Trucking and farming have always gone hand in hand. To run a farm, any type of farm, you will eventually need trucks – whether it be to haul product to market or supplies and feed for animals. For the Zehner family of Zehner Farms in Lebanon, OR all of the above applies. Being a very diverse business that includes raising cattle, managing orchards, hauling hay, straw, lumber, and other wood products, along with a retail feed store, trucks have always been part of Greg Zehner’s life – and he loves it.
Tracing the origins of Greg’s family roots, his great grandparents came to Oregon from Wisconsin, where they homesteaded land. Greg’s grandparents, Ed and Louisel Zehner, lived in Jefferson, OR where they were row crop farmers. Greg’s dad wanted to farm, too, so he and Greg’s mom Anabelle moved to Lacomb, OR and bought a small dairy in 1966. Growing up on this dairy, Greg, now 57 years old, started hauling hay when he was 16 years old. Driving a 1978 GMC with a 16-foot bed, he would pick up hay in central Oregon and bring it back to the dairy. Later, he began hauling hay for a neighbor, then another, then another, and so on.
At 18 years old, after graduating from high school, instead of joining his parents on the dairy, which really wasn’t profitable enough to support another family, Greg bought a 1972 GMC truck with a 24-foot flatbed, powered by a 671 Detroit and a 10-speed, and began hauling hay exclusively. As his workload increased, he eventually bought a 24-foot pup trailer to haul behind the truck, virtually doubling his payload capacity. At that time, running a truck and trailer, Greg really thought he had hit the big time. But that old truck didn’t have much power – it peaked out at about 13 mph when pulling a grade, and he even had to down-shift into 9th gear on the flats, where he topped out at about 49 or 50 mph, when loaded.
Running that GMC truck and trailer for several years, Greg’s first real semi was a used Freightliner cabover with a 400 Cummins and a 13-speed, which he bought in 1985. At that point, Greg thought he’d died and gone to heaven! In 1987 he bought his first brand-new truck – an International cabover with a 425 Cat and a 13-speed. Running into small dairies in his area, Greg needed a short truck, and this one fit the bill nicely. Later, Greg graduated to a conventional when he bought a 377 Peterbilt daycab, equipped with a 4-foot drom on the back, to haul even more hay.
For those that might not know, a drom is a small platform that is mounted behind the cab or sleeper that can be used to hold extra freight. Greg realized that he could get an extra “block” of hay on a drom, so he began buying daycab trucks, with a long wheelbase, and mounting 8- or 9-foot droms on the back. A typical load of big bales, which weigh between 1,300 and 1,600 pounds each, is 48 bales (8 blocks). But, if weight limits allow, Greg can load an extra block on the drom, giving him four more tons of
hay. That may not seem like much, but multiply it by five trucks, loaded every day for a month, and those droms really make a difference!
Truck #7, the one featured on our cover and centerfold this month (and on these pages), was the first truck Greg ordered with everything he wanted. It was not his actual 7th truck but, being a religious family, and “7” being God’s number representing completion, he thought it would be fitting to make this truck #7. The truck is a 2000 Peterbilt 379 with a 36” sleeper that, at that time, had a 265” wheelbase. Powered by a 600-hp 3406E Cat hooked to an 18-speed and 46,000-lb. rears, the truck was painted in Greg’s typical company colors of Dark Rose with Black Cherry fenders. Ordered with nine cab lights, Greg also added 13 Kenworth grill bars to the front and decked-out the interior with a wood steering wheel and a complete Rockwood toggle and switch package. He also had old school flames painted on the front fenders, and a friend built Greg a custom mahogany wood overhead console for his stereo, as well.
Driving this truck for almost eight years, in 2008, needing the sleeper on another truck, he had DSU Peterbilt in Portland, OR remove the sleeper and add an 8’ drom behind the cab. At this time, he also switched out the headlights to double rounds on Double JJ brackets and added Double JJ blinker bars up front. Continuing to run this truck full time, Greg drove it daily until 2018, putting 1.1 million miles on it himself.
