Jim Kelly spent 30 years in Portland building his business, Rejuvenation — a company that sold salvaged house parts and manufactured reproductions. In 1999 Jim and his wife, Sue , bought the Johnny Creek Ranch in Grant County and started raising hay and cattle.
As a transplanted Portlander turned rancher, Jim has a unique perspective on the urban-rural divide. He also has some interesting stories about what happens when a city guy goes into the beef business.
He agreed to share his insights with The Other Oregon.
Tell us about your early life and career in urban Oregon.
I grew up in Northeast Portland, the baby in an Irish Catholic family of eight. My Dad started his career as a tin man (selling aluminum siding door to door) and eventually built a successful remodeling business that still operates today. Starting young I mowed lawns, delivered newspapers, and then worked cleaning up construction sites for my Dad’s company. I had an appreciation for old stuff of all sorts, and I was always tempted to save some of the beautiful old sinks, doors and fixtures we were throwing in the dumpster.
When I dropped out of college, I went back to work for my Dad, learning carpentry. I bought a small old derelict building in Portland’s roughest neighborhood to work on in my spare time. Paid $1,000 for it. Luckily, it was in such bad shape the last tenant, a motorcycle gang, had moved out already.
A few years later, with the renovation complete, I got the idea of a business dealing in used architectural salvage and Rejuvenation House Parts was born in 1977. Eventually we shortened the name to just Rejuvenation. We bought and sold old doors, windows, light fixtures, flooring and any other artifacts that could be salvaged and reused. It was a tiny company and we had no capital (and no loans to repay). Gross sales (not profit!) for the first year were $35,000. For a while I still worked for my Dad part time to make ends meet.
But it started taking off. It was an example of being in the right place at the right time as the movement to restore old houses was just getting started. When we could not get enough antique light fixtures to meet the demand, we started making new re-creations in the basement. Eventually we outgrew the first store, then the second, as well as the first little factory, and then the second larger one. We sold locally as well as printing catalogs and marketing nationally. And then eventually we started selling on the Internet and opening stores in a couple other cities.
The Great Recession hit us hard and we fought to survive. Luckily for us, a public company — Williams-Sonoma — had always been interested in Rejuvenation and was knocking on the door. I sold the company and they have continued to operate and build the company with more products and more stores. The factory in Portland continues to operate.
Tell us about the ranch.
What we purchased back in 1999 was a 1,700-acre parcel with a similar amount of BLM lease ground. It is on the main stem of the John Day River and adjoins the Fossil Beds National Monument. Quite beautiful — our view from the front porch is Cathedral Rock.
But like so much ranch land, it had been overgrazed and was generally in bad shape. No functioning irrigation for the fields, sad and sagging fences, lots of weeds, and overrun with juniper. It did have a decent little house that had also been the site of two murders 10 years earlier. We had work to do. And for the first few years we were managing our businesses in Portland and spending half our time there.
We focused first on the irrigation so that we could produce hay. We went to farm auctions and bought used haying equipment. We built a shop and then a hay barn. We got a few cows. We fixed and fixed. After four years we found a builder and built a new home. Other than the structures we did pretty much everything ourselves.
So, it's a working ranch?
Understanding the interest of urban dwellers in grass-fed beef, we started finishing calves each year and marketing quarters. And as adjoining property became available, we enlarged the ranch several times. Today we own nearly 10,000 acres of private and have another 7,000 acres of BLM lease ground. We do have one employee now – a real cowboy and ranch hand who spends most of his time repairing fences that the elk run through.
We have made serious progress eliminating juniper, having removed it from about 2,000 acres. Two lightning-caused fires and one prescribed burn assisted our eradication efforts. We still have a long way to go. After one fire we aerial seeded about 1,000 acres of rangeland. It was a big success.
In recent years we have focused on building an infrastructure that supports Management Intensive Grazing. The idea is simple – imitate nature by keeping a large number of cows in a small space for a short time – and then have them gone for a long time. I am convinced that it creates better rangeland health.
But to do it you need lots of separate pastures with good fences (we have 22) and you have to have water available in every pasture. We have 45 developed springs on the property and we have rebuilt the vast majority. You also need to be willing to keep pushing the cows from pasture to pasture throughout the season.
Are you still in the cattle business?
