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Ag News | Coastal Community

Around the Region: Agritourism Done Right in Eastern Oregon

April 15, 2019

Nobody ever said being a farmer or rancher was easy. A typical day starts before sunup and often goes way past sunset, with plenty of paperwork and household chores in the late evening. Essentially, it’s a labor of love for a way of life that is quickly disappearing. For Phil Wilson and his family, an ordinary day on their cattle and hay ranch includes visitors from around the world who travel to Wilson Ranches Retreat, just a handful of miles outside Fossil, Oregon, to experience ranch life first hand.

Since Phil and his late wife Nancy opened the bed and breakfast in 2000, the ranch has had 50,000 guests. Those numbers keep growing every day. Families, couples, and individuals come for the hospitality, hearty breakfast, and incredible views, but they come back year-after-year for the experience.

However, before the bed and breakfast opened, the Wilsons still had plenty of guests.

“Our home was like Grand Central Station back in 1999,” Phil said with a nostalgic smile. “Nancy added up all the times we had guests in our home and it turns out we were alone just 13 nights from September to December of 1999. That, and the debt associated with a land purchase and the end of a partnership of my brother made the decision for us,” he explained when asked why the couple decided to start the bed and breakfast.

With Nancy working in the nearby town, and Phil putting in long ranch hours, the couple knew they needed to do something different to make ends meet, pay off debts, and provide a source of revenue for the family’s upcoming sixth and seventh generations of ranchers.

“We invested some money in the old 1910 Sears Roebuck ranch house, turning it into a good spot for guests,” Phil added. “We now have friends from all over the world. And darn near 70 percent of them keep coming back. We’ve seen young couples raise their families over the years.”

Wilson Ranches Retreat gives people the chance to get involved, including mending fences, moving cattle, and more among its 9,000 acres of land. Driving equipment or participating in a harvest might not be an option, but experiencing calving and nature in all its glory is part of the plan.

According to Phil, one of the other great benefits of agritourism is the real-life news it brings back into the urban centers.

“I figure whatever we can show our city cousins is the best defense for agriculture,” Phil stated, clearly underscoring the inequality involved when big cities impose sometimes-impossible legal restrictions for those living in the country. “They’re realizing that people out here on the land care about everything that goes on with their animals and crops. These aren’t factories. This is a family-run business.”

But those positive messages only go so far when sensationalized news events take aim at ranchers and farmers.

“If there’s an issue that makes national news, it’s always negative,” Phil said with an air of understandable exasperation. “We’re out here doing our best for the environment and our animals. We have seventh generation grandkids who work here. One of them works on the ranch then goes back to Oregon State University for school.”

While Phil is a tough guy, he doesn’t do it all himself. As he puts it, “I’m trying to pass off the heavy lifting.”

Today, Kara and her husband help run the bed and breakfast, and several ranch-hands take on a lot of the feeding, herding, tagging, watering, crop tending, and harvesting. They also help take guests on horseback rides and other ranch-life excursions.

The Wilsons still do a lot of their ranching by saddle. “How our calves are raised and cattle are treated is a big reason there is so much respect for our livestock,” Kara said about the eight-or-more hours ranch-hands might spend on horseback moving cattle from one location to another. “We do not stress our cattle with ATVs and dogs. It’s more work, but it pays off. And cattle live a better life.”

“Right now we have some irrigation going,” Phil added, thinking ahead to tomorrow’s annual budget paperwork.

Every Story Has a Beginning

Back when Phil first started working this land, he was the ripe old age of seven, driving a tractor and rake. By 12, he was driving swather, hauling hay, handling cattle, and helping his Grandpa Smith maintain the ranch machinery.

“I grew up ranching,” Phil said. If asked, his kids and grandkids would clearly have similar stories, working their way around the ranch.”

Before they had kids, Phil and his late-wife met when they were 13 at 4-H summer school. It wasn’t until their mid-to-late teens that they began dating. By 1972, the young couple had been married two years, finished college, and moved back to the ranch.

Decades passed, and now Phil is the mentor – training the next generation of rancher in what he calls Phil’s Cow College.

“They’re learning on the job. Plus, I’m paying our ranch team members for their labor while they’re here, “ Phil stated.

By the time they head back to school, they have enough saved up to make it to the end of the next term. Phil is also teaching them one of the most important lessons of ranch life: flexibility.

“To be a rancher, you have to be flexible. Every day is different. You have to be able to look at a situation and adjust to it every day.”

That’s precisely what the Wilson family has done since the first generation homesteaded back in the mid-1800s. Today, that flexibility is alive-and-well in the Wilson Ranches Retreat bed and breakfast, where every new day brings new guests and future agriculture enthusiasts who understand the hard work and dedication that goes into raising livestock, crops, and a happy family.

The folks at Wilson Ranches Retreat are Coastal regulars, visiting the Redmond and The Dalles, Oregon stores. At Coastal, we appreciate the chance to serve them, and all our guests, with everything the country needs.