Southwest Washington farmer Kevin Dobbins pulls out a contract to show a visitor. It states how much grass seed that meets the buyer’s specifications will be worth.
That explains why Dobbins grows grass seed, rather than berries. “With berries, you don’t know what you’re going to get paid,” he said. “I couldn’t roll the dice on that.”
Dobbins, 35, owns Dobbins Farms, based in Clark County. Under his grandfather Jerry Dobbins, the farm was known for berries, though he also grew some grass seed. Jerry Dobbins died in 2018. Taking over as the sole owner, the grandson opted to lean heavily on grass seed.
If prices are down, grass seed can be stored, while berries can’t, Kevin Dobbins said. If the seed doesn’t meet the buyer’s specifications, it can still be sold as “variety not stated.”
“I couldn’t bet the farm on berries,” he said. “The seed end was more reliable.”
Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries are grown commercially in Clark County, but the acreage has trended downward, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
The 2007 Census of Agriculture recorded 1,335 acres of berries in Clark County. By the 2017 census, the number was down to 955 acres, a 28% drop in a decade.
Growers cite rising labor costs, and low and uncertain prices for the decline in production. “The crop is gone, out of your possession, before you even know a price,” Dobbins said.
Another Clark County berry grower, George Thoeny, once had 144 acres of raspberries. Now he has a half-dozen. He also grows strawberries and Marionberries, mostly to sell at roadside stands and farmers markets.
Fresh market sales have been good this year, he said. Apparently a lot of people are staying home and canning during the coronavirus pandemic, he said. “I believe there is a great opportunity to raise berries on a small basis.”
On a bigger scale, however, “the money just wasn’t there,” Thoeny said. “There’s not enough good years to make up for the bad ones.”
Thoeny said he started growing grass seed seven years ago. “If I had to do it over again, I would have planted grass seed 20 years ago,” he said.
“Kevin is doing a real good job with it,” Thoeny said. “For him to jump in by himself, I got a lot of respect for that.”
Dobbins, who has three employees, said he aspires to “plant as much as I possibly can handle.”
He’s said he’s leased as many as 300 acres and is now at about 200 acres. He said he loses about 50 acres a year to development in fast-growing Clark County. “It will push me north,” he said.
To keep up the acreage, he leases land across the Columbia River in Scappoose, Ore., and as far north as Lewis County, Wash.
Jerry Dobbins took up farming in mid-life, after a career selling, repairing and racing motorcycles in Portland. Kevin Dobbins grew up around the farm, but he too didn’t go into farming as his first career.
He tried his father’s occupation, river pilot on the Columbia, but found the quarters too confining. He worked in construction for 15 years. He then joined his grandfather to manage the farm’s grass seed business.
He said his grandfather didn’t want him to make farming a career. “It’s what I decided to do. I enjoy it. I hope to keep doing it,” he said.
“It’s a product of your labor and everything you do,” he said. “You bear the risk and also bear the rewards.”