While we enjoyed doing it, we no longer sell grass-fed beef direct. I got weary of the work educating the customers and all the hand holding required. Nowadays I am pleased to see a lot of young ranchers serve that market.
What we haven’t ever done on the Big Basin Ranch is make money. That’s been a conscious choice, sort of. We have had the luxury of having the funds available (from my company) to make these improvements and not worry about whether we would break even year to year. Leaving the land in a little better shape is all we have hoped to do.
Don’t get me wrong — our experiences have given us huge respect for my neighbors who manage to find a way to break even or make a few bucks ranching — all the time knowing that one big mistake and they would have to kiss it all goodbye. No two ways about it — it’s a tough way to make a living.
Did you have any idea what you were getting into?
Growing up in the city, of course we had no idea what we were getting into. My Dad grew up on a farm in Minnesota that my Grandfather lost in the Great Depression. I grew up hearing stories from both of them about that life — riding a horse to school, their Scandinavian neighbors, the milk cow, and plenty of dry farmer humor. I had some rather romantic notions.
The reality is that doing something we had no background or preparation for was, in fact, intentional. I had started my business when I was 24. By 1989 I had been the “boss” for 25 years already. I was the know-it-all in that world, the guy who got to define right and wrong in that little universe. I was actually hungry for a new learning experience.
While I wasn’t exactly looking for humility, I found it. And I found patient rancher friends and neighbors who guided and helped us. I started to refer to my friend Pete as my “ranch consultant.” For years he endured nearly daily calls with “How do I do this?” and “How do I do that?” Pete and other neighbors were gentle, patient, and helpful. It helps not to arrive with a know-it-all attitude.
But I think other locals thought we would disappear the first time we saw a rattlesnake, and seem genuinely surprised as the years pass that we are still around.
You cannot see our place or our fields from the highway. This we quickly learned is a good thing for know-nothing newcomers.
If we did something stupid, like get the tractor stuck in the ditch, mess up our seeding, or get the chainsaw stuck in a tree, there were no witnesses, and we did not become the talk of the community. And we started with just eight pregnant cows. I had learned by that time that real old-time ranchers would not ask how many cows you had, since that would be impolite – like asking how much money you have. Concerned that we might be anti-cow enviros, locals would often ask us — as a sort of litmus test — “You got any cows up there?” I would answer “Yup.”
What has ranching taught you?
You may laugh, but the first thing that comes to mind is the importance of weather. If you live in Portland and work inside you can pretty much ignore the weather. If people are talking about the weather it is likely because they don’t know each other, are uncomfortable and have nothing else to talk about.
Out here we talk about the weather — incessantly — because it matters. Matters what you will do today and tomorrow, whether your hay will get ruined, or whether you will be able to get out of the driveway.
It matters whether you will make money or lose money.
I have learned how difficult it is to make a difference with the land. We started thinking that we would see a lot of improvement with the grasses on the range just by giving it a little rest. It has been quite an education to learn how challenging it is to make even incremental improvements on the range. At this point I am satisfied realizing we will leave the place just a bit better than we found it.
I have gained deeper respect for “local knowledge.” I do respect science and scientists, and they are generally competent and well intentioned. However, I have been to meetings with scientific experts and realized that sometimes those scientists were dead wrong, and the hard-bitten rancher with his high school education sitting next to me had it dead right. There are different ways to understand nature, and no one has it right all the time.
Living on a ranch has given us much joy as we follow the rhythms of seasons and nature. So many little things, the personalities of the different cows, the lizard that always hangs out in just that one crack by the door, the jackrabbit that has no fear, the smell of our horses, the birds that return each year. The goofy turkeys. The extraordinary sound of bull elk fighting and bugling in the night. The amazing flock of barn swallows. And just having the time to notice — and to notice the little changes year to year.
Finally, the foxtails taught us long ago to wear leather boots, and to avoid synthetic fabrics.
What are the biggest misconceptions rural and urban people have about each other?
First, I need to share my perception of the No. 1 cause of the urban rural divide. I am deeply concerned about the utter lack of any shared media, and the resulting radically different world views so common today.
