Alec Oliver is the recipient of the 2021 Agriculturist of the Year award from Oregon Aglink. The presentation will take place on November 19th at our Denim and Diamonds Annual Awards dinner and auction courtesy of title sponsor Wilco and presenting sponsor Columbia Bank.
For some people, calling and visiting nearly a hundred ranches a year to discuss the various operations would make it hard to focus on your own land and business.
Rather than pulling him away from his home, the work Alec Oliver does managing the membership at Country Natural Beef helps him find perspective and motivation to lead Oliver Ranch. The blend of duties suits him well, and fellow industry members have noticed. He is Oregon Aglink’s recipient of the 2021 Agriculturist of the Year award following a nomination that called out both his external service to the industry and his “rooted determination, keen intellect, and visionary leadership” at his operation in Grant County.
Oliver Ranch stretches across 13,000 deeded acres and a forest allotment, east of Seneca along Bear Creek and bordered by the Malheur National Forest where they graze cattle on an allotment each summer. Alec manages the ranch with his small and dedicated crew of family, mom Tinka and sister Kati, as well as a foreman, Jake, and another hand, Jay. The dogs Rocket and Alice have been joined by a more recent addition, Pepsi. Alec’s father passed away in 2017, leaving his son as the fifth generation of Oliver to run that patch of land.
Watching Over a Ranch
Communicating with dozens of other ranches is only one of the out-of-the-box perspectives Alec has on his operation. Technology has changed how he oversees the ranch compared to his predecessors. Along with cell phones, which still work in spite of the spotty coverage, Alec uses drones to check and move his cattle, as well as the newest project: a collaboration with Northway Ranch Services using satellite imagery to measure ground conditions over time on his property and that of partnered ranches.
“It’s amazing the technology we can use,” says Alec, “whether it’s a satellite hundreds of miles away in the sky or a camera right here on the ground and tying all that back into a spreadsheet.”
Some new technology came as a necessary adaptation following a truck accident in 2012, which paralyzed Alec from the sternum down. Although he can still work cattle from a ruggedly-equipped wheelchair or atop a horse, the drones allow him to check on far-off fields in a matter of minutes. Depending on the time of year and whether the cows have had their calves, Alec can even use drones to move cattle with pressure in their flight zones like he would with the horses and dogs.
The drones and satellite imagery aren’t a compromise or a gimmick– they’re a type of innovation embraced on Oliver Ranch and added to the hands-on work that keeps it moving forward at a carefully measured pace.
Continuity and Change
If you want an example of how grounded Oliver Ranch has stayed in its heritage, consider that the A2 brand at the ranch has been in use there since 1878. For every change that Alec and his family adopt in methods or technology, there is an equally strong focus on the continuity that ties the past to the future.
“My family’s been right here since the 1880s,” says Alec, “and I want [us] to be here for another 150 years.”
Alec has both seen and over-seen some changes on the ranch just over the course of his own life, which he points out is currently only thirty-two years worth of the much longer history. In 2001, Alec’s father had an accident of his own that shattered his pelvis and led to Oliver Ranch selling off its cows, moving from a full cow-calf operation to only grazing their pastures with outside cattle part of the year. After Alec graduated from college, he set out to rebuild their herd a few cows at a time. “Now we’re fully stocked on our own cattle again,” he says, and in the process of adjusting their balance of cows, calves, and yearling stock as well as their genetics and grazing methods.
His strategy for change acknowledges that agriculture, for all its shorter cycles of seasons, sometimes requires a longer view. “It takes a long time to notice change sometimes, and just sticking with it is really going to help,” says Alec. “There are some things we can do that we’ll notice a difference in tomorrow or next year, but there are also other things I may never see a big change but other generations will.” That means that the “quick” changes on the ranch like tinkering with their Hereford-Red Angus cross or the length of grazing on springtime pastures may take longer to notice. Nevertheless, they are all part of the longer-term work of creating a more resilient ranch with well-suited cattle and meadows that make the most of their water each year.
“A negative impact will be much quicker noticed and much longer lived than a positive impact,” Alec says. “It’s just that much more important to pay attention to what you’re doing and what implications are there with your actions.”
The partnership with Northway Ranch Services to use satellite imagery of living ground cover and organic litter left behind after grazing is one way to measure the change each year, but Alec has noticed change at eye-level too. Insects, birds, and ruminants such as deer, elk, and antelope are more common sights again on the lands of Oliver Ranch now that the cattle are grazing year-round.
While the grazing strategies might lend themselves to better water infiltration and carbon sequestration, and Alec can speak about those variables and more, he’s clear that the efforts are holistic and not just chasing buzzwords. As he says, “We’re watching to make sure the whole system is working together instead of focusing on just one part.”
Independence and Industry
Whether it’s the Silvies watershed or the history of a century ranch, Alec often speaks of his operation as part of a larger setting. His take on the local community of Seneca is similar: no one is really alone, even in a region known for long stretches of forests and grassland between small towns.
“We’re all really independent people out here and like doing things our own way,” says Alec, acknowledging the kind of spirit that allows families like his to thrive in the area. At the same time, he says there’s a common spirit of living in the same landscape: “We don’t have a single bad neighbor. This is an incredible community that’s very willing to help and be around. It makes it easy to help them in return.”
One of his neighbors is a celebrated rancher in his own right, and where Alec Oliver speaks fondly of his conversations with Jack Southworth, the owner of Southworth Brothers Ranch isn’t sparing in his praise of the younger man. “[Alec] is really managing a ranch, and too many managers think they need to be out operating a ranch,” says Southworth. “He is able to put the time in to do the financial planning, the grazing planning, the organizational planning that so many of us don’t take the time to do. We always think we’re going to get to it, but it’s late in the evening when we’re tired and we don’t do a very good job of it.”
Alec talks about his degree in Animal Science and Agribusiness from University of Idaho and his work at Country Natural Beef as guiding forces behind some of those management strategies. Yet part of running Oliver Ranch seems like accepting a challenge to imagine more growth and, as part of that, being humble about how far he has to go. In his words, “It’s a lifelong learning adventure.”
As he got out of college and later took over the ranch, he remembers, “I wanted to start at the same step as the guys I was looking up to were at, the guys who had been doing it for 40 or 50 years. That may not be realistic because you don’t have that experience.”
As we know, though, Alec doesn’t quit. While it may not be realistic to start out with wisdom borne of decades in the industry, as Alec says,“to utilize that knowledge and experience, to have mentors and people that are willing to share and teach: that helps a lot.”
“I attribute everything to my family, my heritage, my friends, and my neighbors and industry folk that have helped me along the way.”
Join us in person at Denim & Diamonds or watch via live-feed on November 19 to see Alec Oliver receive his Agriculturist of the Year Award.