Ashley O'Toole emcee

Ashley O'Toole, above, was co-emcee of the 2019 Farmer-Merchant Banquet with Karrine Brogoitti, publisher of The Observer.



The Union County Farmer-Merchant Banquet started in 1949, the year 45 rpm records were first sold in the United States.

Today 45 rpm records are as rare as steam-powered tractors, but the Farmer-Merchant Banquet appears to be as popular as ever. The 71st annual rendition of the banquet on Thursday drew 350 people, its largest crowd in at least four years.

“We were at maximum capacity,” said Karrine Brogoitti, The Observer’s publisher and past president of the Union County Chamber of Commerce, which puts on the banquet each year.

Those saluted this year at the banquet included Debbie Murchison of Cove, who received the Ag Woman of the Year award. Murchison has been helping her family raise cattle for decades. She said the long hours of work have been a labor of love, one which creates inseparable family ties.

“No other industry holds families together like this one because none of us can do it all alone. We need each other,” Murchison said.

Murchison worked for the Cove School District in its custodial department for at least two decades before retiring several years ago.

“Since then she has been working 24/7 on the ranch,” said Cheryl Martin, the 2018 award recipient who presented Murchison with her award.

The Cattleman of the Year honor was awarded to Union rancher Sam Baker. He received a traveling trophy, one passed on each year to the new recipient. The names of previous winners are engraved on it. Baker appeared humbled after being handed the hardware by John Hefner, the 2018 recipient.

“The names of many amazing people are on this trophy,” Baker said.

Baker is a rancher with little spare time, for he is also the owner of Eagle Carriage and Machine.

Two Distinguished Service to Agriculture awards were presented at the banquet. The recipients were Mike Miller and Jeff Lathrop.

Miller worked for Blue Mountain Seeds of Imbler for 45 years before recently retiring.

“Mike is truly an exceptional person. His passion for his job was amazing,” said Bill Merrigan, general manager of Blue Mountain Seeds.

Miller praised Merrigan for being a great person to work for and said that his time with the Imbler business passed quickly.

“It was a long time but it didn’t seem that long,” Miller said, explaining that one of the reasons is he learned something new almost every day while at Blue Mountain Seeds.

Lathrop also has an impressive legacy with one company. He has worked for Wallowa County Grain Growers for 45 years. Lathrop, who is based at the company’s Island City office, sells customized fertilizers and other products farmers apply to their fields to boost crop production. 

Mike Hayward, CEO of the Wallowa County Grain Growers, said this is a major expense farmers face, and they have tremendous confidence in the advice provided by Lathrop.

“This is very much a trust business. Jeff has earned this trust,” Hayward said.

The Young Farmer of the Year award went to Zeb Grove. He was praised by the work he does to reach out to the community by Jed Hassinger, president of the Union County Farm Bureau. Hassinger, who presented the award, noted that Grove led an effort by the Union County Farm Bureau to award an annual scholarship to a young person in the community.

Grove said he was gratified by the honor.

“I am so excited. This means so much,” said Grove, who grows crops including wheat, grass, hay and alfalfa.

Courtney Ranches of Union County was honored with the Ecological Restoration and Conservation award. Sherry and Kevin Ludviksen received the award on behalf of their ranches from Jesse Steele, executive director of the Grande Ronde Model Watershed. Steele praised the work the Ludviksens have done in managing Courtney Ranches in a way that protects the environment and creates strong riparian zones.

“They have been good stewards of the land,” Steele said. 

Timber producers Maurizio and Allison Valerio were saluted at the banquet as the recipients of the Forest Steward of the Year award. Jamie Knight of the Oregon Department of Forestry commended the Valerios for their efforts to create an excellent setting where people can learn about sustainable forestry practices. The Valerios grow ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and western larch near Medical Springs.

Allison Valerio praised the Oregon State University Extension Service for being among those who have provided important assistance for their operation.

“We are truly honored,” Maurizio Valerio added. “It is hard to believe they could find nobody better than us to receive the award.”

He then spoke of a dream for the forest operation he and his wife run.

“My ultimate goal is that 80 years from now people will come (to the forest they now operate) and say, ‘Wow, isn’t this beautiful,’” he said.

The theme of the 71st annual Farmer-Merchant Banquet, which was emceed by Brogoitti and Ashley O’Toole, was The Roots of Union County. Musical entertainment was provided by the La Grande High School A Cappella Choir and the BlueMountaineers. 

General assignment reporter

Beats include the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

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