Sheep going to pasture at Crown Hill Farm

Nestled in the foothills of the Oregon Coast Range with elevations sweeping from 500 feet up to 1,200 feet, Crown Hill Farm – Mochettaz & Gunderman, is a visually spectacular 720 plus acre, family-owned farm in McMinnville. If the hills were laid out flat, it would be more than 1,000 acres according to surveyors.

Fifteen partitions within the property divide timber lands, hay ground and pasture, with nearly 12 miles of fencing throughout the property that aid with specific land management practices that help with sustainability.

Surrounded by five vineyards, the land is home to 15 small lakes and ponds, several artesian springs, dozens of old-growth wooded acres, about 30 head of sheep, 125 head cow/calf operation, some small crops and an abundance of wildlife.

Lucien Gunderman, proprietor of the farm, was born an only child and raised on the property, just like his mother. In fact, the farm is only two years shy of being a century farm, as it was purchased in 1920 by Lucien’s grandparents, Damien and Zephirine Mochettaz.

But keeping this land in production – quite literally – almost cost Gunderman the farm.

Decades ago, when his father was killed in a tragic farming accident, ownership of the land was split between Gunderman and his mother and maternal grandfather.

Gunderman on an overlook at Crown Hill Farm Enterprises

The entire property had been divided among the family years prior and Lucien’s grandfather had paid thousands in gift taxes to divide the property, after losing his wife in 1969. With failing health it was decided that his ¼ share should go to Lucien so that Lucien’s mother would not hold ¾ of the farm, and be faced with more gift taxes. Shorty thereafter, Gunderman’s grandfather passed away, but changes had thankfully been made to ensure the 50/50 split.

In 2012, after Gunderman’s mother passed, he inherited her 50 percent share of the land along with a debt of $314,000 in Oregon estate tax with only 9 months to pay. His options for generating that much cash in a short period of time seemed limited: he could harvest the timber, or he could sell a

ll or part of his farm, with some of it being developed. He chose neither of these options.

Despite a substantial estate tax bill that he had to borrow money to pay, Gunderman never thought twice about keeping the farm alive.

“Being an only child and not having an heir, my neighbors encouraged me to get rich quick by selling the land and retiring, but I couldn’t sacrifice the history or the hard work my maternal grandparents and parents, not to mention myself,  put into this land. I wanted to protect it,.” said Gunderman. “The thought of having to sell the property to pay inheritance tax was terrible.”

Gunderman discussing the herd.

It was very apparent to Lucien, that in order to protect the farm, history, and resources something had to be done.

After talking with various land trusts, Lucien and his mother connected with Larry Ojua, Executive Director of the Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation District. The District had just begun an landowner easement program as a means of succession planning for their local community.

Working side-by-side with Ojua and the Board of Directors, the Gundermans struck up a partnership to explore their options.

Easements were a perfect fit as they allow the landowner to keep the land while selling development rights into the holding of the District which decreases the taxable value. Throughout many tableside conversations over the next four years, Lucien in partnership with the Yamhill SWCD, placed an easement on the property that protected it from fragmentation and development, with nearly 450 acres dedicated to pasture and crops and another 300 to timber and forest habitat. The plan not only met Lucien’s needs, but also generated an opportunity for additional income with a Forest Management Plan.  

“We chose to work with the SWCD because local farmers sit on the board and they understood the goals and challenges we face as farmers,” said Gunderman. 

Gunderman pointing out the unique features of the land.abitat.

The forest management plan intentionally limits annual timber harvest to a small percentage and laid out small clearcuts in a checkerboard pattern.  It also means that farm timber can be managed on a consistent basis long term, and remain sustainable for years to come. This allows the forest to remain lush and thick with wildlife habitat. 

“Yamhill SWCD started holding conservation easements as another tool in our toolbox to meet the conservation and succession needs of the landowners we serve,” said Ojua. “Many farmers in our area, like Lucien, are seeking opportunities to protect their land long-term as part of a succession plan. Conservation easements are a voluntary tool that can be useful in that process.”

Luckily for Gunderman, he and his mother found a successor several years before she passed. And as luck would have it, that successor is the son of Gunderman’s high school best friend.

Gunderman and Avery

“Having begun working on the farm as a youngster, Alex knew the land, the herd, the farm and he knew me. One day my mother and I sat him down and asked him about where he saw his future heading. When he told us he wanted to work on the farm as long as possible, it was an easy choice, we wouldn’t have considered anyone else,” said Gunderman.

That day, Gunderman and his mother surprised Alex with the opportunity to one day take over  the farm management completely. Alex is now the trustee for both existing trusts, and works the land side-by-side with Lucien. Not only as his best friend’s son, but as his friend and business partner.

For Gunderman and Alex, the easement and having a successor offers not only a financial benefit, but a sense of peace around the future of these working lands and the vitality of the wildlife habitat they support.