Western innovator: Dream leads way home to farm
'I've always wanted to come back home and continue on the family tradition'
By MITCH LIES
SHEDD, Ore. -- As the saying goes, life is full of unexpected twists and turns. Some things, however, are never in doubt: Like Denver Pugh working the family farm and graduating from the Oregon State University's College of Agricultural Sciences.
"I always knew what I wanted to do, which was return back to the family farm," Pugh said. "And I always knew that I was going to go to Oregon State."
Pugh is the sixth generation of his family to run the family farm and the fourth generation to graduate from OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences.
Like his father before him, George Pugh, he also is chairman of the Oregon Ryegrass Growers Seed Commission and one of four officers of the Oregon Seed Council.
That part of following in his father's footsteps -- the industry leadership part -- wasn't in the master plan, he said. But, given his track record, it's no surprise he did.
"Denver is kind of that next generation that you really appreciate," said Bryan Ostlund, administrator of the ryegrass commission. "The days of having people stay involved and come to meetings is dwindling, but he is always there, and he has a big picture of what is important to the industry.
"He is going to be a leader for a long time," Ostlund said.
Asked why he participates in the ryegrass commission, Pugh said it is both for selfish and altruistic reasons.
"I like to know what is going on, not only for my personal needs, but also because I can take the information and hopefully help out the industry," Pugh said. "If it helps me out with decisions on the farm, that is great, but ultimately, by sharing ideas, it could help the industry."
As chairman of the commission, Pugh has faced some tough votes, he said, including a vote two years ago to back legislation to change contract law between seed dealers and growers.
"That was a tough vote, because as a grower, I had my own personal views," Pugh said. "But as a ryegrass commission member, you have to represent the whole ryegrass industry, and it was split."
More recently, an issue of whether to back increased canola production in the Willamette Valley has come before the commission and the Oregon Seed Council.
"That is one of the tougher ones that I've been a part of," Pugh said.
Ultimately, the commission agreed to back the Oregon Seed Council's position. It calls for, among other provisions, a cap on total canola acreage in the valley.
"Personally, I'm not for growing canola," he said. "But at the same time, I don't want the government telling me what I can and can't grow. I understand that."
"He's been put in some tough positions," said Roger Beyer, executive director of the Oregon Seed Council. "He votes to how he thinks the industry, specifically the ryegrass seed growers, feel, and not how he personally feels about an issue.
"And obviously he has the respect of the industry," Beyer said. "That is shown by the fact he was chosen to the seed council's leadership team after being on the council for only a short time."
Pugh also serves on the board of directors of E.R. Jackman Friends and Alumni, through which he helps determine distribution of an endowment fund and serves as a connection between stakeholders of OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences and the administration.
"It's nice to see somebody who is proud of their time at the university and is willing to give back both through his time on the E.R. Jackman board and through his work with researchers and extension staff on his farm," said Katie Fast, government affairs director for the Oregon Farm Bureau, who also serves on the E.R. Jackman board.
Though Pugh spends a lot of time working on boards and commissions, he feels most comfortable on the farm.
From the time he was tall enough to reach the pedals on a tractor, Pugh said he has worked the family farm.
"Back then, I thought driving tractor was the funnest thing in the world," Pugh said. "Not too many of my peers could do that.
"Then every summer I did a little bit more, and a little bit more, and a little bit more.
"Pretty soon, I realized, I can't get out of this stuff. It's a job," Pugh said.
Pugh completed his formal education with a degree from OSU in general agriculture in 1997 and became farm operations manager for Pugh Seed Farm.
At the time, the sixth-generation farm was expanding. It has increased from around 1,800 acres in the late 1990s to 3,200 acres today, he said.
The farm grows four types of grass seed, including annual and perennial ryegrass, tall fescue and orchardgrass. It also produces wheat, white radish seed for cover crop usage and meadowfoam. It also has produced white clover in the past as a rotation crop used primarily to clean fields.
The farm grows mostly proprietary grass seed, Pugh said, but keeps its hand in some open varieties.
Growth characteristics of proprietary annual ryegrass varieties have evolved significantly since he started in the industry, Pugh said. End-user preferences are driving seed companies to expand offerings into cold tolerance and other features.
"To me that indicates the end user is getting smarter, as far as what they want out of a product," Pugh said.
Another change Pugh has witnessed is a shift from perennial ryegrass to annual ryegrass in the south valley.
Perennial varieties have become harder to generate profits on, he said, given that stands don't last as long as they once did.
"Over the years, the lack of being able to burn the fields just made it so that annual ryegrass just became a lot easier to produce," he said.
Looking back, Pugh said if he has a regret, it is that he didn't take time off after college to travel.
"Other than doing a family vacation in Southern California where we walked across the border to Tijuana, I haven't been out of the United States," he said. "And I'm getting to where I'm tied down on the farm enough to where it is getting harder to get away.
"Other than that, I can't say I have any regrets," Pugh said. "I've always wanted to come back home and continue on the family tradition."
Pugh's brother and sister don't carry the passion Denver has for farming, and are developing careers off the farm.
"I tell my brother that we have a place for him on the farm, but it is not his passion," Pugh said.
For Denver Pugh, that was never a point of contention.
Hometown: Shedd, Ore.
Family: Wife, Leshaya Pugh
Education: Bachelor of science in general agriculture from Oregon State University
Occupation: Manager, owner and operator of Pugh Seed Farm
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