Growing food for 100 years
Gresham's Olson Farm will be honored as a Century Farm at the state fair
The best corn, as any fool can tell you, is sold within sight of the field where it grew.
Just a few steps away from their farm stand at the corner of Southeast 222nd Avenue and Borges Road, Wilbur and Don Olson hunker down in the corn row and peel back a husk to reveal a fragrant yellow ear of kernels as straight as the row where it grew.
'Dad used to say if the kernels were all crooked, it was because they grew in crooked rows,' Don Olson says. It's a farmer joke.
The Olson farm, purchased in 1905 - disregard the incorrect 1906 date on the family T-shirt - will be named a Century Farm at 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 2, at the Oregon State Fair. Century Farms and farmers are honored for their perseverance in the 'ever-changing challenge of raising food Oregon.' A century farm must be a continuous family operation for 100 years with an income of not less than $1,000 per year.
All of that is a cinch for the Olsons. Don Olson, 43, and his wife, Denise, live in the original farmstead, as picturesque as a calendar photo. It began as 20 acres and a shack purchased by Don's grandfather, August Olson, in 1905. August married Emma in 1916 and they had two daughters and a son, Wilbur, now 79, who took up farming in 1939 when his father became ill.
The Olson place has a reputation for what Garrison Keillor calls bachelor farmers. Don Olson did not marry until age 40. His father was 34 when he found his bride, Mildred Carlson.
'I was real shy,' Wilbur Olson confides. 'But Mildred used to say that she married me because the corn was so good.'
'I had to get out and work pretty young,' he says, remembering.
'And I was born on a tractor,' quips his son, a 1981 Barlow High School graduate. A sister, Nancy Seida, lives in Boring, and returns to the farm to help maintain Wilbur's yard.
Wilbur Olson is still digesting the notion of being a Century Farm.
'I wouldn't be here except for Don,' Wilbur says. 'I don't know how I would have kept going. My eyes are bad.'
Wilbur graduated from Gresham High in 1944. He might have gone off to war like his classmates, but the war was winding down, his father was ill, he was needed on the farm and the country needed him to farm.
August Olson, a Swedish immigrant, started with 20 acres, enough in the early 1900s to keep a family.
'Back then if you had 40 (acres) you had quite a lot of land,' Wilbur remembers. Mechanization changed that, though Wilbur privately worries that his son has too much farm equipment. After World War II, Wilbur began to add to the original farm.
'Nobody had any kids, and they wanted to sell, so I bought other places years ago,' he says. Each farm had a home on it, accounting for the seven houses on the farm's 130 acres. Wilbur Olson lives in his own house, just 600 feet from where he was born.
And the whole kit and caboodle lies within the city limits of the new community of Damascus, not a joyful thought to people who would just as soon keep on growing corn, strawberries, vegetables, pumpkins, gourds, wheat and nursery stock.
The days of growing cabbage and potatoes, as August Olson did, are gone. Wilbur doesn't miss harvesting cabbage on cold winter days.
Three years ago, after Don's marriage to Denise, the family opened their farm stand. The first year, they only sold strawberries, but each year they add more fruits and vegetables, and this year, some nursery stock.
'We got electricity in the stand this year. With water out back and an outhouse, we've got it all,' says Denise, who doesn't think anyone in the Gresham High class of 1986 will believe she married a farmer. She works flexible hours in an oral surgeon's office doing bookkeeping and payroll. Her daughter, Amanda, 13, is learning to be a farm girl.
'But farming is definitely not in my blood, like it is in his,' she says with a nod at her husband.
The farm stand, open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., will remain open through pumpkin and gourd season in October. Sometimes, when help is short, it operates on the honor system, and that seems to work just fine.
And right now, the stand features corn that is grown within sight of the stand. Though he doesn't see well, Wilbur Olson can still plant the vegetables.
'I always liked to see things grow,' he says, 'to take care of them and have them look good.'