Figuring out their niche

Bob Bradford has always wanted to see if he could make it as a farmer. But the retired veterinarian knew it would be a difficult row to hoe.

"Some people think of farming as being something any dummy can do," said the Wimer resident. "But that is just not right. It's very difficult. You have the technical-agricultural aspect, field management, product management.

"Then you have marketing. That's a whole different career. And, of course, that's where all the profit comes from."

So Bradford, 71, who owns the 120-acre Bradford Family Farm along with his wife, Janice Sondag Bradford, a semi-retired veterinarian who still practices a couple of days a week in Grants Pass, turned to the Oregon State University Extension for advice.

He was among more than 30 other local small farmers who last year enrolled in OSU's six-week course called "Growing Farms: Successful Whole Farm Management." The class is being offered again this year, beginning Jan. 25, at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Central Point.

"We had raised rabbits that we sold wholesale for quite a while," Bradford said. "But there really wasn't much profit there. We wanted to see what else we could do. Our goal was to see if you could actually make a living on a small farm."

The result is what the extension service says is the first chicken-and rabbit-processing facility in Southern Oregon that allows meat to be brought to markets rather than sold only at the farm. Beginning this spring, the Bradfords, who previously sold vegetables at local farmers' markets, will be bringing farm fresh meat to farmers' markets in Ashland and Grants Pass. Their license also allows them to sell the meat to local restaurants and grocery stores.

Janice's brother and his wife also are part of the farm team.

The class enabled the Bradfords to figure out their niche in the local market, observed Tracy Harding, a small-farms specialist who is working with the extension service in offering the course.

"There is a cultural shift occurring," she said. "Folks want to contribute to local farms and to local enterprises, to the livelihood of the community."

There is also an increased interest in food safety, one that can be answered much easier on the local level, she said.

"When you purchase directly from a farmer, there is eye contact, a touching of the hand," she said. "You have someone to talk to about food safety or where the product came from."

Supporting local farms also allows people to help preserve open spaces, she noted.

Last year's class drew 34 people, all with diverse backgrounds, she said. "There were young, new farmers, and retired folks who have always loved gardening," she said. "But all of them were looking at diversifying, looking for a way to get into new enterprises."

"Very few new farmers have backgrounds in business, information technology or accounting," added Melissa Matthewson, OSU Small Farms Extension Agent and the course co-facilitator along with Harding. "But all those skills — and more — are necessary to run a profitable operation."

Back on the farm, Bradford agreed.

"I want to show that a small farm can make money, and try to get young people coming back to small farms," he said. "It would also be good to have people more in contact with local farmers and buying locally."

There is no question large producers can provide meat and vegetables at a lower price, he said.

"You do need that because big companies supply food to huge populations," he said. "But we want to supply to local people who want a different product. These are people who want to know where it came from and what it was fed. That's our goal.

"We are not competitive at all with the big commercial guys in price," he added. "But we figure we wax their rear ends in quality and flavor."

The Bradfords have a processing facility where they can slaughter chickens and rabbits. Their facility, which includes a walk-in cooler, was approved and licensed by the Oregon Department of Agriculture last spring.

"The demand for our rabbit is unbelievable," he said. "Right now, we are probably eight months or better behind in trying to fill orders."

As a result of demand, they plan to increase their population of rabbits, which are a cross between New Zealand and California rabbits. They are putting together a rabbit recipe book for the coming farmers' market season, he said.

Their chickens are raised under mobile pens that allow them to feed like a free-ranging animal, while being protected from birds of prey that hang around the farm.

The Bradfords have Cornish cross chickens but are changing to the French rouge variety. The first batch of chicks is expected to arrive this week, he said.

In addition to the chickens and rabbits, they are growing winter wheat, oats and clover.

"One of the major expenses for small producers is feed, especially organic feed," he said. "If you can raise a lot of it yourself, that really helps."

Come next spring, in addition to fresh rabbit and chicken, the Bradfords will offer winter wheat at local farmers' markets, grinding it on site when it is purchased. They are already offering pepper jellies and relishes produced at the farm.

"I plan to do this until I drop dead in my boots," Bradford said. "I love farming."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or

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