Okray Family Farms
Originally published in the May 19, 1992 Stevens Point Journal
When Ed Okray was a kid, he plowed potato fields using a team of horses. Doing it the old way, it took five weeks to plow the 110-acre Okray family farm, he said.
“Now, we plow it in half a day,” said Ed, who in his 81 years has seen how Plover’s agricultural boom led to the growth the village has experienced in recent years. Potato farming has been the family’s lifeblood ever since his grandfather, John Okray, first tilled the soil in the town of Carson in the late 1800's.
“My grandfather was a trader in Chicago, and he had real estate,” Ed said. “In 1893, depression hit and he moved here. Someone sold him a farm on Mill Creek.” So began the story of Okray Family Farms and its contribution to agricultural and municipal growth in what is now the village of Plover.
The family farm started with John and his son, Joseph Sr., and was passed on to Ed, who recently turned over the company's presidency to his brother, Joseph Jr.
Joseph A. Okray III and Richard Okray, sons of Joseph Jr., have grown up with the company as have Edward A. Okray and Christoper Okray, Ed’s nephews. Other family members including James J. Okray, Alois S. Okray and Mike Finnessy, who married into the Okray family, are also key players in the business.
But had it not been for the efforts of Ed’s father, Joseph Sr., irrigation and potato processing operations may never have come to spark that growth, Ed said as he told the story.
Once Joseph Sr. got into farming, he established the Joseph Okray and Bros. Company in 1905. The family farm employed tenant farmers who tended to hay, potatoes and cattle. The Okray business also sustained itself through the trading and selling that John had begun in Portage County. “We owned all the land on the west side of Stevens Point on Highway 10,” Ed said of his family. “We had cattle on it and ran it.”
Hard times befell county potato growers in the early 1900s, though. Drought hindered planting in already dry soils, Ed said. And the influx of potato harvesting led to a drop in prices. Farmers just got sick of making too little for their crops, Ed said. As a potato grower, Okray Produce was out of business, he said. But the company kept itself alive through other crops and business ventures.
During the depression of the 1930s, the Okrays bought up farm land in Plover, marking Its first influence on the town. “1934 was the last year farmers grew potatoes,” Ed said. The company shrewdly began buying up defunct farms during the slump. “We bought out farms from banks in 1934 and UC35,” he said. “We tried to grow potatoes on sandy land,” but the crops produced little.
Irrigation seemed to be the only answer to the problem, Ed said. The company tried to buy aluminum pipe that would route badly need water onto its fields. “Then along came the war, and we couldn’t get pipe,” he said. The country, forced into rationing its resources, couldn’t spare the aluminum for things like Irrigation systems.
By the time the war was over, Okray Produce had acquired several thousand acres of land. “Then we were able to get it going,” Ed said. Irrigation companies that moved into the Plover area and their systems improved the land “10 times as good as when we bought it.”
The obvious next step toward improving business was to attract potato buyers. It wasn’t long before big-name potato processors like American Potato, the former Celestial Farms and Ore-Ida moved in with the Okrays’ encouragement. Del-Monte, another national food processor, eventually moved in, too, bringing more business and new residents into the village of Plover.
Other still prominent potato growers were also attracted into business. In the early 1950's, Clarence Worzella started up his family potato business, Ed said.
Although the Okrays weren’t the first to utilize irrigation, according to Malcolm Rosholt in “Our County Our Story,” the Okrays were instrumental in attracting irrigation companies to the area. “We knew there was plenty of water underneath, so we brought in well drillers from Nebraska,” Ed said. Having led the effort to establish the Bank of Plover (now M & I First National Bank of Plover), Ed and his bank loaned money to farmers to buy Irrigation equipment rather than watch them move on to buy more suitable land.
Okray Family Farms now grows at least 2,000 acres of potatoes each year. Another 4,000 acres produces other crops.
Through it all, the farms that seemed to keep their heads the highest above water were the ones whose families dedicated themselves to farming, Ed said. When agriculture hit bad times, “kids took off” and found jobs off the family farm, he said.
“Good, strong, farm families stayed together,” Ed said, making references to the Firkus, Burns and Worzella families, as well as his own.
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