Rediscovering Agriculture

Mike Wilhoit '77 grows the hazelnuts— also known as filberts—on his 72-year-old Newberg family farm as an addition to his full-time job.

For Mike Wilhoit ’77, food is business. Wilhoit’s family has been farming hazelnuts in Oregon for more than 70 years, and today, he is a leader in agricultural development in the state.

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The new trees can replace the dying ones, producing after four or five years.

“There is a resurgence in the Oregon hazelnut business,” Wilhoit said. (He’s replanting his own orchard about 10 acres a year with the new variety.)

About 600-some Oregon growers supply almost all of the hazelnuts for the United States, and recently China has started buying about half of the crop, too, increasing demand, and therefore price.

“Hazelnuts are really good right now,” Wilhoit said. “In the last 10 years, prices have been outstanding.”

International markets also are feeding Oregon wheat-growers’ market demand. Wheat is the No. 4 ranked commodity in Oregon, worth almost a half-billion dollars in 2010.

“There are emerging economies with a new middle class, and they don’t want to eat grain anymore, they want to eat meat,” Wilhoit said. “So they need more grain to feed more animals. Long term, it’s going to be a good market for growers.”

And Oregon’s moist climate is a good place to grow wheat in particular, he said.

“You can put wheat in the ground and get 150 to 200 bushels per acre. That’s unheard of,” he said. “The average in the U.S. is 45 bushels.”

In his position with Wilco, Wilhoit has been active in building relationships with wheat growers, who traditionally have transported their harvests via truck. Wilco has railway access at its agronomy sites, though, and that link is allowing farmers to get their crop to distribution out of Portland faster—taking it from farm, to train, to ship, where a large portion is sent to emerging markets in China.

Wilhoit’s work has taken him all over the world, exploring both markets for agricultural crops and also different techniques of farming. Much of his travels have been related to hazelnuts.

He also had the rare opportunity to travel to North Korea. Portland-based relief nonprofit Mercy Corps gathered 10,000 apple trees to send to North Korea, and Evergreen Agriculture (a branch of Evergreen Aviation) donated a jet to transport the trees. Wilhoit visited after the trees had been planted.

It was a surreal experience, he said, recalling bags inspected on the way into the country and minders monitoring his every move. Still, he said, “when you get farmers talking to farmers, all the political crap goes away.”

And that, alone, is probably what is most meaningful to Wilhoit about farming.

“It’s a lifestyle choice,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not an economic bonanza or a gold mine. I wouldn’t give up the lifestyle.”

Wilhoit remembers when the hazelnut orchard was less automated, when the harvest was raked by hand.

“My grandmother would gather all of her friends together and they’d rake the whole orchard together by hand,” he said. “It was a social thing.”

He also remembers telling his grandmother of his desire to farm.