((L-R) Christian, Kendra and Matt Lisignoli enjoy seeing visitors at Smith Rock Ranch | Photo by Kristine Thomas)
A snowboarder, Matt Lisignoli visits Mt. Bachelor during the mid-week winter months so he can avoid the weekend crowds. Curious by nature, he often strikes up conversations with people on the chairlift.
“I usually ask them what kind of work they do that allows them to ski during the week,” Matt, 58, said. “When they ask me, I tell them that my wife and I own Smith Rock Ranch. I am always surprised how many people I meet on the chairlift who have been to the ranch for the annual pumpkin patch activities.”
For more than 20 years, Kendra and Matt have welcomed guests to their fall activities including a corn maze, pumpkin cannons, zoo train, a pumpkin patch and more at Smith Rock Ranch in Terrebonne.
“Over the last several years a trip in October to Smith Rock Ranch has become a tradition for many families,” reads a message from the family on its webpage. “We are so happy to see the next generation carrying on the tradition. Our family feels tremendously blessed that we are able to share this amazing place with others and are able to continue doing what we love.”
Since he was a child working on his relatives’ farm near Woodburn, Matt has known he wanted to be a farmer.
Like many fellow farmers, Matt expects to deal with whatever the weather brings, the changes in labor and environmental policies and the fluctuations in market and fuel prices. He wasn’t prepared for everything 2020 would throw his way.
“None of us anticipated a pandemic and how it would impact our industry,” Matt said. “From canceled potato contracts to threats of closing hayrides, we all had to make adjustments and weather this storm. Most businesses have risks, but farming takes passion to overcome the daily challenges and risks involved.”
Starting last spring, Matt and Kendra looked at all the ways to continue their pumpkin patch activities while keeping their guests safe during a pandemic.
“Without knowing what to expect this fall, or if we would even be allowed to open or if visitors would consider coming out to the farm, we made our best guesses and implemented protocol to insure the safety for all,” Matt said. “This included limiting visitors, selling time slots online and following OHA mask and spacing guidelines.”
Matt appreciates all the work done by his daughter, Sydney, who designed the farm’s website and answered questions on social media. The family is grateful for the support they have received from visitors.
“There were so many things at a breaking point this year with the weather and the pandemic,” Matt said. “I am grateful to my wife, my children and employees for their creativity in finding ways to continue welcoming guests to our farm.”
His family is the foundation that supports him through the long days of farming and endless challenges, starting with Kendra who he married in 1991.
They both grew up in the Willamette Valley — Kendra in Sherwood where her family had a few acres of nursery stock and Matt in Northeast Portland. He spent summers working on his relatives’ farm until he graduated from Oregon State University in 1984 with a degree in agriculture. They have three children — their 26-year-old twin daughters, Summer and Sydney, and 23-year-old son, Christian.
Like many farming operations throughout Oregon and the U.S., Matt said Smith Rock Ranch operates most of the year with a skeleton crew.
“We work all year to prepare for the next season’s planning and projects,” he shared. “Once we open to the public, another 30 people are required for the weekends when the activities are in operation.”
After graduating from Oregon State, Matt worked five years as a field consultant and spent time working at a pumpkin patch on Sauvies Island where he and Kendra learned the retail side of farming.
“At this time, agritourism was more of an idea than a reality, and our farm pioneered the way,” Matt said. “Retail proved to be exhausting and after five years, we decided to move to a farm in Powell Butte in 1997 with our young twin daughters and soon to be born son.”
Matt and Kendra soon learned their plan to grow field crops and enjoy a slower pace was not economically possible while also supporting a young family, needing to purchase farmland or equipment and build a business.
“The first year was dismal, but something we noticed was the absence of any pumpkin patches in the area,” Matt said.
In 1998, they rented a field in Redmond and planted a pumpkin patch. Many people questioned his quest to grow pumpkins in Central Oregon’s High Desert. He persevered and soon opened Central Oregon Pumpkin Patch. In 2001, they moved their family and business to a historic but neglected farmstead in Terrebonne and renamed their business Smith Rock Ranch.
Matt enjoys developing the vision of what his family offers their visitors, and then he likes designing, building and watching what they have created to delight the families who support their farm.
“It’s a form of engineering, and I often hear comments about how organized and smooth it operates,” Matt said. “Some people think we’re lucky, however luck is when preparation meets opportunity. For that we are fortunate to have had several circumstances occur, allowing us to create Smith Rock Ranch.”
Matt said his business model is based on three things: the agritourism of the pumpkin patch, his real estate holdings and the crops he grows and sells including pumpkins, seed crops, hay and wheat.
Future of farming
Looking out the window of his office, Matt watches as guests arrive at the farm and venture off to find a pumpkin or explore an activity. Both Sydney and Summer help at the farm with various tasks, while also managing full time jobs and other responsibilities.
An Oregon State graduate, Christian’s responsibilities include operating and maintaining the farm equipment. His understanding of the digital age has helped advance the farm with computers and self-driving tractors.
“Although he grew up on the farm, his interests lie outside of agriculture, which is understandable with all the regulations, labor issues, capital requirements and risks involved with farming,” Matt said. “Family farms will likely become extinct from my point of view. The average age of U.S. farmers is 57.5 years. Being virtually that age myself, I don’t see enough young people drawn to agriculture.”
Matt shared currently less than two percent of the population produces much of the food and fiber in the U.S.
Despite the challenges known and unknown, Matt said he does what every farmer he knows does after harvesting the last crop of the season.
“We will start planning for next year,” he said.