When I grew up, most everybody watched the same news and programs on television. Attitudes and viewpoints in small town and big city newspapers did not differ that much. We tended to read the same magazines like Newsweek and Time. Now we all hand pick what we watch or read. And as a result, we can no longer even agree about basic facts. And we have lost the mutual respect that we need.
As someone who has lived for decades on both sides, I am saddened as I witness people not honoring the beliefs of the “other” as legitimately held. When there is no respect that beliefs are genuine and sincerely held, the consequences scare me.
For example, some of my rural neighbors sincerely think that urban people involved with environmental nonprofits are doing what they do solely for the “money.” That’s a view most urban dwellers would find laughable. Some city people believe that rural people don’t really care about the land they own or the forests nearby — a view that most of us know is also wrong. Both are examples of disrespect for the values and decency of those on the other side.
The related big challenge is the “us against them” attitudes that you see on both sides. And because sheer population favors the urban areas and makes them politically dominant, it is not surprising that negative attitudes toward urban areas are more pronounced amongst rural folks. If you feel (and often are) ignored, people get understandably angry. Urban dwellers are typically ignorant about rural life and issues, but real animosity towards rural people is uncommon.
While the misconceptions and feelings held by rural people about city people tend to be intense and sometimes angry, ignorance and, frankly, lack of attention and focus dominates the attitudes of urbanites when it comes to people who live in rural areas and their problems.
Let’s take the hot button issue of guns as an example. If you live in the city the choice of whether to own a gun is usually just about whether you want the protection, whether you think that will make you more or less safe, and whether you will invest the time to learn how to use it safely. It is easy to live without any guns in the house and perhaps end up believing in limiting gun ownership.
Those city dwellers have no idea how guns are a central part of life in the country. Not just for hunting, but scaring the blackbirds out of the garden, hazing the elk out of the alfalfa fields, or blasting a packrat. I don’t think most city dwellers think or “get it” about guns as a useful and necessary tool.
Some rural folks seem to think that Portland is terribly dangerous and dysfunctional. News focuses on crime and crazy stuff and can give people a truly warped perception of reality. Portland does have a few rough neighborhoods and real problems with the homeless and mentally ill. But most Portland neighborhoods are pleasant and safe. Most Portlanders are hard-working, good people, and reasonably happy.
I also think some rural folks feel that we would be better off without those urban areas. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rural people see themselves as self-reliant and independent, which they are. But without markets for agricultural products, fish, meat, and timber, rural areas in Oregon would suffer devastating loss. If you think times are tough in rural areas of Oregon now, I believe they would be much worse without the healthy economic engine provided by cities and their inhabitants.
In my view, both sides tend to focus too much on the stereotypes and not recognize what a wide range of people live in rural areas or urban areas, with wide-ranging backgrounds, politics, education and attitudes. Neither side is accurately represented by angry protestors or rowdy rednecks. We have been pleasantly surprised by the diversity of interesting and thoughtful people who live in Grant County. And visit most neighborhoods in Portland and you realize it is not all about wild lefties and elites.
Another shared misconception is that “We are right, they are wrong.” I sometimes hear folks say “Well if they just came and lived here for a while, see what we deal with, they would stop being such idiots and finally figure out right from wrong.” While I strongly believe in the value of experiencing life on both sides of this divide, the expectation that people attitudes’ will be wholly and quickly changed is hogwash. Living for decades on both sides of the divide has clearly taught us that neither side has dialed in truth and rectitude!
Another misconception equally shared by both sides is the view that urban and rural values are completely different. Thanks to the media and our politics, we spend way too much time focusing on the wedge issues that divide us, and at the same time we tend to all forget the foundation of values we share.
Both sides cherish our families and our children, want good schools, opportunities for our children, healthy places to live, good food, healthy forests, sports, good neighbors, good friends. We all want to see government function well and for the United States to have a bright future. With our different media and world views we often differ on the how. That should not stop us from recognizing how much we share.
What are the challenges of life in rural Oregon?
Distance is the biggest challenge.
As the decades have passed and my hair has thinned dealing with health care has become a headache. Got a cracked tooth? That will be at least three full days and three trips to the dentist and hundreds of miles driven. What about having something wrong with you that requires regular visits to a provider, like twice a week visits to a physical therapist? That will be a whole day of the week wasted each time, plus all those miles driven again. And just don’t even think about having anything seriously wrong with you!
