Former commission administrator leaves city to take over family farm
By MITCH LIES
HELIX, Ore. -- Former Oregon Wheat Commission administrator Tom Winn still reads several newspapers a day. Classical music plays in his shop. And he attends the Portland Opera whenever he gets a chance.
But the suits and ties are pushed to the far end of the closet these days. Traffic jams are a distant memory. And rolling fields of wheat have replaced tall buildings on his vista.
Some things haven't changed for the administrator who left Portland for the family farm in 1997, and some things are dramatically different.
Looking back, Winn said, the decision to leave Portland, while difficult at the time, was a good one.
Winn and his wife, Patti, who grew up in nearby Pendleton, moved to the Winn family farm after his mother suffered a stroke.
"We always talked about coming back," Winn said. "And it was like: 'Well, OK, let's come back.' And so we did.
"I loved the wheat commission, loved the work," Winn said. "But there never was a time when I regretted leaving the wheat commission and Portland."
When asked what was hardest about the transition, Winn said, it was slowing down.
"Not having the hustle and bustle was probably the biggest change," Winn said. "It gets in your veins, that run, run, run.
"On the other hand, there are always opportunities to be busy out here, to be doing things," he said.
In addition to living in Portland, they previously lived in Washington, D.C. There Tom worked as a legislative assistant for former U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, and Patti did a residency at George Washington University Hospital.
The couple purchased the Winn family's 2,000-acre farm several years back.
Winn began managing the farm in January of this year after his oldest brother, Larry, died at the age of 74.
"Most people start out doing this when they're young," he said. "My career path is exactly the opposite of probably most people, in that I'm starting something like this late in life.
"But why not?" he said. "It's fun."
Despite moving to what he describes as "the middle of nowhere," Winn said he never really left public life.
"I did a lot of volunteer work," he said. "I helped get the Helix rodeo established. I served on the Helix Chamber of Commerce and the school board."
In 1995, Winn started Bushels for Betsy, a food donation program named after his youngest daughter, Betsy, in which wheat farmers donate part of their crop to the food bank.
The program includes participation from a variety of businesses, including millers and shippers.
"I've always had a real passion for the food bank," Winn said.
Winn also served on the Oregon Wheat Commission for two years, leaving earlier this year after his brother died.
"I hated to step down," he said. "But I'm a very dedicated person to whatever I do. I don't care if it is a voluntary board, my family, or fixing an antique tractor. And when my brother became ill, I found I just wasn't focused on the commission.
"Finally, when he died, I told (Oregon Department of Agriculture Director) Katy (Coba), I can't do this. You need to appoint somebody who has the time and can commit to it."
Looking back, Winn said he believes his circuitous route to the family farm has given him a valuable perspective.
"I feel fortunate in the fact that, if I had not had an older brother, I probably would have started out farming at a younger age and would have missed out on so many experiences," he said.
"You take all that and bundle it up and it makes for a really well-rounded experience," he said.
Today Winn is comfortable with life on the farm.
"Sure there are a lot of things you don't have control over," he said. "But being your own boss, making your own decisions is a great thing.
"It's the freedom, the weather, being outside, not having any neighbors nearby.
"It obviously isn't for everybody," he said.
"If I was a transplanted San Francisco person, would this fit? Probably not.
"It is something that is just there," he said. "You either love it or you hate it."