Horning family

Gary and Steve Horning with the next generation. 

“All you want for your life is meaningful work and meaningful relationships,” says Steve Horning. “and we are lucky to have that.” Steve is the third generation on his family’s 1,300-acre farm in the Willamette Valley. While Steve now runs most of the day-to-day operations, full retirement isn’t on his dad’s bucket list: “I looked at older farmers when I was growing up and I thought, they’ve been retired their whole lives,” says Gary Horning. “That’s what it means to do what you love.”

Their family farm transition is on a path to success because the Hornings share a vision for the farm and they continually communicate and evolve their plan for both succession of the farm and the estate.

For the Hornings, it’s not just data that shows there are a lot of farms transitioning from family farms into larger corporate farms focused on investment returns; it’s happening all around them. While the land is staying in agriculture, it’s different. Gary says, “We have to take care of our dirt, we care about our neighbors.”

After attending Oregon State University, Steve realized the farm is where he wanted to be. “We sat down in 2007 and came up with a 10-year plan for what the farm would look like,” says Steve. “We wanted to grow slowly in a way that maximized every acre,” and provide the lifestyle they wanted. Gary says, “We completely changed what the farm looked like. We inventoried all of our soils to determine best use and based on that, we settled on hazelnuts and placing an easement on the poorer soils.”

Steve came back just in time to learn how to farm through the economic crisis of 2008. “I was fortunate to have to weather those years, it was the best thing to happen,” says Steve. Gary agrees: “Going through the hard times, you can’t be taught that.”

But everything aligned. In 2010, the Hornings finalized an easement with the Greenbelt Land Trust to protect and restore 200 acres of their farm for native fish and wildlife along the Willamette River’s floodplain. In turn, the capital from selling the easement allowed the family to purchase additional acreage and their yields went up. The Hornings brought their expertise in farming to restoration plantings, helping Greenbelt refine their practices and better restore habitat.

They now have two main crops, hazelnuts and fescue, but there’s a lot of diversity in variety, age, and management of their orchards. The diversity stretches out the workload. Steve feels like they now have really good annual work flow – in fall and winter they are busier, and spring as well with the fescue, but summer isn’t such a chaotic time. Their vision also helped guide their investments in equipment and irrigation efficiencies.

Today, Steve and his dad stay in communication about both farm operations and estate planning. “An unexpected death could be our biggest expense,” says Gary, “Farming isn’t just us anymore, we rely on a team of trusted advisors: our accountant, our lawyer, our insurance rep, our agronomist and an investment advisor.”

Father and son credit their wives for their success. “I don’t know how I would’ve done this otherwise,” says Gary. His wife, Jenny, would do everything from laying pipe to the books, “and let’s face it, the wives do a lot of the raising of the kids.” Steve’s wife, Krissy, now does the books, and “she has the instinct to slow things down and bring people together.” They are, both Gary and Steve agree: “true partners.”

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