Co-op Member Spotlight: Coleman Agriculture, St. Paul, OR

Ben Coleman, Coleman Agriculture, Inc.

The Coleman name is somewhat synonymous with the small rural farming community of St. Paul, Oregon. In talking with Ben Coleman, President of Coleman Agriculture, Inc. it’s easy to see why. Not only does he have 28 first cousins on the Coleman-side, the majority who are farmers in the North Willamette Valley, but his ancestors settled in St. Paul over 150 years ago, and today the seventh generation walk the fertile ground located in the heart of the Willamette Valley. For Ben and his wife Jen, along with his cousin Tom and his wife Melissa, this means running Coleman Agriculture, the largest hop farm in Oregon, along with hazelnut orchards, seed crops and a variety of vegetables.

Ben is quick to point out that they couldn’t accomplish what they do without the dedication of various family members and 140 employees, many whom have worked for them for 30-40 years. This currently includes Tom and Melissa’s two sons, Sam and Max, and Ben and Jen’s son Jacob, who plans to return to the farm full-time once he finishes his Agricultural Business degree from Oregon State University. “I recognize that my ancestors did a lot of work before me and a lot of sacrifices were made before I got my turn, so we’re trying to leave a legacy for the next generation. It takes a team effort with my partners Tom, Melissa, and Jen, and all the folks that work here,” Ben said. “We appreciate all of the employees that put in long hours to help us be successful farmers,” Coleman added.

For Ben, that start dates back to 1935 when his grandparents, Robert and Martha, got married and purchased a farm from Robert’s grandmother. This homestead had a few hops on it, which got Ben’s grandparents, and later their sons, established in the hop business. Ben’s father Bill, and uncles John and Bobby, grew the farm in the late 1960’s from the original property purchasing land owned by their Great-Great Aunt. The Coleman’s have steadily grown their hop operation over time, really expanding it in 2004 when family members purchased the Alluvial Hop Farm near Independence, OR. When Coleman Agriculture, Inc. was formed in 2014, they continued to grow their hop operation.

The Coleman’s sell much of their hops through brokers, and in 2019, Coleman Ag purchased an ownership share in Yakima Chief, a grower owned hop broker. The Coleman’s also sell a portion of their crop directly to brewers, and in recent years have increased their efforts to reach out to brewers that are interested in brewing with ‘fresh hops’. When a brewer makes a fresh hop brew, the hops are picked and immediately shipped to the brewer where the kettle is waiting. In a fresh hop brew, the kilning or drying step is skipped, the hops are fresh, and can spoil quickly so time is of the essence in getting the hops from the field to the kettle. The resulting beer is often a favorite, but is in limited supply. “The sight of the first hops rolling in, and the aromas of the first day of hop picking is exciting, and then to follow-up drinking a beer from hops you grew on your farm and seeing your label on the can is really satisfying,” Coleman said.

While hops are their primary crop, they have been raising vegetables for local canneries since the 1960’s, garlic seed for over 20 years, hazelnuts for over 50 years, which they really started planting and expanding 10-15 years ago and have been in the grass seed business since the mid- 1980’s, building their grass seed cleaner in 2006. In addition, they grow clover and pumpkins for seed, and corn silage for a neighboring dairy farm. New to their enterprise are 30 acres of wine grapes that they planted near Champoeg this year, including three clones of Pinot Noir, which they hope to harvest by 2026.

“The farm is a great place to raise a family. All three of our kids have grown up working on the farm and there is a legacy to farming that is exciting to be part of,” Ben said. “We’re constantly thinking about how we can expand to meet future needs, while honoring our past,” he added.

Ben brings this same mindset to his new role as Chairman of the Wilco Board of Directors, after serving as Secretary since 2010. “As the board Chair, I’m striving for collaboration and making sure all voices are heard and all avenues are addressed,” Coleman said. “The ability to have input on the direction of our farmer-owned cooperative isn’t something I take lightly and making sure farmers have access to products and services they need is huge,” he added. Coleman Agriculture utilizes many of these products and services, including buying fuel from Wilco, utilizing Valley Ag services, delivering hazelnuts to Hazelnut Growers of Oregon, and buying feed for their kid’s FFA project animals at the retail stores.

Outside of Wilco, Ben also serves on the St. Paul School Board and enjoys golfing, fishing and going to OSU Beaver sporting events, which is where he and Jen met and graduated from in the mid-nineties. They have been season football ticketholders since then and baseball ticketholders since 2005.