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This land is his land.

Byline: Nat Levy The Register-Guard

COTTAGE GROVE - Bill Hoyt loads his red 1983 Toyota pickup truck with several bales of hay and takes off down the road. Slightly more than a mile north of his farmhouse, five horses and dozens of cattle wait patiently for their breakfast. When the old pickup rolls to a stop in the middle of the field, the animals form a circle around it.

Hoyt goes to cut the bales loose, but has forgotten his knife. He takes some car keys and loosens the hay. Half of it drops off the flatbed right there. The cattle and horses battle for their share while Hoyt puts the truck in a low gear. Then, standing on the flatbed, he begins sprinkling hay throughout the field, while the unmanned rig creeps along.

Hoyt is hardly the first from his bloodline to tend to this farm: The Hawley Land & Cattle Co. has been in his family for five generations and more than 150 years. The farm is one of five that will be honored Saturday at a sesquicentennial award ceremony in Salem sponsored by the Oregon Century Farm and Ranch program.

Hoyt, 55, is proud to receive the award on the state's 150th birthday, but feels the recognition should be spread around.

"It's not mine to get," Hoyt said. "I've only been around for 35 of the years. There's almost 120 (years) that went before me and those people really deserve most of the credit."

Not his first choice

Hoyt, who grew up in Montana and earned a degree in history and political science from the University of Montana in 1973, hadn't planned to become part of the farm's legacy.

But when his mother, Elizabeth Stockwell Hoyt, died in 1975, Hoyt said his only choices were to keep the farm in the family or sell it. He chose the former, and now owns the farm with his dad, William Hoyt II, who lives in California.

So why continue to operate the farm when there are other, more lucrative opportunities available to him? Hoyt says it boils down to family pride.

"I'm doing it because I don't want to be the last one," Hoyt said. "I can't bear to be the one who sells it."

Historic parallels

The history of the farm dates to 1816, the year Ira Hawley was born in New York.

Hawley moved west from his home state of Illinois in 1849 to take advantage of the Gold Rush and avoid a sagging economy.

In that respect, not much has changed in 150 years. Hoyt is also wrestling with an economic downturn, seeing the value of the farm's commodities - primarily cattle, sheep and goats - remain stagnant as other work costs keep rising.

Hoyt, who is also president-elect of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, employs several strategies that have worked for the previous operators for the last 150 years. The main plan for dealing with the economy, he says, is to "stay current" - always having some product that's not too far from market. That means, for example, having livestock that doesn't take several years to raise. Hoyt can sell lambs the year after their birth. With cattle, it takes more time.

Adjusting to change

His second strategy is to stay out of debt.

Finally, Hoyt wants the farm to be flexible in what it produces, and how much, in order to match the chaos of prices.

"No two years are the same," he said. "We don't know what prices will be this fall, let alone two years from now."

Glenn Mason, coordinator for the state's Century Farm and Ranch program, said the ability to adjust to changing conditions is the only way a farm can remain prosperous for 150 years. Farms have to adapt to new technologies, Mason said, but not depend on them.

Ira Hawley had to adapt in the early 1850s when figuring out where to settle. He decided to forgo the difficulties of securing acreage in California and instead headed north to Oregon.

A family legacy

After completing his first pilgrimage to the West Coast, Hawley returned in the fall of 1852 with his wife Elvira and their three sons.

The family traveled down the Willamette Valley, which Hawley described as the Promised Land, and settled at the farm's current location, approximately six miles south of Cottage Grove.

Hawley picked the area because, as he wrote at the time, "all the good places were taken."

Following Hawley's retirement in 1890, Ira's youngest son, James, and his wife, Alice, ran the farm. James died in 1930 and left the farm to Alsea Hawley, Hoyt's great-aunt. She oversaw the farm when the Oregon Agricultural Education Foundation issued the Century Farm designation in 1958.

Alsea died in 1973, and the farm went to Hoyt's mother.

The farm has watched and survived extensive changes in the region, the most notable being the construction of Interstate 5 through the property.

Last in the line?

Hoyt operates the farm with his wife, Sharon. To get the best view of their property, Hoyt drives up to the family plot.

The cemetery, which is a family corporation shared with another family, sits atop a hill just north of the farm's entrance.

There, Hoyt can gaze upon the vast land holding, and reflect on the contributions of the previous four generations to own the farm.

Whether or not a sixth generation will take over the farm is an open question. Hoyt and his wife have no children, and no other young relatives have yet stepped forward. But when someone does, Hoyt wants it to be in good condition.

"My only hope is to leave it better than I found it."


What: Five families will receive sesquicentennial awards from the Oregon Century Farm and Ranch program

When/where: 1 p.m. Saturday, Hearing Room F, Capitol Building, Salem

Where: The Capitol Building, Salem
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Title Annotation:City/Region
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 13, 2009
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