With that in mind we have had to face the fact that we will need to let go of the ranch before long. We just hope we find some folks who will love it as much as we have.
You may laugh at the comparison, but living on a ranch is a lot like living on a small yacht. You better be able to fix most anything yourself. Waiting a week for the repairman to show up, inform you that he will be back next week with the correct part, and then give you a bill for a hundred bucks plus another two hundred for travel time is better than sinking, but not one of the joys of ranch life. So you have to be super self-reliant. Luckily, nowadays obscure YouTube videos rescue us nearly every week. And it is great to have a neighbor who is a good and willing mechanic.
Experiencing what it is like to be in the minority in the community when it comes to your political outlook has been a real lesson. I think our political beliefs are pretty moderate, but we both lean toward the progressive side. I learned that it does not feel good to be in the minority, and realize your voice and vote don’t really count. Early on that made me reflect on how conservative voters in Portland must feel. Again, with voices and votes that most of the time don’t really count.
And we witness too much intolerance on both sides. That experience led me a few years ago to be the Chief Petitioner for the Open Primary Campaign. It would have improved democracy in the state and given voice and the vote to registered independents like myself. Sadly, all those fearful of any change, including both political parties, united to keep the status quo and defeat the initiative.
Finally, for people like ourselves, we have had to adjust to the lack of many things that we took for granted when we lived in the city: being close to family and grandkids, eating at interesting restaurants, going to a movie theater or a dramatic production, visiting museums, book clubs, and involvement in some sports and other cultural events.
Obviously, missing those things and living the ranch life we live is the trade-off we have chosen, and our regular visits to Portland and Bend do scratch that itch, and keep us balanced. Right now, the attraction of a visit to the city for us has pretty much disappeared. With COVID, most everybody in Portland is getting a taste of what an isolated life in the country is all about!
What opportunities do you see in rural Oregon?
There are a lot of differences between different regions of rural Oregon and I would think opportunities vary widely. I will limit my comments to what I know best, Grant County and similar isolated and sparsely populated areas in Eastern Oregon.
Given my experience on the Board of Forestry, I am cautiously optimistic about the future of the timber industry in Eastern Oregon.
With climate change we are likely to go in one of two directions. The one we all fear is a future dominated by large intense forest fires and disease. The other option is a collaborative future where we see more thinning and climate-smart forestry happening on both Federal as well as private lands.
The conversation is changing as more people realize that not properly managing our forests and the resulting large fires and widespread smoke have become a health and economic threat to the state as a whole. I would hope that there will be more public investment in our forests, and if that happens rural communities should benefit greatly.
Meanwhile, we need to keep what mills we have still operating in business.
In Grant County some of the community seems ambivalent, and in a few cases outright hostile, to tourism. While hunters are welcome, it feels to me that other city-type tourists with their interests in hiking, biking, birding, camping, food, geology, cultural exploration, and other unique experiences are merely tolerated. While I understand not wanting to be overrun by outsiders or dependent on their dollars, the opportunity continues to grow. Recently the county bungled the opportunity of having a new state park, to my chagrin.
Real economic opportunities are few in these areas, and as the population of the state keeps going up, we have witnessed tourism traffic soar and soar. (Our ranch adjoins the Fossil Beds National Monument.) Yet places to stay and eat are few, and other attractions pretty much non-existent. Opportunity is knocking on the door.
With increasingly widespread high-speed internet access, I see another opportunity for isolated counties like Grant that have been experiencing slow de-population for many years now.
As COVID-19 has demonstrated, there is growing interest in locating in rural areas by people who can work remotely, or run a small internet-based enterprise. This trend could have multiple benefits. New residents will help stabilize or increase real estate values and taxes collected, stabilize small schools that need more students, provide needed new customers for local businesses, diversify rural economies, and reinvigorate small downtowns.
Finally, as a guy who built a manufacturing business, I would want to be clear that without transportation infrastructure (no freeways, no railroad, little air service), and without a business support infrastructure, or a large enough population to provide a good pool of applicants for the range of jobs a larger employer will require, most businesses that might create more than a handful of jobs are simply not going to locate in an isolated town like John Day unless they are tied to local resources, like timber.
Build an industrial park and they simply will not come. Those kinds of efforts I see, sadly, as a waste.