15 Minutes with Oregon farmer Jon Iverson
Since 2011, when Jon Iverson returned to his family’s farm, they’ve grown over 75 different crops, he estimates. Diversity across 1,200 acres in Woodburn, Oregon has provided unique jobs for Iverson, as well as his dad, two uncles, an aunt, and two cousins.
Iverson sat down after his term as chair of Farm Bureau’s national Young Farmers & Ranchers committee to share his unexpected journey to leadership.
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SF: Explain some of the crops you grow.
JI: Currently, we grow a lot of grass seed - tall fescue, perennial rye grass, annual rye grass. For cover crop seed, we grow clover and hairy vetch. We have a little bit of wheat in the ground right now because the price is decent.
We’re most known for our tulips. We grow 35 acres of tulips and have an agritourism event, The Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival. We’ll see 170,000 people come through the farm. It starts in mid-March and goes to the beginning of May.
We also do industrial hemp. We started growing hemp in 2016. We got into CO2 extraction on the farm. Most of it is for big customers, but we do have our own line that we sell on site, under the brand Red Barn Hemp.
SF: What is your role on the farm?
JI: I’ve morphed into the role of farm manager. Sometimes I’m reluctant to use that term because I feel like it makes it seem like I’m in charge of everything, but we have a really good collaboration with everyone, including long term employees.
I decide what we’re going to grow where, all the crop rotations, I do all the crop contracts besides hemp and tulips. I do all the spraying. With my crop advisor, I make all the chemical, fertilizer, and agronomy decisions.
SF: You’ve juggled that with Farm Bureau leadership.
JI: Like most Farm Bureau members, I was voluntold to come to my first meeting. The first meeting I went to, I was elected vice president of the county board.
I went to my first convention and they had a Young Farmer and Rancher breakfast. I said, ‘Oh, that will be neat. I’ll meet other young farmers.’ I showed up and there were three other people in the room. They were playing the ‘not it’ game as to who had to be the chair of the committee. We found someone to be chair for that year, and then the following year I became vice chair.
In 2009, we went to the national YF&R leadership conference in Sacramento, California. Right away, we were hooked. We picked up another member, sat down, and really hammered out our mission statement and what we wanted to do. A big part of it was coming to other conferences and talking to other states about what are good ideas and what isn’t working.
We built [Oregon YF&R] from the ground up. It was really special, and I learned a lot. It got to the point where I’d found someone in my region that really wanted to be involved. I was excited to share that with them since I’d gotten so much out of the program. I decided I’d just slowly spend my last years watching and age out.
Then, I got a phone call one day while I was spraying asking if I would run for the national committee. I said, ‘No. I don’t have time. I’m too busy.’ My coordinator said, ‘I want you to think about it.’
I called the only other person from our state that had ever served on the national committee, as far as I know. I was really worried about the time commitment because I have four young girls at home. He said, ‘Yeah, it's a time commitment, but the amount of growth you’ll have and the network of people you meet is amazing. You’re an idiot if you don’t apply.’ I thought about it, and had a lot of conversations with my wife, and the family on the farm. We decided I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t do it.
SF: What about your experience moved you from voluntold to hooked?
JI: It was really the YF&R program. People at YF&R conferences think just a little bit differently. That might sound funny, but each of us are trying to survive and farm. We’ve got to be efficient, we’ve got to find our niche, we have to diversify or vertically integrate. We’re looking for where we can find that advantage.
There are people I call now, all around the country. If I have an idea, I will bounce it off someone outside my state so I get an unbiased opinion. The amount of people I’ve met at these conferences that said, ‘I started doing something and the old guys said I was crazy. Now they’re starting to do it too.’ is phenomenal.
There’s a lot of passion here. When you watch somebody grow and become a better leader, an advocate for the industry that they love, it’s contagious.
SF: What would you say to the people who don’t see themselves as leaders, that are more comfortable as cheerleaders in the background?
JI: I was that person. I wasn’t the one who was going to stand up. I was the one looking left and right wondering, ‘Who is going to stand up? Someone should say something.’
Coming to YF&R conferences, I heard I can’t do that. It needs to be you. If you aren’t telling your story, someone else is telling it for you. You are the expert of your story.
We had workshops to practice. Gosh, it was uncomfortable, but at the same time I’m growing.
I think there’s so many of us in agriculture who think, ‘There’s someone better than me’, and that limits us. We need to be thinking, ‘I could be the one doing that.'
Jon Iverson and his wife are raising four daughters in northwest Oregon where they farm with extended family. As farm manager, Iverson works with his team to make the best crop rotation, chemical, and agronomy decisions for the operation. He also handles spraying, plus all the farm’s crop contracts except hemp and tulips. Farm Bureau has helped him build the confidence to tell his farm’s story and pursue leadership.