family background/Tony grew up in a logging family in Oregon’s Hood River Valley, headed by his father, Brad Fowler, and mother, Katy Klein. After graduating from the University of Oregon, he and his wife, Millie, have worked to establish their own cherry and pear orchards.
grower/Hood River, Oregon
business/AG Farms and crop consultant
How did you get your start?
Since I could walk, I’ve always been in the woods. When I was 12 years old, my dad asked if I wanted to bid on a timber sale, and from his point of view, he thought it would be a good lesson for me.
I did all the numbers with him, and it wasn’t a big deal for him, thinking it’s just my name on the paperwork instead of his. With his backing on the finance, that first one worked out well, so he encouraged me to do a few more timber sales by the time I was 14.
From there I went to college and figured I didn’t need an agriculture degree. Looking back, I wish I would have pursued an ag degree — there’s so much to learn the easy way — rather than going the long route learning it through personal experience.
What advice do you have from college?
I was lucky in college that my degree path in geography would help now. I also took a lot of Spanish. If you’re going to be in ag, take Spanish classes, they’re going to pay off.
The geography part helps me understand why a certain variety might do well in a certain area. Business and economics courses also help with operating a business — being able to understand profit, loss and the bottom line.
How did you start your own farm?
For us, my wife and I had been saving up money, living cheaply and pretty much putting all our paychecks into the farm instead of into savings.
We figured because we’re both young, she’s 25, that if we’re going to go for it, to do it now. We did have a little assistance from my parents with the financing at one point.
We started out with a 5-acre lease, then a month later we picked up another 3 acres, then 9 acres of pears. It might not sound like a lot to some growers, but for us it was a big job to take on because we both have full-time jobs.
Were there advantages to having a primary job?
Fortunately, both of us work in agriculture — she works with food safety and I’m a crop consultant for Wilbur Ellis. Being exposed to 20 or more farms every year, I get to learn a lot.
There’s a lot of brilliant farmers out there who have a lot to offer; most people don’t get to see it. Our passion is definitely in the agriculture side of our careers.
By having two jobs for monetary purposes, it gives us more to live on, and anything left that’s extra gets put into the farm. Buying our own farm was working a lot of weekends and long nights but, in the end, it feels really good to be successful. That’s the lifestyle we want to live — the life of the American farmer.
What challenges do you face on your farm?
Growing cherries in the Hood River Valley can be very challenging because there’s a lot of moisture, swings between hot and cool weather. When it’s raining a quarter-inch up north in Washington, it’s raining an inch here.
The topography of Hood River combined with the moisture can make growing challenging. Probably the biggest difference in Hood River compared to other areas in Washington and California is most of the growers are smaller, family farms, not dominated by the big, corporate-size farms.
Being smaller doesn’t lend itself to being a disadvantage in the marketplace, however it’s not as easy regarding labor. The larger farms are better equipped to work with programs like H-2A and establish housing for the workers.
It’s more challenging for the 20-acre farmer around our valley.
How do the smaller farms compete?
If you’re a 20-acre farmer, you can adapt your crop to what the market may want. For someone who’s new getting into the industry, if you’re not inheriting equipment, it can be a burden.
As a young grower, you sometimes need to work with the junk that no one wants, requiring you to work twice as long to get the job done. I was able to get by with what I could get, giving me an opportunity to farm.
What’s your advice for other young farmers?
As a young farmer, your biggest challenge will be the financial aspect of it. It’s hard getting going and paying for everything. You don’t have any money that first year, but I’d encourage people to have two jobs at that time.
You’d have the farming and the job to pay for it, because it’s hard to ask for money when you don’t have anything to offer.
Why do you want to be a farmer?
I love farming. For one, I can’t work in a cubicle, and I love being outside. I love watching the fruit start from a bud, transforming into a plump, juicy cherry or pear.
What I do changes all the time and it’s different every day, week to week — jumping from spraying to mowing to pruning to back in the office taking care of the books (and hoping my wife helps out with that, too).
If you love being outside in a changing job, then this is the best job you could ask for. The hours are flexible, good for raising a family and you are providing food for people around America.