June 29, 2001 11:00 pm
HORSE POWER: An important cash crop for Litle Creek Ranch are started performance horses, including these three that Eydie Dean works. The horses are evaluated for their potential in a variety of future duties, from working cattle to national-level reining, roping, penning and cutting competition. (The Observer/T.L PETERSEN).
HORSE POWER: An important cash crop for Litle Creek Ranch are started performance horses, including these three that Eydie Dean works. The horses are evaluated for their potential in a variety of future duties, from working cattle to national-level reining, roping, penning and cutting competition. (The Observer/T.L PETERSEN).

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

NORTH POWDER Its payday, Eydie Dean grins, fingering a check shell soon head to town to deposit.

Theres little thats unusual about the scene, except when you consider that the paychecks are all made out to members of the extended family who work Little Creek Ranch just off of Wolf Creek Lane.

The families, Dean explains, have worked out a system of draws on the farm accounts that all agree is fair and gives each person and family an income they can use to budget their various personal expenses.

Dean and her husband, Jerry, have 18- and 21-year-old sons. Deans younger brother, Deal Hiner, is newly married and setting up his first home, in addition to rodeoing many weekends a year. A cousin and a nephew who work on the ranch are teen-agers earning summer money.

And from there, things get much more complex.

By Eastern Oregon standards, Jerry Dean says, Little Creek Ranch isnt a large operation, with only 650 acres. But it is a full-time operation that gives the term ranch diversification a very personal feel.

Hay is the topic right now.

We still have a bit for sale, Jerry Dean says. Dean estimates, after consulting with his brother-in-law, that they sell an average of 1,000 tons of hay a year, some of it alfalfa, some grass. This year, they have already sold several hundred tons more than that, after stockpiling what they will need for their own cattle and top-of-the-line working horses.

It was a decent first crop, Jerry Dean said, even though the next crop might not be as good.

Weve having to rob the hay crop (of irrigation water) so theres some water for the potatoes.

Potatoes russet Burbanks are grown on Little Creek Ranch and sold into Idaho or Ontario.

In the Powder Valley, theres lots more potatoes than people realize.

Among the Deans and Hiners, Jerry Dean generally focuses on the crops, while Deal Hiner handles the cattle and horses. But there isnt a real distinct line, and their wives, Eydie and Jessica, also work where the work needs doing.

Deal Hiner, back on the ranch after studying agriculture at a Washington university, realizes his good fortune as a newlywed.

We were fortunate enough not to have a bunch of mortgages on stuff when we started, he said. We dont owe on one piece of land or equipment. Thats a huge plus.

The phone rings and Eydie is called to answer a question for the ranchs accountant.

But equipment, and its upkeep, is a never-ending concern.

Jerry Dean is planning to head out to the fields to spray weeds. He has a chemical tank mounted on the back of a four-wheeler, a tank the ranch had to buy earlier this week for more than $700.

It might last a year, year and a half, he says.

Then there are equipment breakdowns and the need for new parts. One day recently, that required three trips to town, either Baker City or La Grande. Boy, does that eat up the gas, Jerry Dean adds.

Id love to drive a Chevy Luv, he says, thinking of the gas and other savings, but I have to be able to haul cattle to auction. And haul heavy equipment parts. And get into and out of muddy fields. And haul heavy loads of seed and fertilizer. And a dozen other chores.

Farming is a labor of love, Eydie Dean adds, thinking of her list of to-dos.

Its also a labor of modern skills.

Dean Hiner is planning to cut back on the ranchs cow/calf operation by nearly half. Instead, he plans to bring in and feed out yearlings.

Reasons? We wont be feeding through the year and I can feed other peoples on a per-pound contract, so I know whats coming in. Ill concentrate more on marketing and sell fewer head for more money.

And to more markets, even if further away.

What a visitor to Little Creek Ranch cant miss, though, are the horses. First there is the large enclosed arena, then the line of corrals filled with horses.

This is where Jessica Hiner has found a niche in a life not native to her.

Its different (on the ranch). I lived in town, five minutes from Wal-Mart, she recalls of her Idaho youth.

A special education teacher, Jessica is finding off-ranch work substituting in the area.

But Jessica is also a former goat-roper, and is helping train the ranchs working horses.

Her former practice goat, by the way, is also now calling Little Creek Ranch home, while the rest of the family calls the goat Jessicas dowry. Eydie Dean laughs as she points the goat out, noting hes now eating too well and has gained too much weight to sprint from a chasing roper.

The Deans and Hiners have been in the process of transforming the riding arena from a family luxury to a community advantage and paying part of the ranch.

Through the winter, the arena was busy nearly every evening and most weekends. Seminars on cutting and barrel racing have been held in it, along with 4-H horse training sessions, individual training and just about every horse-related activity that comes to mind.

Team penning practice occupies one evening, cutting another. Mix in training reining horses, working cow horses, bulldoggers and others, and, as Deal Hiner says, its pretty diverse, and has been working out real well.

Oh, and the enclosed arena is where the Powder Valley football team practiced for its regional and state tournament games when the weather turned cold.

The family itself raises and starts a number of young horses, and is surprised to realize that this is the first summer any of them can remember that they didnt have young horses for sale.

Next year, though, a promising crop of quarter horses and quarter horse crosses should be available.

It all looks so smooth, organized and coordinated.

Jerry Dean is quick to disabuse guests of that fantasy.

No matter how much you plan, farming is farming and ranchings ranching. Something is breaking, changing, or needing doing yesterday.

And if youre managing badly, you wont be in business very long.

For the Deans and Hiners the risks are acceptable. Eydie and Jerrys 21-year-old son, Levi, is studying to be a teacher. Their 18-year-old son, John, has a year of high school to go, then plans to study mechanics and come back to the ranch. Jessica and Deal have just built a home on one unproductive corner of the ranch and plan to stay.

Im a farmer, Eydie Dean says with pride. I used to work for a union in Alaska and with the state as a timber lobbyist. This is 10 times better.