EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Bryan Harper is a man of varied talents: a pilot, a former University of Oregon track athlete, and a fifth-generation Junction City farmer.
Harper’s great-great grandfather M.J. Harper moved to Oregon from Wisconsin and in 1891 began growing fruits and vegetables on a 120-acre farm off River Road in Junction City.
Now 125 years later, Bryan Harper, 28, still farms about 80 acres of that plot, along with nearly 400 more acres in the River Road area.
Last year Harper became vice president and director of operations of his family’s business, Harper Farms Inc. He manages about 470 acres of hazelnuts.
“The challenge of it is exciting — feeding the world,” he said. “It’s pretty cool to be one of the young guys in the group — in some cases, decades younger.”
Also last year, Harper started serving a four-year term on the 10-member Oregon Agriculture Board, which advises and recommends policy to the state Department of Agriculture.
He’s the youngest person on the board and its only African-American.
Harper’s dad, Warren, is a longtime Junction City farmer. His mom, Rose, is from Kenya.
“I’m the new generation,” Harper said. He said when he walks into a room of old-line Oregon farmers, “most people ask, ‘Who do you work for?’”
“I say, myself.” Harper said, smiling.
“People ask, ‘Who’s your dad?’?” Harper said. “I guess (I) don’t fit the expectation of what you’d see in Oregon.
“To me it’s just part of life,” he said. “When they see me, hear me talk, hear my story, people are usually pleased.”
A 21st century millennial, Harper said he appreciates the latest research and technologies that can help his family’s farm be more efficient and productive, but he also respects the wisdom and experience passed down by his long line of farming ancestors.
The Junction City High School graduate attended flight school in Florida, thinking he wanted a career in aviation, then he returned home and attended Lane Community College where he ran track as a sprinter. He transferred to the University of Oregon on a partial track scholarship and graduated from the university with a psychology degree in 2012.
Nearing college graduation, with the world wide open with career possibilities, Harper attended a family meeting with his dad, his grandma, Janet Harper — the family matriarch — and his aunts Eileen McLellan and Marilyn Rear. That set in motion the plan for him to be the next generation of Harpers to continue the family’s farming legacy.
“It was a motivator when my family said, here you go, if you want to,” Harper said.
He said he realized, “I really like flying, but I’d hate to have the farm dissolve, and there was nobody to take it over.”
Janet Harper died last November at age 97.
Harper said his grandma took a lot of pride in having seen four generations of family farmers.
“She wanted to see the farm continue,” Harper said. “She planted that seed early on — that there’s opportunity here if you want it.
“She was the biggest advocate for that.”
Harper said his grandma was his first boss.
“You’d grab your hoe, gloves and boots, and at 5 or 6 years old, you were on weed-pulling duty with grandma,” he said.
In recent years Harper’s sister Tiffany, and cousin, Katherine Rear, also have shown interest in the family farm.
“There’s opportunity for anyone to come back, Harper said.
Harper said he’s happy to take the baton for the next generation.
“Being a fifth-generation farmer there’s some legacy, some history and being that next generation is appealing,” he said.
The motivation to farm runs deep, Harper said.
“Part of it is having grown up with it,” he said. “I always had good memories growing up here — getting up in the middle of the night to cook peppermint oil with my dad, riding four-wheelers around to move (irrigation) pipe.
“You’re sort of your own boss,” Harper said. “You write your own schedule. There’s more freedom. “
There’s also a lot of uncertainty — whether it’s weather conditions or new regulations, he said.
And it’s a big responsibility, Harper said.
“You’re temporary stewards of the land, caring for it until someone else takes over,” he said.
“In agriculture you’re all in or all out,” Harper said. “You have to make your decisions quick. You have to find resources that could help out with that.”
Harper’s dad, Warren, said recently that he was never told that he had to farm. And neither was Bryan. They each decided for themselves to carry on the family business.
“In any family business the biggest compliment is if the next generation wants to come into it,” Warren Harper said.