Introducing Mike McCarthy, our new Board President

Alyson Marchi-Young
Wed, 08/29/2018 (All day)

Imagine returning home to Hood River after years away, ready to start an orchard on your family's land, only to discover that a giant resort was in the works for next door. In 1980, that's exactly what happened to Mike McCarthy. In an instant, he became a land use advocate. Now, thirty-eight years later, he is our incoming Board President, and this is his Oregon Story.

 Mike McCarthy | Barbara Bond

The Hood River Valley, home of the Fruit Loop, is one of the most productive fruit-growing regions in the country – pears, apples, cherries, and more. We all benefit from fresh fruits and veggies grown in this valley. Mike McCarthy had always been fascinated by the farming process and passionate about Oregon landscapes. After he finished his education, it made sense to return to his family’s home base and start his own farm.

On the heels of his arrival, Mike learned that a destination resort was proposed to move in next door to his family land. The developers proposing this project came down to his family home to speak with his mother, Kate McCarthy. They rolled out a map of their proposal. Not only was this resort planned to go in next door to the McCarthys’, they were planning for part of it to be ON their land. Not shy about her feelings, Kate turned them down. They thought the money would sway her, and they thought wrong.

Kate McCarthy in lupine fields on Mount Hood. Photo from the collection of Friends of Mt. Hood.

With strong community pushback and 1000 Friends of Oregon on the McCarthys’ side, the proposed destination resort ultimately failed. The community preserved the farm and forest lands to continue to grow food and trees. That’s when Mike became interested in 1000 Friends, though his passion for conservation of natural resources goes back even further.

Mike McCarthy’s roots in Oregon run deep. Over a century ago his grandfather bought a plot of land nestled in the Hood River Valley. It was forestland that had been burned in a wildfire several years before. His grandfather tried to convert that land to orchards; it failed. The land was too high in the hills and was best as a forest.

Instead of growing fruit, Mike’s family began touring visitors up on Mount Hood and hosting them at a lodge on their property. During the Great Depression the family suffered a series of losses including the property. Luckily, his parents were able to repurchase the family land later. Even though the land was in Hood River, Mike grew up in Roseburg where his father managed timber mills.

Eventually, the family made it back to the Hood River Valley and purchased more pastureland. The original site his grandfather bought was a forest again.

Having grown up surrounded by Oregon farms, Mike’s love of agriculture grew. He continued to study it through college. All of his interests in farming, agriculture, and the responsible use of land came together when he returned to Hood River and started a successful orchard that he managed from 1980–2015.

“Since I was eight-years-old, I worked on a farm – fascinated with growing crops and food. To me, the land that we do this on is very important. Raising food is my passion,” says Mike. While Mike’s son now oversees the orchards, Mike can be found working the forest. He manages the forest sustainably by only cutting trees that have died naturally. Mike recognizes the responsibility of sustainable land management. As he’ll tell you, he’s a pragmatist; treating the land well is good for everyone.

In the years between his family’s fight with a destination resort and his joining the board of 1000 Friends, Mike has been deeply involved in conservation and natural resource management in the Hood River community. He served on the Crystal Springs Water District Board for fifteen years and the Middle-Fork Irrigation District for twenty-five years.

“I’m very proud of that – people said it was the most efficient irrigation system in the West.” Mike beams. “For me, it’s a simple line to protecting that resource long-term. I know how valuable the resources are to grow our food – that’s why I got involved in water and soil issues.”

Hood River Waterfront | Darryl Lloyd

Currently Mike is also serving on the board of Hood River Valley Residents Committee. Founded in 1978, HRVRC is dedicated to farm and forest preservation and the commitment to smart land use policy. They are also an Affiliate of 1000 Friends of Oregon.

Nowadays, HRVRC can be found alongside 1000 Friends fighting newly proposed destination resorts and acting as advocates for housing in town. Mike notes that the focused work on housing from HRVRC is fairly new, but needed. He sees what it could mean for agriculture in the valley if housing needs in the existing communities cannot be met – farms would disappear. It’s a critical piece of the puzzle and he says, “We’re not ahead of it, we’re behind it. The costs of lots are too high, and it’s hard to build affordable housing.”

