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The 100th Harvest.

Byline: KAREN McCOWAN The Register-Guard

CORRECTION (ran 8/29/02): Sunday's Oregon Life cover story on the Hentze Farm incorrectly identified Oregon State's opponent in the Jan. 1, 1942, Rose Bowl. The Beavers beat Duke in a game played in North Carolina because of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.

FOR THE 100th year on this Junction City farm, a Hentze is up before the sun.

Gordon Hentze, 48, breaks an early sweat as he muscles the handle of a balky pump up and down, coaxing water to his thirsty crops.

He's the fourth generation of his family to grow fruits and vegetables on this fertile plot of river bottom along the Willamette's west bank.

But in some respects, this early morning scene can't be all that different from 1902, when his great-grandfather first farmed this soil.

Johan Hentze would have also seen Mary's Peak glowing in the rosy dawn light to the west.

He would have also glimpsed the first fingers of the sunrise filtering through the cottonwoods to the east.

Did he imagine his farm would see its 100th harvest? That it would survive floods and wars, the Great Depression and cannery bankruptcies? That it would employ thousands of local young people - creating legions of emotional stakeholders in its success?

It's hard to know, because his descendants know so little about Johan Hentze's thoughts and motivations. They have no diary or journals, no "letters home" recounting his impressions of Oregon or of his new farm. In fact, they long believed their family farm had its roots in Denmark, more than 500 miles across the sea from Johan Hentze's actual homeland.

The defiant lovers

Dick Hentze, 57, is the only member of the farm's fourth generation old enough to remember both the great-grandparents he called Bestemor and Bestefar. Johan Hentze died when Dick was 3. His wife, Arine, died three years later.

For most of his life, Dick assumed his great-grandparents were Danish, like most families who'd settled developer A.C. Nielsen's "Danish Colony" here.

So he was surprised a decade ago when one neighbor, the late Arnold Bodtker, presented a book on the Faeroe Islands to Dick's parents, Merle and Alice Hentze. The book was his first clue that his clan originated not in Denmark proper, but in the rocky island chain between Iceland and Great Britain that is, like Greenland, an outlying Danish territory.

Dick's grandparents never spoke about the old country.

`That generation tended to think, `You're in the States now, you don't look back,' ' said Dick, a retired teacher and partner in the family farm.

But he consulted the book in 1999, when designing a label for Hentze Family Farms' new line of fruit jams. He coined the term "Norseberry Jam" and created an elflike mascot based on Faeroese folklore.

Bodtker was so thrilled, he shipped a dozen jars off to relatives he'd met when visiting the islands.

A year later, two young Faeroese men appeared at the Hentze farm. In the Northwest on business, they'd decided to find this farm depicted on the jam jar.

It was the beginning of a close friendship between Dick and one of the visitors, who invited him to the islands in 2001.

"It turned out to be quite a personal journey for me," he recalled.

With a population of only 47,000, the tightly knit island chain had a long sense of family history. Dick discovered many living relatives. What's more, his great-grandfather's sister had married his great-grandmother's brother, so many were "double cousins."

Several remembered stories of Johan Hentze and Arina Johanesson leaving the islands forever in the 1880s. But no one seemed to have the answer to the question that most intrigued him: Why?

He learned that his great-grandfather was born in 1860 on a "king's farm." By law, such government farms were passed on to the eldest son so they were not subdivided. He learned that Johan Hentze was a youngest son.

Dick's great-grandmother, by contast, was born on a private farm. In an era of arranged marriages, Johan would not have been considered a good match for the wealthier Arina.

An 1890 wedding photograph of the couple reveals traits recognizable in some Hentzes four or five generations later: her dramatic, dark eyes, his stoic face and thick mustache.

Studying the image, however, Dick noticed something else: the insignia of a Copenhagen photo studio. It was the clue he needed.

Visiting the chain's smallest island just before leaving, he met 50 more relatives and floated his theory: Johan and Arina had fallen in love. Another, "better" marriage had been arranged for her. In desperation, the couple eloped to Denmark. Because of the scandal, they knew they would have to make a life elsewhere.

`An older woman in the audience - a descendant of Bestemor's sister - popped up and said, `That's it! That's what happened!' ' he recalled.

The second generation

Johan and Arina first settled in Chicago, where their two sons were born. Ejner was 12 and Bue 10 when they moved to Junction City. For a time, it appeared neither would join their father on the farm.

Bue attended Benson Technical High School in Portland before moving to Alaska, where he spent 40 years as tinsmith.

Ejner graduated from Junction City High but World War I interrupted his engineering studies at the University of Oregon. He left school to enlist in the Army, but was discharged because of poor eyesight. In the wartime economy, returning to college was an unaffordable luxury. He eventually returned to the farm.

