JUNCTION CITY, Ore. — Randy Henderson started farming as a hobby while he was teaching biology at Willamette High School in nearby Eugene. He said it was a means of earning an additional income, but over time it grew into something bigger.
“I opted out of teaching into farming, and haven’t regretted the choice since,” Henderson said.
At the time, the Hendersons were living on a smaller farm down the road. In 1981, however, they bought Thistledown Farm from the Bond family and have been “adding to it ever since.”
Thistledown Farm now encompasses 640 acres. Over the years the family has added greenhouses, barns and a small children’s section to the farm. While they primarily sell fruits and vegetables, they also added a flower operation.
“It’s demand-driven,” Henderson said. “Our bread and butter is peaches, tomatoes, corn, cucumbers and apples. But then people come in and want lettuce and onions, so we grow that. And berries, everyone wants berries.”
The farm has a diverse selection of crops, and sells from April through November. Hazelnuts are their only commercial crop; everything else is sold directly to the public. In fall, Thistledown offers wagon rides to the pumpkin patch, and has a life-size model train in the field for customers’ children. Although Henderson wants to stay out of the “agro-entertainment” industry, he said he wanted to have “a little bit for everyone.”
Henderson said the “whole family is involved” in farming. He and his wife have three sons, two of whom work at Thistledown, and one who owns a farm near Corvallis.
“He’s basically doing the same thing we are,” Henderson said. “We do quite a bit of business back and forth.”
He has already began work on a succession plan of the farm to his sons, who are going to continue the farm’s legacy.
“Our business grows every year,” he said. “Whether we can keep up with it is another thing. It’s a lot of work for a lot of people — hard work. But I have no reason to believe it won’t continue. There’s always a demand for local veggies.”
Thistledown Farm dedicates itself to providing what customers want in what it grows and how it grows it. Henderson doesn’t plant genetically modified crops, because, he said, “The public doesn’t care to hear that.”
“We try to be good caretakers of the soil and the farm,” he said. “We want to be here for awhile, so we don’t want to jeopardize that.”
Although Henderson tries to use as few chemicals as he can, he said he hasn’t found a way around using pesticides. The farm practiced organic farming briefly, but Henderson said that it “didn’t work well for us,” because of the increased labor and the lack of interest among customers for paying organic prices.
“We turn out a really good product now,” Henderson said. “Like I tell my customers, ‘If your kid gets sick you take them to the doctor to get medicine. If my plants get sick, I doctor them.’ It’s the same deal.”
For Henderson, the most rewarding aspect of his family farm is the customer satisfaction and the positive feedback.
“It’s rewarding to hear the positive comments about the quality of the products,” he said. “It’s by far the most encouraging thing we hear and it’s an every day deal. We have customers that come in three times a week. We have a loyal base and try to live up to the expectations.”