Central Oregon Seeds Inc. has been key in making Jefferson County a seed production hub
After 42 years as managing partner of Central Oregon Seeds Inc., Mike Weber turned 70 and retired Jan. 31 from a job that helped establish Jefferson County as an innovative specialty crop area. He will still remain a partner and on the board of directors.
Weber grew up in El Paso, Texas, and later earned a master’s degree in plant nutrition at Oregon State University. In 1976, he came to Madras and worked three years as an OSU extension agent specializing in crops and soils.
During that time, he was approached by six local farmers who were interested in starting a company to produce, process and sell bluegrass seed and garlic.
“We explored the idea and made the decision to venture out into that opportunity and build this facility,” Weber said of the COSI plant located in the Madras Industrial Park.
With his area of expertise, Weber became the managing partner and suggested they also grow and condition carrot seed. “I’d worked with a few farmers in the area during my extension years who grew carrot seed in the mid-1970s, and I thought that would be another crop to pursue,” he said.
The plant opened in May 1979, with three of them working full time and two seasonal workers. “We couldn’t afford more until we had enough crop to justify more employees, and it just grew from there,” he said.
While the other partners raised crops, Weber was in charge of marketing and running the business. He had to recruit seed companies as well as local farmers to contract with the growing company.
“Through my years of extension, I was able to get the lay of the land on what farmers’ values were, and I had six partners who were farmers, which was a very strong component,” he noted, adding, “I also had three mentors in the Willamette Valley in the grass and vegetable seed business, who also helped me with how to run the business and make contacts.”
The first 10-12 years were spent establishing a customer base. Initially, COSI contracted with seed companies in the U.S.
“I had to convince those companies to work with us to multiply their particular seed varieties,” he said.
The business started to take off in 1986, when COSI began contracting with European companies. While attending annual seed industry meetings, Weber met European contacts and convinced them to give Jefferson County grown seeds a try.
“Some had offices on the West Coast, so I didn’t have to travel to Europe initially,” he said.
Over time, COSI brought recognition to Jefferson County.
“Within the seed industry, we pretty much established the area and a good grower base for carrot, onion, parsley and radish seed. Through the years, we’ve contracted 22 different crops, including mint leaf and other herbs, grains, grass seed and vegetable seeds,” he said.
Being versatile and willing to try different crops was an advantage. “With staff and farmer inputs and creative ideas, we were always looking for crops that would be viable in this area,” Weber said, noting some crops may grow well, but they also must be profitable for farmers. The Central Oregon Ag Research and Extension Center was also a very valuable resource.
“A constant attitude of trying to improve is what companies around the world appreciated about this area and growers with COSI,” Weber observed.
There were some drawbacks they had to deal with, many weather related, such as a devastating hail storm in 2013. “In my 42 years, we’ve had low water years four times, which had an impact on what crops could and couldn’t be planted,” he said.
Even with challenges, he enjoyed the job. “I love to see things grow, and the connection with the land and plant growth has always been exciting to me, working with different crops and bringing them to their potential,” Weber said, adding that working with farmers, employees and the community was very enjoyable for him.
Today, COSI has grown to include nine buildings, 25-30 full-time employees, and two offshoot businesses – Central Oregon Agronomy and High Desert Organix. During its peak years, COSI brought $30-$35 million annually into Jefferson County.
Growing a business is one thing, but maintaining it at a high level can be a challenge. Planning ahead for his retirement, Weber said, “We were fortunate enough to hire Ken Stout. We had a five-year transition plan because you have to go through cycles to learn the business.” Stout became the chief executive officer and a partner in 2020.
COSI has also been known for its involvement in the community through generous contributions and personal involvement. Weber has served as a member and chairman of the Mountain View Hospital District Board of Directors, member of the Madras Elementary Site Committee, Jefferson County Budget Committee, member and chair of the Economic Development Board in Jefferson County, and member of the U.S. Bank Regional Advisory Board.
In the industry, he received several awards, including 1995 Oregon Seed Trade Association Man of the Year Award, 2006 OSU College of Ag Science Hall of Fame Award, and 2013 Distinguished Service Award from the Oregon Farm Bureau.
“As a partnership, it was clear early-on that we felt we were a part of the community and wanted to give back to it,” Weber said. That included participating on boards and donating funds to many community projects such as computers for education, sports facilities, the Madras Aquatic Center, and more.
Of retirement, Weber said, “It’s been very enjoyable for Judie and me to have a lot more time together.” They are also looking forward to doing more traveling and visiting family and friends.
Originally published by Susan Matheny, Pamplin Media Group, May 12, 2021