SILVERTON, Ore. — Dave and Rita Doerfler are not the types to go around seeking the spotlight.
The couple, of Ioka Farms in Silverton, has spent decades serving Oregon agriculture on numerous state boards and embracing progressive farming practices to conserve soil and water. Yet they are greatly humble when it comes to receiving recognition.
“It takes everybody working together to keep agriculture alive in Oregon,” Rita Doerfler said. “You don’t want to forget those people who have come through all these years with you, and have done a lot.”
Oregon Aglink, a nonprofit organization dedicated to agricultural outreach and education, recently named the Doerflers as the 2019 Agriculturists of the Year. They will be honored Nov. 22 during the group’s annual Denim and Diamonds dinner and fundraiser in Salem.
“They just give back to the community,” said Mallory Phelan, executive director of Oregon Aglink. “They’re very forward-thinking people, thinking about where agriculture is going and how they want to help shape it.”
Ioka Farms traces its roots back to 1877, when the land was bought by Dave Doerfler’s grandfather and great-grandfather. The family originally raised livestock and grew small grains in the densely green Silverton Hills, though the farm has since evolved to mostly grass seed and hazelnuts, with some Christmas trees and timberland.
The name Ioka comes from an American Indian word meaning “a thing of loveliness, or a cherished piece of land noted for its beauty, health and natural fertility.” Neat rows of hazelnut trees greet visitors upon arriving at the farm, irrigated with drip lines to save water and spaced with grass to prevent soil erosion.
“We’re in what we call highly erodible (land),” Dave Doerfler explained. “It’s not flat. Water runs downhill. So with it, if soil is available to be moved with water, it will do that. It’s hard to get it back up on top of the hill.”
In addition to using cover crops, the Doerflers have long adopted no-till farming in ryegrass and fescue. They also grow small grains, such as wheat and oats, in rotation with grass seed to replenish soil nutrients and break up diseases.
“When you don’t know what you’re doing, why, you just try a lot of different things,” Dave Doerfler said with a laugh.
Before transitioning to field crops, Dave Doerfler’s father, Alex, raised prize-winning Duroc hogs on the farm. The farm office contains several framed photos and cartoons of Alex Doerfler and his champion Durocs, including one with the caption, “Fellows, we’ve got to get ‘em big.”
From there, the farm began specializing in turkey hatching eggs. However, Dave Doerfler said Oregon’s turkey industry would soon decline as farmers in the South and Midwest began raising the birds year-round in temperature-controlled barns, leading to overproduction and depressed prices.
At the time, the farm had just one working horse, a Persian named Fox. A 10-year-old Dave would encourage his father to buy their first combine and begin farming grass seed.
Today, Ioka Farms is well into its sixth generation with up to a dozen family members still working for the company. “It’s been a family affair,” Rita Doerfler says.
Dave, 79, and Rita, 78, married in 1961. Two years later, Dave graduated with a general degree in agriculture from Oregon State University. They have both served on numerous state and local boards — Dave spent two, four-year terms on the Oregon Board of Agriculture from 1988 to 1996, and Rita was one of the founding members of Oregon Women for Agriculture in 1969.
They have tackled a plethora of key issues over the years, such as field burning regulations, water management and right-to-farm legislation.
“It’s a very special part of being in the community, I think,” Rita Doerfler said. “You’re going to lose a lot if (farmers) don’t speak up. ... You don’t have to be radical about the whole thing, but you can keep people informed about the process of agriculture, and why we’re doing some of the things we’re doing.”
Phelan, with Oregon Aglink, said one of the most important voices to shape the agriculture industry belong to the growers themselves.
“A lot of organizations exist to try and elevate the voices of the growers,” Phelan said. “We really appreciate when there are folks like Dave and Rita who are willing to be a voice for their industry, in the most authentic way they can.”
Looking ahead, Dave Doerfler said he believes water availability and technology will continue to be pressing issues for the farm as it adapts over the next generation.
”You don’t know what the future brings,” Dave Doerfler said. “If I knew that, I’d been wealthy and retired and living somewhere else a long time ago.”
The Denim and Diamonds dinner will be held at 5 p.m. at the Salem Convention Center.