Keep Farming Fresh

A willingness to adapt and a fondness for a certain crop make for sweet times on this generational farm.

By Jamie Cole

When you talk to Scott and Lindsey Setniker and their family, the passion for agriculture—and the knowledge of it—runs deep and wide.

Deep, because the roots of their families are strong here in western Oregon, and they’ve been at it for so long. “Lindsey’s family has been farming here since the Oregon Trial days,” laughs Scott, but he’s not kidding. “I’d be the seventh generation to farm here in Oregon,” says Lindsey, and she and Scott have a two-decade partnership that is bringing along yet another generation in agriculture.

Wide, because Scott (a third-generation farmer himself), his father, David, and David’s father have grown just about everything on the land around Independence, Oregon. “My father had a dairy,” says David, “and he sold the dairy in the late ’60s, and we grew wheat and clover for a long time. And we got pretty heavy into row crops back in the day, then those markets sort of went away here.”

Scott and David list the crops and ventures that the family traversed since the 1970s: “We had cherries, prunes, pears,” says David. “Raspberries, strawberries, Christmas trees,” says Scott. “Pole beans, we were big in the fruits and vegetables,” says David. “I was always looking for new crops to grow.”

“I think it’s really important for a successful farm to be able to adapt and make different business decisions, based on where the markets are going,” says Lindsey. Scott says they still grow some feed corn, and the vegetables have given way to specialty vegetable seed crops like spinach and radish, and on an income basis, grass seed is their primary cash crop, mostly turf grass varieties with a few forage varieties mixed in.

But ask anyone what the Setnikers are known for these days, and the answer exemplifies the adaption Lindsey talked about, and is a testament to David’s desire for fresh ideas—quite fresh, it turns out.

“They’re mint growers,” says Spencer Whitlow, the tractor product manager with Holt Ag Services, who helps the Setnikers with equipment purchases. “They’re among the biggest mint producers in North America.”

Mint To Be

There’s passion—and pride—in the Setnikers’ peppermint production. At “peak peppermint” in the Willimette Valley, there were “probably 30,000 acres in production,” says David. Today, it’s closer to 7,000, and a lot of those are Setniker acres. “I like growing peppermint,” says David, “so we’ve stuck with it, through the good times and bad, since we started in 1987,” he says. “It’s been good over the years.”

The piquant perfume of the crop is unmistakable around the Setniker farmstead. And what’s growing here might be worldwide post-harvest. “Our mint goes everywhere,” says Scott, who notes that they raise four different types of mint with their own characteristics and flavor profiles. “As far as products go,” says Scott, “there’s oral care—toothpaste, mouthwash. There’s confectionary—gum, breath mints, food products. Then there’s the whole therapeutic oil market.”

Crop to consumer is quite the journey. Harvest itself is a three-step process. First, the mint is cut by swathers and left in windrows but, contrary to hay, there’s no crimping or conditioning of the crop at cutting; “we’re very gentle on the crop,” says Scott. Then there’s a brief drydown, just a few days. Next, “we run it through our forage harvesters, and they pick it up and load it into our mint distilling trailers,” says Scott.

The trailers hold “five tons or more” of dry material, says Scott, which at the distillery is steamed to extract about a hundred pounds of oil, or about 10 gallons. “It’s like an industrial product—very concentrated, very strong… it has to be handled carefully,” says Scott. “One drop of that oil concentrate makes 21 sticks of gum,” says Scott.

The mint leaves and stems are returned to the fields for compost. Some of it even winds up in commercial compost.

The grass seed crops are windrowed as well, and then combined. The straw is baled for sale. And like the mint, Setniker grass seed spreads far and wide. “If you go into a Home Depot and are looking for a tall fescue mix, there’s a high likelihood that it could have been produced on our farm.” The seed operation continues to expand, notably with an on-farm that bags the seed for temporary storage on the farm before it’s shipped to be incorporated into lawn mixes.

Do What Works, Until It Doesn’t

“If something works, we’ve never been afraid to plow forward on that,” says Scott. It’s a calculated approach that hasn’t been successful by accident. “Scott is a spreadsheet guy,” says Holt Ag’s Whitlow. “He has it all planned out.”