During this span of time, much of the work in Greg’s area (Oregon’s Willamette Valley) was changing. After shutting their dairy down in 1981, most of the other smaller-sized dairies in the area eventually followed suit over the next ten years or so. It seems the next generation did not want to continue in the footsteps of their forefathers. In one year, due to these closures, Greg lost about 6,000 cows that his trucking operation hauled feed for. To accommodate these losses, Greg had to diversify. In the mid-1980s, he started hauling lumber and wood products, along with the hay, as well. A little later, he began hauling waste from a local green bean cannery in walking floor trailers (up to three loads a day), which is added to livestock feed. To this day, the work at the cannery still accounts for about 20% of Zehner Farms’ current business.
With all the local dairies shutting down, Greg had to find new hay customers, as well. Around this time, the business of exporting hay and straw to other countries began to explode. Today, much of the hay and practically all of the straw he stores and hauls (and it is a lot) goes to local exporters. When the straw market began to boom, Greg built two huge barns on his property – one is 120’ x 300’ and the other is 120’ x 350’ – just to store straw for export. On our cover this month, although it looks like a photoshopped image, it is not – it is a shot of Greg’s loaded truck coming out of one of those barns! Throughout the summer he fills the barns to capacity, and then begins emptying them in November. By May, both barns are empty.
Another aspect of Zehner Farms’ diverse operation is a retail feed store, which is also located on their property, that sells all types of hay and feed for various animals. Specializing in Timothy hay, orchard grass, alfalfa, straw, alfalfa pellets, grain, and more, local residents with horses, cows, goats, llamas, sheep, or whatever, can come to the store and buy what they need. Most of the hay for the retail business is kept in barns on the eastern side of Oregon and brought, as needed, to the store. Greg and his wife Sandy, with help from a few dedicated employees, personally run the store.
And speaking of Greg’s wife Sandy, these two met and began dating in high school. Four years later, in 1985, they got married – Greg was 22 and Sandy was 20. Today, some 35 years later, this devoted couple has three grown daughters – Gretchen (34) who is married and has two kids, Laura (30) who is married and has two kids, and Catherine (26) who is married and has one brand-new baby. The girls all help out on a part-time basis with the various aspects of the business, and Laura’s husband just joined the company recently, as well.
Greg’s mother passed away in 2016 and, shortly thereafter, his dad decided to retire. Since then, Sandy has become Greg’s business partner, and he couldn’t be happier. “Sandy is the best thing that ever happened to me. Without her support and help, none of this would have been possible,” said Greg. These days, Greg’s dad keeps himself busy by taking care of their 100 or so beef cattle – another aspect of their diverse business. Lastly, regarding the diversity of Zehner Farms, they also recently planted 23 acres of hazelnut trees, and are now anxiously awaiting their first harvest, which requires five years of growth. Used for candy, the popular hazelnut spreads like Nutella, and as a simple snack, hazelnuts are a booming commodity in the Willamette Valley right now.
In 2018, Greg decided it was time to give his old 2000 Peterbilt a facelift and semi-retire it from daily service. Removing the drom, with help in the shop from Larry Stevens and Ben Tacy, they stretched the wheelbase to 292” and then installed a 12 Ga. air-ride kit on the front. Next, they took the truck to Mike Wilson at Pro Auto Works in Drain, OR where he mounted the original 36” sleeper back on it (the truck they had put the sleeper on back in 2008 got wrecked but the sleeper was still perfect). Once that was completed, Mike repainted the entire truck in a Dark Raspberry color, which is slightly different than Zehner’s typical Dark Rose color. He also painted the new fiberglass front fenders, the 10” cab and sleeper drop panels from 12 Ga. Customs, and the fuel tanks Black Cherry, and then added “real fire” to those front fenders.
Once back in their shop, with some help from Dustin Boyles, the rest of the accessories were installed, including Hogebuilt stainless half fenders, Grand General stainless light bars and fender brackets, an 8” stainless exhaust system, 12 Ga. box covers with billet step plates, and a Valley Chrome front bumper. A painted stainless drop visor from United Pacific was added, along with custom “Hayride” emblems on the sides of the hood, and a painted (black) steel deck plate, made by South Fork Industrial in Lebanon, OR, which includes a recessed compartment that houses the air and electrical connections, and has an air-actuated door that opens and closes at the flick of a switch inside the sleeper.
