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Native soil a growing inspiration for native son

Twenty-one-year-old Pat Brownfield has a lot to keep him grounded -- figuratively and literally.

Two months ago, he became part of the family team at Sweet Clover Produce in Walla Walla, WA. Along with his father, Bill, and his mother, Jan, Mr. Brownfield is helping the company get quality onions into the pipeline. That's the figurative part.

As for the literal connection to the soil, Mr. Brownfield has been instrumental in creating and orchestrating mud bog races at Bonanza Raceway in Walla Walla. For the past two years, he's gotten down and dirty with the best of them, enjoying every mud-flinging event that comes his way.

Mr. Brownfield was born in Walla Walla and moved to Kennewick, WA, when his family decided to get heavily involved in cherry production. "Then we moved back to Walla Walla to get into onions," he said of the 2001 relocation. Today, he is responsible for transportation and is part of the sales team at Sweet Clover. "My job is to find truckers and haul onions from point A to point B," he said. "Learning how can be tough."

Despite his young age, Mr. Brownfield brings a top-notch skill set to the table. He started working on his college studies while a junior in high school. He already has two degrees: one in agricultural business and another in plant diseases and insects. He's in the final stages of completing his third degree, in the science of art from Walla Walla Community College.

Mr. Brownfield accompanied his father to this year's Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit in Houston.

"He's a good kid," Bill Brownfield told The Produce News on the second day of the event, adding that he is proud to have his son involved with the family business at a time when the younger generation is drifting away from the produce industry.

The good vibe was reciprocated by the younger Mr. Brownfield, who said, "I'm not bothered about working with my parents."

"Growing up, I've always been around onions no matter what," he said. In addition to his degrees, Mr. Brownfield has real-life onion sales experience under his belt, having worked with Locati Farms and Walla Walla River Packing & Storage. His day starts around 4 a.m. when he rolls out of bed, and he arrives at his office around 5:30 a.m.

Mr. Brownfield brings some understated enthusiasm to the table when it comes to something he's passionate about: four-wheeling and mud bog racing. "I got involved in onions on the production side," he explained. "I drove a four-wheeler to change irrigation pipe since I was eight."

He's parlayed his interest in four-wheeling into some unique activities. Several years ago, he approached officials associated with Walla Walla's Bonanza Raceway with an idea that may be outlandish to some: creation of community mud bog racing events. It's the kind of earthy fun that can be enjoyed by pretty much anyone at any age.

Mr. Brownfield was given the green light, and 15 sponsors -- including area onion growers -- gave him $1,000 to breathe life into the competition. For the inaugural event, Mr. Brownfield had 45 different rigs entered by competitors. "The mud [was] flying 20 feet into the air," he mused. And it was clearly a great day for the more than 500 spectators who witnessed the mud bath and cheered on their champions.

When Mr. Brownfield races, he is sponsored by four-wheel manufacturer Can- Am.

This year's mud bog racing season came to a successful close. The change of seasons means Mr. Brownfield's four-wheeling activities will shift into high gear as a member of the Blue Mountain Search & Rescue team, a volunteer organization with which he has been involved for four years.

Asked which rescue has been the most harrowing for him, he replied -- quite unexpectedly -- that it involved his own rescue, which occurred when he was trying to get to a vehicle that was lodged on the side of a cliff, and he had winched his Jeep to a tree to keep it stabilized. He was inside his Jeep when it slid, and Mr. Brownfield found himself dangling over a 300-foot drop-off. Although he may have missed a few heartbeats, he miraculously winched himself back up the hill and the initial rescue mission was successfully completed.

"A lot of people think I'm nuts," he laughed. But the brush with death didn't dampen his enthusiasm for the rescue work that he still continues to perform.

At his core, Mr. Brownfield is a humble guy who believes in giving back to his community. And if he can do it from a four-wheeler or ATV, it's just that much sweeter.

As for sales at Sweet Clover, Mr. Brownfield said, "I'm learning the sales side slowly." This, too, may be an understatement for a young man who fearlessly travelled to area Fred Meyer stores dressed like an onion.

"I looked like a giant balloon walking around," he said with a chuckle.