When he married Olga Sem in 1918, Johan bought another 40 acres and gave it to the couple as a wedding present, bringing the Hentze farm to 80 acres.

The gift was no silver spoon.

"Probably only eight or nine acres were cleared and farmable," recalled their son, Merle, who would spend years clearing blackberries and cottonwoods, leveling and filling the land.

Born in 1920, he was the oldest of Ejner and Olga's three children, followed by Marilyn Hentze Holm and John Hentze.

All remember their father as a positive man.

`He'd be out milking and the cow would kick the bucket over and he'd say, `Things could always be worse,' ' said John, who later farmed his own land along Dane Lane.

Ejner planted a walnut orchard, raised loganberries, grain and hay, and was among the first local farmers to plant pole beans in 1936.

Before the construction of dams, the rain-swollen Willamette frequently lapped at the ridges where the farmhouses and barn stood. "We were an island," Merle recalled. "We'd be completely cut off from town."

As many as six Hentzes shared a one-bedroom farmhouse. They survived the Depression on the the food they raised and preserved. They don't remember feeling poor.

"Our parents bent over backwards to have food on the table, clothes on our backs, and to send us to school," Marilyn said.

The cannery crop heyday

Like his father, Merle Hentze didn't set out to farm. After graduating from Junction City High in 1938, the now diehard Oregon State sports fan enrolled to study architecture at the University of Oregon.

He soon realized an office was not where he belonged.

"I like being outdoors, where you can watch things grow," he explained.

He transferred to OSU, earning an agriculture degree the same year the Beavers beat North Carolina in the Rose Bowl.

He met Alice Glenn on a blind date in the early 1940s. She also attended Oregon State, though her family didn't see a college degree as important for a young woman. They pressured her to leave school to marry and raise a family, which she did in 1943.

Though she wishes she'd completed her home economics degree, she has never regretted the life she and Merle made together.

"I've always felt blessed to be able to live out on a farm," she said. "I love the change of seasons, the knowing when to plant different things, and especially the summers when we hauled all those kids out here to pick strawberries and beans. Those years were the best years, the happiest years, on this farm."

The Hentzes first transported pickers on the back of an old flatbed truck. In the 1960s, they invested in an old school bus.

During the cannery crop heyday, as many as 250 Junction City kids a year - some 2,500 total - worked in the Hentzes' fields.

The farm was a great social equalizer, recalls Deborah Moye Hays, now a nurse in Missoula, Mont.

"Everybody worked, regardless of their socioeconomic background," said Hays, who picked a field record 742 pounds of beans one day.

For Ray Michaels, raised by a disabled, single mother, the summer work provided school clothes.

"But we also had lots of fun out there, eating our lunch together in the shade, even riding the bus," recalled Michaels, now a veneer dryer tender at Trus-Joist. "And Merle and Alice were both so nice, so kind, so easygoing around our juvenile stupidity. They loved their farm and that was their living, but I think they got kind of attached to us, too. They played a big role in my life, at an age when you can go either way."

The couple never exuded bosslike superiority, recalled Michael Strauss, now a Los Angeles orthopedic surgeon. Even elementary school kids called them by their first names.

"I can't remember any unkind words from them, even when you didn't pick clean," Strauss recalled. "And Alice - with her smiling face, you almost felt like she was working for you."

At the end of each harvest season, the couple would prepare a barbecue for their workers - roasted hot dogs and corn on the cob, watermelon and homemade potato salad.

The Hentzes continued to employ local kids even when summer youth activities began creating conflicts. One of the worst arose with the Scandinavian Festival - created, ironically, to celebrate the city's Nordic farm roots.

"The festival always came just at our second picking of beans," Alice recalled. "The Monday afterward, we were so far behind, the beans would be hanging like bananas. We had to pay our pickers to get them off the vines, but they they were all culls. We didn't make a penny."

The labor-intensive pole bean era was closing, anyway. The late 1960s ushered in machine-harvested bush beans. Though Hentzes had tested the new variety for the cannery, they were bypassed in the assigning of contracts because their 80-acre farm was considered too small.

The farm continued to grow cannery cherries and berries, but Merle had to go to work at the Junction City cannery to make ends meet. He rose from a maintenance position to plant supervisor in 1970.

Alice also took supplemental jobs.

"Farming is not an easy life," Alice acknowledged. "But it's a wonderful place to raise a family."

The fourth generation

Dick, Karen, Gordon and Greg Hentze agree with that assessment.

Karen McEldowney Hay, 54, now a Springfield dental hygienist, has fond memories even of the farm's stinging nettles - she loved soothing them with cold mud from beneath the pump.

For Greg, 46, the most vivid memories are of the hordes of town kids who worked on the farm - even if he bore the brunt of being younger and smaller.

