Oregon Aglink Blog

Building a Legacy at Ioka Farms

Posted on October 10, 2019


What does it mean to build a legacy? Does it come from one generation, or are we constantly building on the work of those before us and hoping those after us will continue the work?

If your legacy is hard work and innovation, that means the process never stops. At least that’s what seems to be the case at Ioka Farms in Silverton.

Dave and Rita Doerfler of Ioka Farms will be receiving our Agriculturist of the Year award as a pair on November 22nd in Salem at the annual Denim and Diamonds Award Dinner and Auction presented by Oregon Aglink and sponsored by Wilco. As the president and chief financial officer of Ioka Farms, respectively, the couple were nominated by a community member for their role in elevating their industry and Oregon agriculture as a whole.

“They have been ideal role models for the next and future generations of family farmers in the valley,” says Phil Lavine of Chemeketa Community College. He and Dave Sunderland have known the Doerflers for years, through national and international tours of agriculture, and have seen the pair give back time and again. According to Sunderland, “They continue to work hard and work smart, foster the development of others in the family business and industry, and have unselfishly helped others succeed.”

Former director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture Katy Coba is unequivocal with her praise of Dave and Rita: “Those are the kinds of people you want in your community, the ones who are giving of their time and knowledge.”

The Beginnings

The farm itself goes back to 1877, when Dave’s grandfather and great-grandfather began growing small grain crops on the land outside of Silverton. The next generation brought on turkeys, hogs, and Hereford cattle. As farm transitions go, some elements remained and others were adopted as newer generations found their place and responded to changing national and international markets.

A ten-year-old Dave encouraged his father to buy their first combine to begin farming bent-grass on a portion of the family land, starting their venture in the grass seed industry. They still raised turkeys for a good while, well into years when Dave and Rita had their own children after marrying in 1961. Dave’s sister Shirly and her husband John Duerst joined the farm in 1968 and the name Ioka Farms, Inc. was formally adopted.

Although the animals are largely gone and the farm is known most widely for its grass seed varieties, the pieces of that early legacy endure: diversification works, change with the times, and above all, cooperation is key.

The Strength of Succession

Ioka Farms is in its sixth generation now, with Dave and Rita joined by siblings, children, and nephews. Keeping track of the Doerfler and Duerst clans from the outside can be a little tricky, but the main strategy is finding a place for everyone’s contribution.

According to Dave, “It’s important that each one have their own area so that not everyone does the same thing.” Sometimes it’s a matter of finding out whether a family member would rather be in the office or the warehouse. Other times someone will come in with their own ideas about diversifying services or crops. Where Dave originally started with bent-grass, the farm now has over 5,000 acres of contracted varieties of perennial ryegrass, hard, fine, and tall fescues, meadowfoam, small grains, brassica forage, hazelnuts, timber, and Christmas trees. 

While family is important, Dave is quick to remind people that it’s not just Doerflers or Duersts helping Ioka run smoothly. “You know,” he says, “we have some wonderful employees who are very dedicated too.”

Family members may have been raised with some of the same goals and surnames, but as with succession planning, the strength comes from reaching out and building connections, whether that’s with employees, extension agents, fellow members of agricultural organizations, or farms across the world.

Life-Long Learners

One reason Ioka Farms looks the way it does today is that the Doerflers have been willing to take on new ideas from a variety of places. While all farms respond to external challenges, like concerns over field-burning or water quality issues, the attitude at Ioka is to be proactive rather than reactive. That involves taking some risks, certainly, but their strong connections with other organizations have helped them find what works for their land and their business.

At Marion Ag Service, Gale Gingerich remembers Ioka Farms from the early seventies, when he was an extension agent with Marion County. “There were lots of research trials on Ioka Farms,” says Gingerich. What does he remember about Dave and Rita? “They were always very cooperative,” he says. Their involvement with the industry in terms of development was matched by their active presence in organizations, such as  the Highland Bentgrass Commission, Fine Fescue Growers Commission, Cascade Foothills Seed Growers Association, and Rita’s involvement with Oregon Women for Agriculture as a founding member of the organization in 1969.

