Honorees are nominated by the Oregon Aglink’s Board of Directors to recognize Oregon’s agricultural leaders.
by Mitch Lies
From the time she was three years old and riding a horse behind her father, Sharon Livingston knew she wanted to be a rancher.
Sharon, now 77, achieved her goal. She’s also done a whole lot more.
Among other accomplishments, Oregon Aglink’s 2016 Agriculturist of the Year currently sits on the State Board of Agriculture, is on her third term with the Oregon Beef Council, and is one of only two women to serve as President of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.
“I’ve never been a sit-back person,” Sharon said. “I like being involved. If I can contribute something to help keep agriculture viable, that is what I will do.”
A native of Grant County, Sharon’s appreciation for farming and ranching has its roots in her early childhood. It is also inspired by the historic efforts of her ancestors, who started farming in Grant County more than one hundred years ago.
“I truly have enjoyed my ownership of the land,” said Sharon, who, with her husband, Fred, began buying and working the family ranch in 1966. “It is important to me, because my family came there and they worked to put together what I experience today. And I am very grateful for everything they did, because the people that came there then lived some pretty tough times.”
Sharon said she works hard to preserve the beauty and functionality of her land, never overgrazing, maintaining a healthy stand of willow trees that line Long Creek as it runs through her property, and performing other activities that ensure the long-term viability of her land and water resources.
Much of what she practices today can be traced to lessons her parents and grandparents taught her years ago. It was her grandfather, for example, who first told her: “’Never, never abuse your native bunchgrass,’” Sharon said. “He knew, and I am extremely careful about that. Some years it gets a little close, but I do not overstock.”
Her father, Leonard Carter, taught her the importance of getting an education and self-esteem. “When I was about twelve years old, he said, ‘Sharon you have a brain, use it. Get an education. You will be forty years old before you know how much it is really worth.’ And he said, ‘Don’t ever walk behind any man. You walk shoulder to shoulder. But you always be a lady, and when he opens the door for you, you turn around and tell him thank you.’”
Sharon took her father’s advice about education. She obtained a teaching degree from Eastern Oregon University in La Grande and taught school in Eastern Oregon for thirty years.
She also raised two boys, Clayton and Fred John, and a girl, Rilla.
Sharon started actively advocating for the natural resources industries more than twenty years ago after noticing the influence that environmental activists were wielding on farm and forest practices.
“In this day and age, it is tough to be in the natural resources industries,” she said. “We live in an area that everyone wants a part of, and they want to come in there and tell us how to manage it.
“We are under a microscope today with how we handle our cattle and our resources,” she said.
“My philosophy is to let the cows eat the grass and let the loggers cut a few trees and we wouldn’t have some of the catastrophic fires that we do today,” she said.
Sharon describes herself as a conservationist, and said most of the farmers and ranchers she knows fall into that same category. Her goal, she said, is to leave her property in as good or better shape than when she started managing it.
“I live in a very pretty spot,” she said. “I don’t have a huge ranch, but it is a very pretty place. I have timber; I have water; I have grass; I have wildlife; and I am very proud of what I have, because we have always worked to make it sustainable.”
She raised Angus cross cows, some Hereford bulls and some Angus bulls until just recently, when she began leasing her cattle to local rancher, Jim Jacobs, and renting ground to him. She still, however, has an active hand in managing her land and cattle. “I am very much involved in helping him, because it is my place,” she said.
Sharon spent most of her life on the family ranch, which her parents moved to when she was six years old, but not all. At one point, she spent a year in Germany with her husband, who was stationed there while in the U.S. Armed Forces.
“That was one of the best experiences of my entire life,” she said. “The first thing I did when I got there is I got a book and I started getting enough of the language that I could visit with people.”
In the early 1980s, when interest rates climbed to twelve-to-fourteen percent, she took a teaching job in Ontario and worked there for ten years.
Sharon’s life has not been without hardships. She lost Fred to cancer in 1988. Her oldest son, Clayton, who had been managing the ranch for about ten years, died suddenly of a heart attack in 2013. But there have been, and continue to be, plenty of joys, she said.
“I have many joys. I enjoy working with cattle. I’ve enjoyed my children, being on the ranch, and being involved with people in agriculture,” she said.