"I can remember older kids strapping me to a tree branch by my suspenders and letting me fly!" he said.

But it's Gordon who "got the farmer blood," his siblings agree.

Once again, he didn't realize it right away.

He studied zoology at Oregon State University, worked for the National Fisheries Service, then served with the Peace Corps in Zaire before joining his dad on the farm in the early '80s.

"I think I realized it when I was out on the ocean for two months at a time," he reflected. "All I could see was blue, and I realized I preferred green."

The urge was reinforced in Zaire, where he worked with small farmers.

But it hasn't been an easy choice.

Gordon tried bringing local kids back out to pick cannery crops, for instance. But so many were involved in summer activities, he had to hire three times as many as he needed to ensure enough pickers at any given time. Meanwhile, tax law changes required complicated paperwork for even occasional employees.

The biggest blow came in the late 1990s.

AgriPac, the co-op cannery to which the Hentzes long belonged, went bankrupt in early 1999, leaving local farmers no place to process their crops.

New York-based Pro-Fac Cooperative, Inc. stepped in, creating a subsidiary, Agri-Frozen, to contract with local growers. After promising fair market prices, however, Agri-Frozen gave farmers only partial payment in 1999 and 2000 before declaring bankruptcy in 2001.

The Hentzes have joined more than 150 Willamette Valley farmers in a $50 million class action lawsuit against Pro-Fac, alleging fraud, breach of contract, looting of former AgriPac assets, and the transfer of grocery store packing agreements from Agri-Frozen to the parent company. A Multnomah County judge certified the class action lawsuit last month, setting a January trial date.

Any compensation will come too late for the Hentzes, however: They reluctantly decided last year that the only way to keep their farm was to sell 30 of its 80 acres.

Among the worst duties was tearing out Ejner's walnut orchard at a buyer's request.

"That was like a death in the family," Alice said.

They also sold much of their newer farm equipment, such as a reel sprinkler system. Now Gordon's daily duties include moving 30-foot lengths of 5-inch aluminum pipe by hand, a job performed by strong-backed high school boys during the cannery crop zennith.

But his grandfather's positive outlook was evident even as he shouldered another muddy pipe.

"One of my favorite memories is of David Smith running through a field with four of these," he said, a smile breaking out beneath his thick mustache.

His days are long. Before this one is over, he will also repair a leaking sprinkler line and repeatedly haul fresh beans and corn from his fields to the Hentze Farms Store. With Merle, still working at 82, he'll process beans and corn for local retail customers though machinery salvaged from bankrupt local canneries - a bean snipper, a corn husker, a bean cutter. Then he'll clean that equipment, haul in more crops and do it all again. He'll bag bulk orders and deliver wholesale produce to other local farm stands.

His siblings believe he'll see the farm through these tough years.

"He's a tenacious, resilient person," said Greg, a cabinetmaker and musician. "I think he's probably a lot like our great-grandfather who settled the place. He endured a lot of setbacks, but had the sheer determination to build this farm. I see that in my brother."

Gordon also has a full-time maintenance position with the Harrisburg School District. He likes having the same vacation schedule as his daughter, Kalina, since his wife, Jan, works year-round for the Eugene Public Library.

But he acknowledges that his hours are brutal when the farm and school seasons overlap.

Why keep farming?

"I love doing it," he shrugged. "I love getting my hands dirty. There are certain smells - like first thing in the morning when you get up to that clean air. The fresh-tilled dirt in the spring. The only thing I don't like is the finances."

The future

Ten-year-old Kalina meets her dad's battered, 1979 GMC truck as he pulls up behind the farm store with boxes of just-picked beans.

"Daddy, how many strawberries do we need, how many raspberries do we need, and call Teresa," she asks/informs him, after a shift tending the store's retail counter.

By all accounts, she's most likely to succeed her dad. Her Hentze brown eyes sparkle as she talks about that possibility.

"I'm the fifth generation," she said. "Sometimes I help my dad move pipe. And when I'm 12, I get to learn to drive the tractor!"

Gordon has mixed feelings about her interest.

"I would love it if she would decide to work on the farm," he said.

"But I would just hope that she could make a living, not just toil at it."

Still, last year, he planted a new walnut orchard.

"Most people think I'm crazy," he said. "It takes at least 10 years for walnuts to come into full production. But I love a walnut orchard - they're big and shady and such a part of our history."

Features reporter Karen McCowan can be reached by phone at 338-2422 and by e-mail at


Kalina Hentze watches her father take a phone order. CHRIS PIETSCH / The Register-Guard Merle Hentze (left) and his son, Gordon, chat while stocking the shelves of their family produce business.
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Title Annotation:Since 1902, five generations of the Hentze family have farmed land east of Junction City; General News
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 25, 2002
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