Western innovator: Cacti cultivate farmer's interest
Dairyman builds healthy business on nontraditional plants
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Stan Armstrong's cactus business sprouted from a packet of seeds.
Several years ago, Armstrong's daughter returned from a business trip to Arizona with a small present for her dairyman father: seeds of the saguaro cactus, the prototypical desert species with upraised arm-like appendages.
Armstrong planted the seeds on a whim and a little over a week later, tiny cacti began germinating. Before long, he was hooked.
More than a hundred varieties of cacti and succulents now fill two greenhouses at his farm near Gervais, Ore.
Armstrong said he's captivated by the "fluorescent" flowers that bloom on some cultivars, as well as the difficulty of growing plants that aren't naturally suited to Oregon's damp Willamette Valley.
"It's all about challenge, doing something no one else does," he said.
Though his cactus-growing began as a hobby, about three years ago Armstrong realized that he was getting overwhelmed by the number of plants.
Preferring not to throw any away, he began selling them to the Al's Garden Center chain of retail nurseries in the northern Willamette Valley.
Jack Bigej, the chain's owner, said it's unusual to have a local source of cacti and succulents, which -- unlike some plants -- sell consistently throughout the year, regardless of season.
"There seems to be a revival in succulents and cactus both," he said. "People want something unusual."
Armstrong said he's constantly seeking new varieties of cacti and succulents, and may expand by adding a third greenhouse.
However, he doesn't plan to get so big that the operation would require employees other than himself.
At 62, Armstrong said he's thinking about retiring from the dairy business, since handling large animals will become more difficult as he gets older.
The nursery will be a business that keeps Armstrong mentally active without a lot of physical burden, he said. "If you just quit, you die."
Cacti and succulents offer plenty of opportunity for tinkering. Varieties respond differently to light levels and fertilizer mixtures and their watering needs fluctuate with the seasons.
"You've got to imitate their natural growth habits," Armstrong said.
Armstrong's venture in growing novel crops isn't limited to the greenhouse.
For about four years, he has experimented with soybeans, which typically aren't grown in the Willamette Valley due to the region's cool nights.
The high cost of soybean feed for his dairy cows sparked Armstrong's interest several years ago.
Other farmers were skeptical of his plans, but Armstrong said he believes the crop may eventually "take off" in Oregon, if not in the Willamette Valley then in the eastern part of the state.
"It's the matter of finding the right varieties for the right area," he said.
Armstrong is growing test plots of about 50 soybean varieties developed at Oregon State University to see which lines may be viable.
Research by Armstrong and other cooperators has zeroed in on two cultivars that seem adapted to the climate and may be ready for commercialization in the near future, said Dan Curry, director of seed services at OSU.
Armstrong's goal is to cultivate the "foundation seed" that will be bought by other seed producers, grown out and sold to farmers who want to plant soybeans on a larger scale.
Curry said Armstrong's work has been instrumental in OSU's soybean research, which began at its Malheur Experiment Station in Eastern Oregon in the 1990s.
Budget cuts ended testing at that site, so OSU has been working with farmers like Armstrong to keep the research going.
"He's never asked for any compensation, and in fact won't take it," Curry said. "He's really done a lot of work for us on the soybeans."
Occupation: Dairy farmer who also grows cacti, succulents and soybeans
Education: Graduated North Marion High School in Aurora, Ore., in 1967
Family: Wife, Rita, and four grown children
Hometown: Gervais, Ore.