KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — Rodney Cheyne remembers driving the family tractor as a 5-year-old. He was in the eighth grade when he leased 11 acres to grow hay and began doing custom haying. A year later, his ag teacher at Henley High School quipped, “Not too many kids who are freshmen in high school have to file tax returns.”
Farming is something Cheyne, now 29 and owner of Rodney Cheyne Farms outside Klamath Falls, always wanted and expected to do.
“I knew what I was going to do,” he tells. “Ever since I was a boy I was riding with my dad in combines, tractors.”
Cheyne is a fifth generation family member who’s made his living in the Klamath Basin. His great-grandfather homesteaded on the “home place” in 1909.
He shares work on his 1,200-acre alfalfa grass and grain farm with his father, Brent, who has his own nearby farm, and his uncle Steve. “Just me and my dad and my uncle,” he says of the all-consuming task of managing his farm, which includes part of the original Cheyne homestead. “It’s kind of cool to have part of the original farm.”
The farm focuses on growing alfalfa grass and grain, both organic and conventional, that’s mostly trucked to dairy farmers on the Oregon Coast and California. “Very little of it stays local.”
He’s experienced market fluctuations, noting the past two years have seen declines in prices for organic hay. “Of course, it’s supply and demand.”
He’s lived in the Henley area south of Klamath Falls all his life. After graduating from Henley High School, where he was active in FFA, he earned an associate of science degree in general agriculture from Linn-Benton Community College. Oddly, during his college years his relationship with a Henley classmate, Nichelle, who was attending the University of Nevada-Reno, changed from a friendship to something more. “We weren’t high school sweethearts,” he laughs. “Second year of college sweethearts.” They have four bouncy children — Paisley, 6, Hadley, 4, Finley 3 and Huxley, 1.
“Sometimes they don’t see me for days,” Cheyne says of the frequent long hours, especially during harvest season when he’s up and out of the house before anyone else and finishes his day’s work after the family’s in bed. Still, he regards fall his favorite time of the year — “You’re still trying to put up hay and cut grain and, you’re still having to irrigate ... but you can see the end in sight.”
The long days result because Cheyne, as he admits, is particular on seeing the work done correctly, whether it’s running the swather at specific speeds or ensuring irrigation systems are operating every 12 hours. He says it’s also difficult to hire help because of the complexities and frustrations of dealing with payroll issues. As a result, “I buy more equipment to get by.”
Cheyne also laments the seeming lack of younger people in farming, noting he’s usually the youngest member of various committees. Among his involvements are as a member of the Farm Service Agency county committee and serving as chairman of the Klamath Soil and Water Conservation District and as Klamath County president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, where many of the other members are in their 50s, 60s and 70s.
“We all know the average age of the American farmer is 59, 60 years old,” he says. “Yes, that concerns me.”
During the 1970s, he says there were 13 Cheyne family members involved in full-time farming. Now there are three.
An omnipresent concern is water. He was barely a teenager during the 2001 Klamath Basin Water Crisis, when water was cut off from Basin irrigators. Different concerns resurfaced this past year when the Klamath Tribes put a call on water, which reduced water allocations. During some years, below average snowfall or early rains that reduce the spring snowpack also adversely impact water supplies.
“The woes of water always in the back of your mind,” Cheyne admits. “Everything you’re doing is a shot in the dark. It’s a constant worry.”
Despite the worries, challenges and unknown variables, farming is his delight and chosen career, one he hopes a sixth generation Cheyne will continue. Despite occasional misgivings — “Sometimes I wonder,” he says of his future — Nichelle has no doubts, insisting, “You know darn well you wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
It doesn’t take much nudging to get him to agree — “I think honestly it’s in my blood,” Cheyne says. “I think it’s more a lifestyle than a job.”