“He hit the nail on the head with the spreadsheets,” laughs Scott, noting that a few keystrokes can update purchase and cropping plans instantly. “But we don’t make big changes all at once,” he adds. “We’re gradually flexing with the markets, and as conditions change, you have to adapt.”

And that will help pave the way for yet another generation to carry on the family business, whatever they might grow. “I have my dad handing off the farm to me, and hopefully I can give it to my kids in as good a shape as I got it,” says Scott. David is quick to credit great employees, 19 of them besides the family, as key to the farm’s success, but also notes, “if my family wasn’t here, I wouldn’t still be farming. So I tried my best to give my kids a lot of responsibility at a young age so they can pick it up.”

Noting that you can’t really learn if you’re “just a cog,” Scott says he tries to pass that kind of responsibility to his kids. Oldest son Holden already has the mindset; he says one day he wants to “lead in the footsteps” of his dad and grandpa.

“I guess I’m one of the fortunate ones that I got a family interested in farming,” says David. Another generation is on the way to preserve the passion and the knowledge, and “I’m one of the lucky ones,” says David. “I certainly am.”

A Whole Family of Fendt

The Setnikers had their first demo of a Fendt tractor in a transitional moment for their operation. “Our fleet was getting old, we were growing, the markets were good and we needed to upgrade,” says Scott. “We demoed a Fendt 1050 alongside [another brand’s] quad-track tractor, and we were all surprised at how well the 1050 did. So we were able to have the narrow transport of a wheel tractor and go away from tracks and duals, which was awesome, but still be able to really pull the loads we needed to pull.”

Heavy clay soils mean “we’re pretty much a full tillage system,” says Scott, so they need power to the ground. But transport is an issue with 25 miles of road between different acreages. Salomon Falcom, one of the Setnikers’ valued employees and operators, notes that trips through town are easier: “You don’t have to block traffic, they’re narrow enough,” he says, “and the suspension makes a nice ride, even on the highway.”

Scott says purchasing the 1050 “was kind of a no-brainer,” but once it was on the lot, it attracted some positive attention. “We have some neighbors, they emigrated from Holland in the ’80s… We had the 1050 parked in the front lot. And they wheeled in and told dad that those are the best tractors made,” laughs Scott. “So now, when we go to buy a new tractor, it’s ‘What Fendt is in the size range we need?’” The Setnikers run a 314, a 516, a 718, two 724s, a 933, two 942s, two 1050s and an 1167.

“The cool thing about the Fendts is the engine management; it’s amazing,” says Scott. Whitlow notes that, like many who demo Fendt for the first time, the power to the ground at lower RPMs surprised the Setnikers. “They didn’t realize when they brought them in what that would mean in fuel savings,” says Whitlow.

Scott agrees. “We are probably saving 30% to 40% over what we were running with some of our other tractors, especially if we were really working those tractors hard.” His learning curve with the Fendts involved mostly trusting the machine—“You’ve got to have faith that computer’s going to give you the engine power you need,” he says—and it paid off.

That was a boon for Scott’s spreadsheets, as was the Gold Star Warranty. “It gives us peace of mind,” he says. David even did his own calculations, figuring a savings of $10,000 to $15,000 on routine maintenance alone. Plus, says Scott, “We don’t have tons of redundancy in the fleet,” in spite of the number of tractors they run. “So it’s been nice to have the downtime deal… that if we do have one go down, that the dealer is going to bring something in that’s similar to keep us running.” He also notes that “we’ve never had to do that.”

Speaking of the fleet: Every tractor has its job, its place. Lindsey says the 314 has been the perfect utility tractor. “Our kids are really into horses and junior rodeo stuff, and so we have an arena at home and we thought it was just a cute, perfect little tractor to have around home and in the barn, and to work our arena with,” she says. It also runs a small baler for them.

Scott says the 516s are “do-anything tractors,” from towing irrigation to stacking hay. The 700s are “year-round workhorses” as well, he says, doing a lot of application work with spreader boxes. The 900s pull planters, mowers, balers and tillage, with the 1050s handling grain carts and tillage as well. The 1167 is “our big guy,” says Scott, “for doing our heavy, primary tillage.”

David says that today, even as he steps out of day-to-day management, his favorite part of the job is running the equipment. “After I got used to the controls and everything, the ride was just so superior to the other brands we were running,” he says. “They’re a good tractor. There’s just no two ways about it.”