And, yes, she still is riding horses. “I’m not as adventurous as I once was,” she said, “but I’m back in the saddle.”
by Mitch Lies
It wasn’t a straight shot, but Brenda Frketich found her way back to the family farm and today is doing what she loves.
Along the way, through blog posts and social media, she has provided a voice for agriculture, helping bridge the gap between rural and urban America.
After spending four years in Los Angeles getting a business degree from Loyola Marymount University, Brenda, in fact, may be uniquely qualified to bridge the gap.
Initially, when Brenda left to attend Loyola Marymount, the idea wasn’t even to come back to her farm, Kirsch Family Farms. Instead, she planned to major in business and work off the farm. That changed the longer she stayed in Los Angeles.
“I missed the harvest, the (St. Paul) rodeo; all the things I really love about this area,” she said in explaining why she returned.
Her father, Paul Kirsch, suggested Brenda do an internship on the farm “to see if it was a good fit for both of us,” Brenda said, and after graduating, she returned and began formally working on the St. Paul farm.
“I tried to teach her the entire farm,” Paul said, “starting with the office stuff, the contractual obligations, budgeting and working with the bank.”
At the end of the two-year internship, it was obvious to both that Brenda belonged on the farm, and in 2013, she began transitioning into her current managerial role.
Today Brenda has taken over managing the farm but still seeks advice from Paul on occasion. “A lot of the stuff that we ask my Dad about are about the dirt, the soil and how he dealt with certain challenges in the past,” Brenda said.
Her husband, Matt, also works full time on the farm, and she and Matt have two boys, ages two and nine months, “that are around a lot,” she said.
The farm produces perennial ryegrass and tall fescue seed for turf, crimson clover seed, spring wheat for seed, hazelnuts, vegetable seed and a rotational vegetable crop that alters between peas, beans and squash.
When Brenda left the big city to settle into life in small-town Oregon, she didn’t go there to hide. She, in fact, was recognized by John Deere and DTN/The Progressive Farmer magazine as one of America’s Best Young Farmers and Ranchers and flew to Chicago to accept the award in December of 2013.
In the blog she keeps, titled NuttyGrass.com, she wrote about how honored she was. “As I was sitting there listening to the short bios of the other award recipients, I kept thinking about how each and every one of us, award or not, wouldn’t change a thing about what we’re doing.
“All of us are doing what we love,” she continued. “We’re working hard because we’re passionate about being good stewards of the land.
“Although all of our stories were very different, all of our backgrounds diverse in many respects, the one thing that remained obvious is that we all are proud of what we do,” she wrote.
In addition to her blog, Brenda participated in a television campaign opposing the 2014 Measure 92, which would have required labeling of all products sold in Oregon that contained genetically modified organisms. And she frequently testifies before the Oregon Legislature on bills that could affect agriculture.
“Brenda is the perfect package when it comes to testifying,” said Katie Fast, executive director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, and a long-time lobbyist in the state Capitol. “She is knowledgeable about the industry and very articulate.”
Fast added: “The traditional farmer isn’t comfortable reaching out and talking to the urban audience, so it is important that Brenda and others like her are getting that voice out about how food is grown, the realities of life on the farm, the joys and the challenges that come out of it.”
“I think it is important,” Brenda said, when asked why she provides a voice for agriculture. “I think that people continually become disconnected from the farmer and from where their food comes from. And, as that happens, people also gain assumptions about how their food should be grown, even though they are not connected to the land. They see what we are doing and don’t understand why we are doing it.
“There is that gap that needs to be bridged and there are not enough of us that are trying to bridge that gap,” she said.
“In Oregon, we have such a strong city culture that you really need to let that population base know what you are doing, because they are going to instigate a lot of legislation and a lot of regulations that are going to come onto farmers in the future,” Brenda said. “In order to be able to continue to do what we are doing, we have to let them know why we are doing it.”
Brenda also provides leadership for several farm organizations, serving on the state committee of the Oregon Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer and Rancher organization, serving as a member of the Oregon Clover Commission, a board member of the Marion County Farm Bureau, and on the Chemeketa Community College Agribusiness Advisory Board. Brenda also is an emergency medical technician for the St. Paul Volunteer Fire Department.
Added up, it is easy to see why Brenda Frketich is Oregon Aglink’s 2016 Ag Connection of the Year award winner.