SOU Students Monitor Changing Landscape of Family Farms

(Ashland, Ore.) — Third year Southern Oregon University sociology students Alessandra de la Torre and Kate Hillis have a unique understanding of sustainable agriculture—from a historical perspective.
Thanks to a 2015 grant from the Oregon Heritage Commission to SOU’s sociology/anthropology program, de la Torre and Hillis are researching Jackson County family farms that have been in the same family and in production for over 100 years. The students are finding that it takes commitment, strategy, and sometimes a bit of luck to keep land in the family over the course of four or five generations.
As an object lesson in the complexities of heritage agriculture, de la Torre discovered the sale of the 1852 Birdseye Ranch donation land claim to Del Rio Vineyards as it was happening in March 2016. In April, she met with the family, walked that historic Gold Hill property along the Rogue River, and talked with three Birdseye generations as they prepared to move from the home they’d lived in for 160 years. The Birdseye’s were pleased that their family heritage was documented for the project, and for de la Torre, it was a powerful and emotional experience.
Hillis researched Reginald Parsons’ 1908 Century Farm in East Medford, Hillcrest Orchards (now also Roxy Anny Winery). The property is owned by the Cogswell Limited Partnership, a partnership of Parsons family descendants. At the same time Hillis was tracing Hillcrest through the generations, Medford City Council held public hearings about annexing the property into the city’s Urban Growth Boundary. An aerial view of Hillcrest Orchards shows that housing and mixed use properties surround the green of the vineyard and Medford’s growth means more housing is needed. Jud Parsons is a member of the Cogswell Limited Partnership; he’s not sure how the partnership will vote if the land is annexed and the family is able to develop the property as housing. Hillis is scheduled to interview Jud Parsons later this spring.
You might not think that a farm established a hundred years ago would be of interest today but de la Torre and Hillis’s research shows that Southern Oregon agricultural landscapes continue to change and that family legacies change as well. Under the Oregon Heritage Commission grant, these two SOU students are researching 20 multi-generational farms to identify factors that contribute to how and why some properties stay in agricultural production and others do not.
“Understanding the patterns of agricultural land changes in Southern Oregon reveal the interweaving of environmental, economic, political, social, and personal influences that give nuance to why these changes occur,” said de la Torre. “It is certain that these factors continue to guide the path of our lives today, making the past an emblem of human lessons we can all learn from.”
For more information on the heritage agriculture project, contact Maureen Flanagan Battistella, affiliate faculty in SOU’s sociology/anthropology program, at 541-552-0743 or
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