THE DALLES - Longtime Oregon wheat farmer Jack Hay is pulling off his biggest crop ever these days. And it doesn't involve a single bushel of wheat.

Hay is harvesting retirement - retirement so sweet that he and his wife, Sally, are able to stay on their land and continue to dabble in farming.

And unlike his working days, Hay's income won't be tied to a bushel of wheat.

The 59-year-old has raised the value of his land many times over the past two years: What was once a dryland wheat farm worth about $1,000 an acre today has been upgraded with roads, water, electricity and fencing and is able to sustain high-value agriculture production.

And what was once a fleeting hope of retirement is now steeped in reality.

Hay's story starts in 1997 in Obregon, Mexico. While visiting a wheat farm there with the Oregon Wheat Commission, Hay realized he was producing wheat at a competitive disadvantage. Given their heat units in Mexico, growers there could produce two wheat crops a year at a reduced cost.

"I came home thinking I had to change my technology and could no longer farm like my grandfather farmed," he said.

Hay, a former Oregon wheat commissioner, former president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League and former board member of U.S. Wheat Associates, went to direct-seeding and added acreage, but still, he said, he wasn't getting ahead.

"The money was just changing hands from my right hand to my left hand," he said. "I couldn't figure out a way, if I had 4,000 or 6,000 acres, how I was going to do any better. Plus my goal was to retire in five years."

What happened next could be called serendipity - but, Hay pointed out, were he not ready for change, he may not have seized the opportunity when a real estate agent called with news a vintner was looking to buy a 40-acre parcel for growing wine grapes in The Dalles.

"You had to be thinking 'change,' " he said. "You had to be thinking out of the box."

Shortly thereafter, Hay struck water at 220 feet - 20 feet deeper than his grandfather dug 75 years ago looking for stock water - and the vineyard experiment was off and running.

The vintner, Scott Elder, has since formed a limited partnership with Hay, called Company Hollow Fruit. He planted his first 20 acres of grapes last year.

With Elder's help, Hay has installed an irrigation system that pumps water from the bottom of Hay's farm - an elevation of 850 feet - to the top - 1,100 feet. He is building several roads and a 4 million-gallon reservoir. He and Elder ran a power line from the existing line on Emerson Loop Road to the crest of his farm. Hay erected a deer fence and is preparing sites for storage and shop facilities.

"I decided I needed to earn more," he said. "The only way to do that was to increase the value of my land. The only way to do that was increase the value of my crops and make it attractive enough that people would come in and recognize the value."

Hay maneuvered around the area's minimum lot-size restriction of 160 acres by selling a 160-acre parcel to Elder, leasing back 90 acres and re-leasing that to a cherry orchardist.

"Oregon's zoning laws do not accommodate agricultural transition to higher-value land," Hay said. "When low-value agricultural land is not sustainable, people have to be able to transfer to high-value agriculture."

Hay also has leased acreage to a grower looking to produce organic blueberries. Eventually he hopes to lease all his acreage to high-value agriculture production.

Fortunately, Hay said, his neighbors support the change in land use. Many already farm next to cherry orchards, he said.

Hay, who has an adult son living in Portland, said his situation is in part defined by the fact his son does not plan to continue farming. Perhaps that makes the realization of his dream - to retire on his farm - even sweeter.

Hay pointed out that in a way he still is farming.

"I'm still responsible for the wells, the water, the plumbing. I'm still farming. I'm just farming a different way - and they're my crop."

The result of Hay's efforts may one day extend far beyond the borders of his 1,000-acre farm. It may be the catalyst that triggers a new Northwest wine appellation. To date, he said, the area sustains a minimal amount of wine grape acreage, but his is the first production occurring on the area's top-quality soils.

"I would love that," he said. "I'm hoping this will be the new Walla Walla. This has all the same growth characteristics, heat units and soil, without the frost risk."

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Mitch Lies is based in Salem. His e-mail address is mlies@capitalpress.com.

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