ROSEBURG, Ore. — A part-time job at the Douglas County Farmers Co-op turned into a career for Rex Heard.
That wasn’t necessarily his intention, as he had considered a paramedic career. He figured the hours of being a paramedic would work well with his desire to also be a small flock sheep rancher.
But once he was at the co-op and its management saw he had previous experience with sheep and a continuing interest in them, he was given more livestock responsibilities. His future at the co-op was set, and he still managed to run a flock of sheep on his family’s ranch.
At the time, there were 75,000 to 100,000 ewes in southwestern Oregon’s Douglas County and more of those woolies in adjoining counties, so the co-op needed somebody with some sheep experience.
“Nobody who worked here had sheep,” said Heard, whose father, veterinarian Dr. Weldon Heard, had a sheep ranch. “The co-op dumped everything about sheep on me, like it was a bad disease. The fact my dad was a veterinarian, ranchers were familiar with him through sheep and through the Australian shepherd dogs he raised, helped me earn their trust.”
There were also many sheep shearers in western Oregon at that time and they had shearing blades that needed sharpening and shearing equipment that needed to be repaired or replaced. Heard quickly filled those needs at the co-op.
After just one year, he became the assistant manager in the co-op’s feed department.
Now, 38 years later, Heard ended his career at the Roseburg store at the end of August. The 62-year-old will now be able to spend more time with his flock of 100 ewes that produce 4-H and FFA club lambs, commercial lambs and some commercial rams.
Through his co-op career, Heard was promoted to feed department manager, outside field manager and for the last 18 years was purchasing agent for livestock supplies.
“When I started, we had a manual cash register, no computers,” Heard said. “We basically started and finished business with a customer. We didn’t have clerks in the front or buyers in the back.”
Heard said another change he saw in the livestock industry was fewer sheep ranches because wool prices had fallen and predator numbers had increased.
Heard also saw an increase in sales of animal health medicines. He became the co-op’s go-to guy in that department. He worked with Dr. Mark Lyman, the co-op’s consulting veterinarian, to answer customers’ questions about animal medicines.
“People wanted me to be their veterinarian so I had to learn a lot about those products,” Heard said.
He also had to learn how to buy livestock products for the co-op and its customers in order to be competitive against a growing number of options, including the internet.
“I worked hard to cultivate a trusting relationship with our producers,” Heard said. “It put more pressure on to keep your word, to work harder to buy right and a lot of pressure to maintain that trust. You wanted producers to trust the co-op, not just me.
“It’s no longer a local market, it’s a world market,” he added. “There’s so much more competitiveness in the ag industry.”
Lyman, who has been the co-op’s consulting vet for almost 20 years, said Heard “was the most knowledgable guy in there (co-op) that I dealt with. He’s as knowledgable in herd health and production medicine for livestock as most livestock veterinarians.”
Melvin Burke, the co-op’s general manager for the past 16 years, described Heard as “a servant to the customer.”
“He would explain the ins and outs of his own experiences to the customer, and get them through to a solution,” Burke said “He’s such a wealth of information.
“He was an employee who was also a producer,” Burke added. “He did what he loved away from the co-op, living the lifestyle of a rancher and then brought that experience to the co-op and its customers. He cared for the animals and for the people. Rex did the right thing to help people and their animals even when no one was watching.”
Heard also represented the co-op before and during the annual county lamb, hog and beef shows and auctions. The co-op estimated that over the past 25 years, Heard interviewed over 40,000 kids with 4-H and FFA animal projects who came to the store in hopes of getting bids on their animals at an upcoming auction. He then bid on behalf of the co-op at the auctions.
“Rex was the face of the co-op for years,” Burke said. “He’s one of the co-op’s longest tenured employees. Rex was a go-to guy. People will miss him. He’ll be sorely missed.”
Heard admitted his co-op career was something he never intended, but it ended up “being a blessing to me and my family.”