated with Bowers every few minutes to inform her of the bales' weight. Depending on the moisture level, Bowers would advise them to either increase or decrease the pressure of the machine to make the bales more or less compact.
"Take your pressure down by one," she said over the radio. "Just keep rolling and we'll see how it goes."
The work is tedious but satisfying, said Bowers, who responded to various harvesting hiccups with ease as her team worked.
"I love it," she said. "Farming is different every day and there's always something unique every season."
Bowers began working on her family's farm at a young age, but as a teenager thought of different plans for her future. After graduating from Harrisburg High School, Bowers attended Washington State University, where she studied agriculture and hoped to jump into the world of politics.
"This is going to sound weird, but I like politics," she said. "I was hoping to get into (agriculture) politics and advocate for farmers."
She graduated from college in 2008 at the start of the Great Recession and instead was offered a job at Northwest Farm Credit Services, based out of Spokane, where she approved loans for farmers.
"I wasn't ever planning to come back to the farm," she said. "But working for Farm Credit gave me a good financial understanding of what it takes to be successful as a farmer."
Eventually, though, Bowers said she no longer wanted to work in the "money world." She returned to Harrisburg in 2011 to become a fifth-generation family farmer.
The move back so far has been fulfilling, said Bowers, who, with her husband, has purchased 45 percent of the family's seed-cleaning warehouse from her grandparents.
"How many people get to come back and farm the land that their family has farmed for 100 years?" she said.
Bowers' dad also was out in the fields, sitting nearby in his silver pickup truck watching the crew.
"I'm just watching to make sure they do things right," Eric Bowers said with a chuckle.
Eric and Vikki Bowers have another daughter besides Marie. Eric Bowers said he wasn't sure he would have anyone to pass the farm to after he retired, as neither of his daughters was interested in becoming farmers — at least not initially.
"I'm happy it's my daughter doing this, and that is what she wants to be doing," he said.