As Gingerich puts it, the Doerflers have “a commitment to seeing that it continues, that it stays successful.” He clarifies, adding, “the industry, not just their own operation.”

At Chemeketa Community College in the Agribusiness Management Program, Phil Lavine and David Sunderland paint a similar picture of the Doerflers, who have been joining them on national and international tours of agriculture for over thirty years. “The world is our classroom,” says Lavine of the program. And what about the Doerflers? “They’re life-long learners.”

Lavine and Sunderland seem to have endless pictures of Dave and Rita all around the world: Thailand, Italy, Spain, Australia, New Zealand. The trips offer more than sight-seeing, though, since they’re a chance to see how other countries have dealt with issues familiar to agriculture all over the world: labor shortages, language barriers, crop treatments, regulations and more.

Positive Perspective

The Doerflers conduct similar tours at Ioka Farms, sharing their own experience and knowledge. While they haven’t hung on to every new variety or practice tested on their operation, they’ve had success with several and are willing to share what works for them.

They lean toward perennial crops and rotating annuals as needed, all with an interest in maintaining soil health and root structure where possible. Practices like minimum-till or no-till take extra equipment and planning, but mesh well with other conservation efforts that make good sense for their farm, such as drip irrigation and cover cropping for erosion control.

Just like Oregon’s practices don’t always match up with what goes on in the rest of the world, the Doerflers seem to understand that not everyone is going to adopt something that doesn’t fit a particular operation. When asked if he considers Ioka forward-thinking, Dave Doerfler suggests that “Forward-thinking or trying new things depends upon how much research you’ve done. Something that may be new to some people, you’ve thought about for a while.”

Keeping up with the industry and the larger community, including consumers and voters who may not necessarily live on a farm, means that Ioka Farms has been tuned in to new developments as well as coming changes. The field-burning and water quality issues were chances to show Oregon how agriculture could respond to challenges.

Phil Ward, formerly at Oregon Department of Agriculture and Farm Services Agency, recalls the role Ioka Farms played during both periods. When a fatality on I-5 brought field burning under scrutiny, “Dave and Rita helped lead the industry through that process.” When questions of water quality were on the horizon, they stepped up again.

“[Dave] was part of the group of ag leaders that said it’s better for us to get out in front of this issue as an industry, and we want to guide this whole process into the department of agriculture instead of leaving it with DEQ and EPA. I think that the decisions those folks made in those days set Oregon agriculture up for success in this water quality arena that other states don’t really enjoy.”

Knowing that agriculture will always have new challenges to face, Dave keeps his advice simple:  “You need to stay involved with your commodity people and the industry people. You know, you need to stay positive that things will work out. Sometimes it makes it more difficult than you thought it should be, but if you enjoy what you’re doing you stick with that and survive.”

Bonded Together

When people share photos of the Doerflers at events or on trips, there are hardly ever pictures of Dave or Rita on their own. They are together, Dave with his arm around her shoulders, and Rita leaning in close. For all the connections they have forged with others at their farm, their local Silverton community, the grass seed industry, and Oregon agricultural organizations, there doesn’t seem to be any more enduring or memorable than their bond with each other.

“They’re committed to each other,” says Katy Coba of the pair. “They support each other, they’re together–they’re just Dave and Rita.”
Even if Dave and Rita Doerfler are getting the Agriculturist of the Year Award, you know they’ll be the first to tell you that they wouldn’t be there without the rest of the community.

Like Dave says, Ioka Farms owes its success to more people than just him and Rita alone. There are family members, and employees, and supporting organizations, commissions, and agencies. Even the grass seed industry doesn’t stand on its own, or Oregon for that matter.

And it’s true, no one stands alone. We can, however, honor the people who help represent our best.

By Allison Cloo