Painter Paul Comeau of Comeau Lettering & Pinstriping in Vancouver, WA has lettered and pinstriped all of the Zehner trucks since the beginning – and this one was no different. Paul added his magic touch to various parts of the truck, including the deck plate, sides of the hood and sleeper, doors, and back of the sleeper. He also added silver leaf lettering to the doors, the truck number on the sides of the hood, and the words “Hay Ride” on the back of the visor.
Other changes to the interior include painted dash panels, glove box and upper door panels, adorned with real fire accents (done by Lydell Phillips at Alpine Auto in Lebanon, OR), a chrome shifter with a “grip” style knob from United Pacific, and a painted and polished Rockwood shift plate cover. Greg bought a new steering wheel for the truck, but after holding the original one for 1.1 million miles, he just couldn’t bring himself to replace it. Under the hood, the engine was painted in the Dark Raspberry color by Mike Wilson, along with the valve covers (Greg didn’t want to have to polish them anymore). Greg and the guys in his shop also polished the air intake tubes, the stock alternator, and parts of the stock turbocharger themselves.
For the photo shoot, Greg hooked the truck to a set of 2019 Western Classic 32’ flatbeds, loaded with big blocks of hay. Ordered with a full stainless package and fitted with Right Weigh on-board scales, the 96” wide air-ride trailers feature all LED lights, Hogebuilt quarter fenders (on the front of the pup trailer), painted tool boxes from Highway Products with stainless doors, and disk brakes. Other trailers in the Zehner fleet include (5) 48’ Western belt trailers, (2) sets of 28’-6” flatbeds (for when they need to go into California), (5) sets of 40’ and 24’ double flatbeds, (2) sets of 34’ and 30’ double flatbeds, (2) sets of 32’ long B-trains, and (2) sets of roll-top curtain flats (so the drivers do not need to tarp anymore).
In addition to all these trailers mentioned, the current Zehner Farms fleet includes 11 trucks – (9) Peterbilts, (1) Freightliner COE, and (1) old beat-up International conventional, all painted Dark Rose with Black Cherry fenders, but not exactly the same. They also have (3) Roadrunner squeezes – (2) of them are painted to match the fleet and (1) of them is just white. Hay and straw have always been their main business, and still is, but all this diversity has helped the company to flourish in all types of economic conditions and business climates. Only problem is, with so much going on, Greg is maxed out – he can’t do anything more without some help. So, the question is, will he get that help and grow some more, or maybe do what he “joked” about – get rid of everything and go back to being a one-truck operation!
When he’s not working his butt off, Greg enjoys spending time with his family (especially the grandkids), camping, water skiing, and tinkering on his hot rods (he has a black 1957 Chevy pickup truck with a blown 900-hp big block engine and a black 1967 Chevy Nova, which is still in the works). Greg and Sandy are also very involved in their church and firm believers in God’s blessings. “We have been blessed to work with good people who have helped us along the way to get where we are now,” said Greg.
Some of those “good people” they have worked with over the years include all of the dairyman, hay growers, and exporters, with a special thank you going to longtime customer Louie at Rickreall Dairy. Also, thanks go out to Gary Sears at Valley Pressure Washing in Millersburg, OR for getting the truck and trailer ready for the photo shoot, and to Greg’s parents for all the help and support they have given Greg and Sandy, throughout their lifelong journey, since forming Zehner Farms in 1981.
Having grown to capacity, Greg is not totally sure what the future holds. Their daughters have recently shown an interest in carrying on the family business, and one of their very young grandsons loves trucks, so the future may (or may not) be in one or more of their hands.
In the meantime, running their diverse business with honesty and integrity, Greg and Sandy Zehner will continue to work hard and serve their community, through good weather and bad (their business actually thrives in the winter because they are not afraid to tarp and chain up). And, as often as he can, Greg will get out his cool Peterbilt and take an old fashioned “hayride” through central Oregon, just like he has since he was 16 years old!