family background/ Jeff is a third-generation grower farming north of Pasco, Washington. He graduated from Brigham Young University in Idaho with a degree in business and finance. Jeff is married to Tracey and is the son of Ellen and Jim Middleton.

grower/Franklin County, Washington
crops/Cherries and hay
business/Ohana Farms

How did you get your start?
Up until I was about 12 years old, I always wanted to be a farmer. From age 12 to 20, I didn’t want to be on the farm or anywhere near a farm. After I worked as a missionary and matured, I gained perspective and decided to return to ag.

However, my dad asked me not to pursue an agriculture degree when I went to college. He pointed out that I’d find opportunities to learn ag by getting out in the dirt to gain experience. There are also opportunities to learn at seminars during the summers and winter, where I could find trusted advisors in the ag community.

Having opportunities to learn on the farm helped me decide to go into business. I decided to get a business degree because I believe every farmer is an entrepreneur and, because of that, needs to know the numbers.

I knew in any endeavor that I pursued in the future that a business background would be vital to my success.

Why do you farm?
For me, money is secondary. The family life that comes with working on the farm is what drew me back. I had the education to figure out how to financially take care of my family one way or another.

But being able to work with my children and wife, changing water, watching the orchard mature and helping everything grow is a critical aspect of choosing this career.

What did you learn in school that has been the most valuable?
Learning business software such as Excel has been huge — learning how to make spreadsheets, do simple revenue and expenses, develop a plan to forecast and map out project costs. These skills help me figure out if I’ll make money in the future.

When I was working through my cherry block plans, I knew they wouldn’t be producing fruit or making me money for a while. What I learned in school helped me prepare for that by sitting down at a computer and working on a spreadsheet to see that I’m not going to receive any revenue for four years on a new planting.

I can estimate what money I’ll be making when it’s in production and then use that information to justify losing those four years of no production.

Why did you plant cherries?
After school, I really didn’t know what I wanted to grow, but I was able to work with my dad, who had a hay and asparagus farm. Those crops aren’t a huge financial cost, so I jumped in on that.

When I did the math on how much we were working and how we were producing, I started looking for other crops that would bring in higher rewards for the risk and time invested. Working in sweet cherries had a couple of things going for it, such as higher rewards.

Everything in farming is risky — I figured I might as well have the reward for my work available at the end of the season. From a financial standpoint the orchard will be good for us. Also, I was tired of doing hay. You basically turn on the water, go out and bale it up four times in a season and that’s basically it. In contrast, there’s so much to learn in the orchard.

There are so many little things you need to know. How many ways can you prune a tree? What kind of system do you want to grow your rows? There are so many options. I found it exciting that you can build a block that you’re happy with and be satisfied with what you’ve created.

How did you plan your first cherry block?
Making that initial four-year commitment was huge. I farm about 500 acres, and for me to take out any acreage to plant a new cherry block while not receiving any revenue on it for that long is a big deal. Even if I’d taken 5, 10 or 20 acres out of the revenue picture, it would be a big deal financially.

My friends who are orchardists warned me of the possible up-front costs — ranging between $40,000 and $50,000 per acre — and it’s going to be this huge ordeal that I should stay away from.

When I started running the numbers myself, I could see that planning a new orchard was going to be expensive, but I could cut some of the costs and produce a crop that was just as good as what’s being done at bigger farms.

In the end, I was able to stay away from the $40,000 estimate and get it down to about $10,000 per acre. Once I reached that installation mark, I did the math figuring out what I needed to produce and what dollars I needed to earn to make this viable.

After a lot of research and checking my numbers, I realized on an average year I could do very well financially, and I’d be able to recoup my investment very quickly. The way I did it was by planting freestanding trees in moderate high-density rows to set a good potential outcome for the block to be successful. Everything in farming carries with it a lot of risk.

We as farmers need to be certain we’re getting the most potential revenue out of each ounce of soil. I’ll always keep some hay, that low-risk crop, but I believe farmers should also grow a high-return type of crop that justifies our time and our risk.

—TJ Mullinax