Mike is proud to provide housing for his workforce employees. “What we do in agriculture,” he explains, “is house our workers on-site to help cover those costs. As farms have to get larger to survive, we acquire new land with houses already built there. We make sure those homes are good quality and working, and then we have permanent housing for full-time workers.”

Taking care of the land and taking care of his workforce are two of Mike’s biggest priorities. “We really want to provide good housing for our workers, pay them as well as we can. We take care of our own people to put them in a financial situation that allows our workers to have a good life. No one’s getting rich, we aren’t either, but we can all have enough.” He continues, “We take care of our workers because we like to, not because we’re forced to. It’s really rewarding to see your workers come with a fourth-grade education who have kids who go on to get master’s degrees. We feel like we’re a part of that. They work hard and we encourage them to know that there are no limits.”

Mike’s care for his employees and the broader agricultural workforce in the country inspired him to join US Apple (an apple-growers’ group) on a tour to Washington, DC recently. There, he spoke up for immigration reform policies that would protect and support farm crews nationwide. “I’ll do whatever to get my people protected. I’m committed to it, and we’re just not getting there.”

Mike holds a sign from voter initiative promoted by HRVRC in 1977 to convince Hood River voters to preserve their surrounding farms and forests. Read Mike's essay for HRVRC's 40th anniversary. 

From national politics to local policy, Mike is seeing worrying trends for farmers like him. “There’s this notion that farmers make a lot of money and exploit their workers. It’s not true but often misinterpreted by society and people who really don’t know what we do on the farm.” This makes it harder for farmers to advocate for policies that can benefit agriculture and the agricultural workforce. Additionally, Mike sees a lack of awareness and value for our farmlands. “As I watch this country, we don’t value our land. We assume there is enough land, and enough food.”

That’s where his vision for 1000 Friends comes in very clear. Oregonians need to know about the benefits of the land use system. Oregon doesn’t look and feel like it does by accident; there were intentional steps taken to preserve the state’s land for specific purposes. Mike’s time as 1000 Friends’ Board President will lead us into our fiftieth anniversary. That milestone is important to Mike, and to all of us, as we look at Oregon’s future. “To remain healthy for the next fifty years, people need to know what land use has done and what it can do for Oregon.”

For Mike, this is personal.

Without the land use system, he is sure that Hood River Valley would be an exclusive tourist community. That destination resort we fought in the ’80s would be one of many, eating up farms and forests throughout the Gorge. “We could have lost agriculture in the valley without this system. It was citizen groups that really cared about preserving farmland, and made sure the valley participated in the land use system. I think people still care, they just need to know what’s at stake.”

This is why Mike wants bold plans to connect with Oregonians today and in the future. He wants to build those community-based voices that were so important to protecting landscapes thirty-eight years ago. 

Mike also wants to see farmers in conversation with one another, and with Oregon lawmakers. Through 1000 Friends’ Farmers Advisory Committee, Mike sees how farmers can unify to protect Oregon landscapes in their communities and statewide. He also thinks this group can do more to connect people with a better understanding of who farmers are and what they do. The FAC can offer a more diverse view of what a farmer is.

Another important focus point for Mike at 1000 Friends is the organization’s commitment to its employees. “We need to grow and retain our staff, so we can do an even better job of protecting Oregon’s landscapes. We have a great staff, and I’m really excited to see what we do with this team.”   

Mike has committed his time to 1000 Friends to ensure that Oregon’s farms and forests will be available for generations to come. That means Oregon will continue to grow fresh foods and feed people. It means Oregon trees and streams can provide clean air and water. It means Oregon will thrive and be healthy for our children, and their children. “I’ve always valued what 1000 Friends does for Oregon,” says Mike.  

We at 1000 Friends value Mike’s commitment to Oregon, to his community, and to our work to enhance the land use system for every Oregonian. Join us in proudly welcoming Mike McCarthy as 1000 Friends of Oregon’s newest Board President, and please consider a gift that supports his plans for our future.