SUBLIMITY, Ore. — Billing itself as the world’s premier producer of cool-season grass seed, the Doerfler family has carved out a niche in this tiny town east of Salem.
“We’re pretty embedded here,” Kevin Doerfler said. “All five generations above us are buried in St. Boniface Cemetery in Sublimity.”
Siblings Amy, Kent and Kevin Doerfler, are continuing to build on the foundation their father, Bob Doerfler, built when he began transitioning the farm to grass seed in the early 1970s.
Bob was one of the driving forces behind the development of Oregon’s grass seed industry. Grass seed fields now blanket 400,000 Oregon acres, mostly in the Willamette Valley. The crop covers nearly 25% of the valley’s total area and 40% of its arable land, according to the Oregon Seed Council.
“After growing up raising pigs and cattle, Dad didn’t want to do livestock anymore,” Kent joked.
During Bob’s 30 years at the helm, he grew the farm tenfold, from 1,800 to 18,000 acres.
Kent and Kevin, Bob’s twin sons, were already working on the farm when their father passed away in 2003. Their sister, Amy, then a software consultant in Portland, returned to the farm to add her talents to the mix.
Now, 17 years later, Doerfler Farms has stabilized at about 15,000 acres along a 40-mile swath through Marion and Linn counties.
Doerfler Tractor, a dealership established by Bob in the 1970s, specializes in selling Landoll tillage implements and baling twine.
In 2002, they joined forces with Tom Pape and Scott Harer to start Columbia Seeds in Albany, Ore. They established a more streamlined marketing and production system called the Value Direct Link.
Doerfler Farms provides the grower-based production and does most of the turf grass blending, packaging and shipping.
“The farm hasn’t grown but the seed company has grown exponentially,” Kevin said. “We handle much more seed than we grow ourselves.”
A pair of robotic palletizers has helped make that possible.
“It is a more streamlined process; we are able to run a much higher volume with the same number of employees and less human fatigue,” Amy said.
“The partnership with Doerfler Farms is an invaluable relationship that has allowed Columbia Seeds to expand markets worldwide,” said Harer, vice president of Columbia Seeds.
Kevin Doerfler and Harer travel internationally every year to meet with customers and develop new relationships.
“Over the years we helped establish grass seed markets in China by hosting government officials, and in 1999 and 2000 Kent accompanied government trade missions there,” Kevin said. “Outside of the North American market, Columbia Seeds has also established relationships in Europe and Asia. It has allowed me to travel extensively, meet interesting people and observe many cultures.”
During their travels through Europe, the Doerfler brothers look at new ideas, attend trade shows and keep an eye out for the latest developments in technology, new grass varieties or energy-saving methods.
“We have chosen to stick with what we know, and we are always striving to get better at it,” Kevin said.
“We’ve stayed away from the latest trends in the Willamette Valley,” Kent said. “We do what we do, and we aspire to do it well.”
The Doerflers are also active in efforts to promote Oregon agriculture.
The farm was part of the original pilot for Oregon Aglink’s Adopt a Farmer program. In it, farmers visit classrooms several times a year to tell school kids what they do on the farm. In turn, the students visit the farm to see it in person.
With the help of Tom Silberstein, a researcher at Oregon State University, Kent and Amy created the Farming Simulation Game that is still used by many of the farmers involved in the program. Now in its ninth year, Adopt a Farmer has grown to include around 40 schools.
“My involvement now is mainly recruiting more farmers and raising money for the program,” Amy said.
The number of employees at Doerfler Farms doubles to nearly 100 during the late summer harvest, when parades of swathers and combines criss-cross the eastern Willamette Valley.
Most of the harvest help is local high school and college students. The farm also has a scholarship program to help assist with education costs and hosts a tractor safety course run by the OSU Extension.