When Alan Jesse returned to the family farm where he was raised in Cornelius after studying at Oregon State, he helped his parents, Don and Jean Jesse, make the leap from a way of life to legitimate family business. Since its
incorporation in 1978, Forest Hills Farms has continued to grow from a 600-acre farm to the 2,000-acre, multi-faceted operation that it is today.
With Alan on board, the farm diversified and grew in the 1980s. Blueberries that could be machine harvested replaced strawberries. Christmas trees and nursery stock were added to stay current and profitable.
Alan’s wife, Mary, joined the business in 1991 as bookkeeper and payroll specialist. She also helped to ensure the farm’s compliance with new regulations and standards for food production and with labor laws.
It was a crucial juncture for Forest Hills that presented both a challenge and an opportunity.
“All these things blended in to make things more complex for the grower,” Alan recalls. “We had to adapt to that and make the decision that we were going to invest for the longer term.”
Then Don died suddenly in 1996, and the transition from first to second generation took place rapidly and with little planning. While Alan was prepared to run the agricultural side of the farm, he didn’t know as much about the business side.
“He rolled with it without missing a beat,” Mary says. “But it had to be a little scary.”
As parents, it caused Mary and Alan to stop and think about the future. “I wanted to make sure that it didn’t happen to our children,” Mary says.
So from a young age, they raised their girls, Anna and Katharine, with an openness to the family business.
“For better or worse, our business is talked about in our home,” says Mary, who is now the CFO.
Alan’s first job on the farm was picking berries. By the time he was 12, he was moving irrigation pipe and driving tractor. Mary also grew up on a farm and learned the same work ethic. Like their parents, Anna and Katharine worked in the field when they were younger. As adults, the expectations haven’t changed.
“We were taught that every job is important and essential to the business success,” Anna says. “We were expected to work and earn our way to more responsibility.”
Anna and Katharine were also encouraged to make their own choices and follow their passion. The girls were to get a college degree and gain experience working outside the family farm.
“Just because this is what we do does not mean this is what you have to do,” Mary says.
That way, if they decided to be involved in the family business, Anna and Katharine could provide new knowledge and contacts that could further the business. For Anna, it already has led her back to the family farm.
After earning a degree in agricultural business management at Oregon State, Anna went to work in the wine industry. Her jobs covered all aspect of wine making from growing grapes, to making wine, marketing and distribution. she developed a passion for growing grapes and saw an opportunity to bring her knowledge and experience to the family business.
“One of our major pieces of renewal is staying flexible in what we’re doing,” Anna says.
Like the blueberries that Alan planted 30 years ago, grapes are another long-term investment that is making the land more profitable and valuable.
“The only way farmers can develop our land is by planting these long-term crops,” Alan says. “I consider that when you plant a grape, it’s forever, at least a couple generations.”
It’s an example of how the third generation is finding meaningful roles in the family business.
“I see my future here - working, growing, doing things here,” Anna says.
Mary says it’s important to involve the next generation in business decisions.
“There’s a lot of information in here,” she says pointing to Alan’s head. “We need get that information to the girls now so they are well prepared to take over when Alan and I are no longer involved”.
Forest Hills is proactive in succession planning and getting the tools in place for a smooth transition to eventual ownership by the next generation. For Alan and Mary, it’s reassuring to be prepared.
“We wanted them to feel like if something were to happen to Alan or myself or both of us that the business would not be a stressor,” Mary says.
As a recent graduate of Oregon State University, Katharine does not currently have an official role in the family business. She studied accounting, finance and agriculture business management. She plans to work outside the family business to develop her passions and knowledge. Her career path is yet to be determined.
“The farm is so important to me,” she says. “But I don’t know what my involvement will be.”
Regardless of her future role, Katharine says the planning by her parents is invaluable.
“It’s the right thing to do to be prepared,” she says. “It will be extremely beneficial for us in the future.