Diversification keeps historic farm ‘interesting’

John Kennel with a photo of his father and grandfather at Majestic Oaks Farm.

SUVER, Ore. — John Kennel lifts a picture of his father and grandfather from the wall of his Majestic Oak Farms office. The subject of the circa-1950s photo is a point of pride within the fourth generation of the Kennel family.

Grandpa John S. Kennel was the first farmer in the mid-Willamette Valley to buy a self-propelled combine harvester in 1947. In the photo, John’s father, Earl, is driving the harvester while his father loads the bags with grass seed.

The harvester is long gone, but the family is still growing grass seed. John Kennel and his crew grow more than 1,300 acres of grass seed, vegetable, clover and other crops on his land south of Monmouth. John is the fourth generation of a growing farm family that includes John’s brother, Bob, and his family, who have a separate farm next to John’s.

John’s great-grandfather, Christian Kennel, immigrated to the U.S. from the Alsace-Lorraine region between Germany and France, eventually settling on a farm in Albany. Evidence of their longtime connection with the Albany area remains: Kennel Road on the east side of their farm and donated land for the Grand Prairie School.

The family might be there today had not construction of Interstate 5 in the early 1960s split their farm in two. For a few years, the Kennels attempted to drag heavy equipment back and forth across the nearest overpass at Grand Prairie Road.

But by 1963, they sold the Albany farm and bought 450 acres near Suver on Airlie Road, which since then has served as a base for the two Kennel farms.

John said he hadn’t intended to follow in his father’s farming footsteps. He left home and attended Eastern Mennonite University, graduating with a major in business. He went to work in computer sales, but soon missed working outdoors.

“Farm boys don’t do so great in an office building,” John said. He returned to join a farming partnership with his father and brothers. Marriage to Mary Jane and three children followed. Eventually, he bought his father’s portion, and split the rest with his brother.

John, his father, his brother Bob and his late brother Dwight and their families have continued to expand holdings and experiment with crops, but seed and cover crops are still the family’s mainstay. At Majestic Oak this year, 500 acres are in grass seed, 200 in red clover for forage, 80 in meadowfoam for oil, 110 in daikon turnip seed for a cover crop, 30 acres in hazelnut trees, and a few acres in pea seeds for the Japanese sprout market.

In 2007, the Kennels joined with two other families to plant 20 acres of wine grapes on a south-facing hillside that hadn’t been great for growing fescue. In 2010, the partners released their first bottles of Treos wine made with their Pinot noir, Muscat and Albariño varieties. Last year, Treos’ Albariño earned 92 points from Wine Enthusiast, and the Editor’s Pick award.

“There’s a lot of diversity on this farm,” Kennel said.

Diversification is a way to hedge farms against market changes, but Kennel admitted that he likes to try new crops, just to stay engaged.

Experimentation is in the blood: His relatives are trying several new crops, from truffles to hydroponic strawberries, and are currently investing in new equipment that will clean pea seed to Japanese standards.

“I like to keep things interesting,” he said.

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