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3.1. The Last Thing I Want to Do: Tales of a Reluctant Farmer

The Last Thing I Want To Do: Tales of a Reluctant Farmer
Feature
April 2000

Title image - Reluctant Farmer

By Tim Gilmer

Reluctant farmer-image1As a kid, I used to spend a couple of weeks each summer at "The Ranch," a magical oasis in California's arid San Joaquin Valley. The family-owned property contained a eucalyptus grove, lily pond, reservoir and hundreds of steers, horses, chickens and pigs, all bound by fields of alfalfa and barley. Beyond, thousands of acres of tumbleweed desert radiated toward distant mountain ranges to the east, south and west. To the north, the land stretched forever, proof enough to an emerging consciousness that the world, despite Columbus, was really flat.

My dad and his brother ran the cattle business from a nearby small town, Wasco. Each year in sweltering July, my brother, cousins and I descended upon the oasis. I was the youngest, always lagging as we made our barefoot rounds from the mud-molded reservoir banks past the smelly chicken coops, grunting pigs and flyswatting horses to the main corral where the steers panted in the sun. Although captivated by the real-life spectacle of the ranch, I lived in fear of almost anything that moved. The chickens wanted to peck me, the horses would kick me if I walked too close, and the pigs waited to trample me in the mud. A skittish steer was sure to set off a stampede if I looked at him sideways. By the age of seven I had made up my mind. No 4-H or FFA for me. The words "ranch" and "farm" had no place in my future.

By the age of 17, though, I had grown dependent on summer jobs in potato-packing sheds. Between my junior and senior years in high school I "followed the spuds" to eastern Washington with a migrant crew. At the conclusion of the six-week season there, I traveled back to California by way of Portland, Ore. The freeway seemed to cut the city in half, exposing rain-stained buildings, the ugly backside of the city and the dirty river that ran through it. Another avoidance warning instantly formed: Portland was the last place I ever wanted to live.

Later, about to graduate from UCLA with a degree in English, I made another negative decision: I would never teach. I was tired of sitting in classrooms for most of my life. Also, a couple of years earlier I had undergone a sudden transformation--from college baseball player to instant paraplegic--and had since been informed by a pretty graduate student, a quadriplegic herself, that the L.A. City Board of Education did not hire teachers who use wheelchairs.

So. My list of no-nos was complete. No farming or ranching, no living in Portland and no teaching. These were the last things I would ever do.

And indeed they were. As I write this, it is decades later and I am sitting in my faculty office at Clackamas Community College. In a few minutes I will take down my teaching shingle for the day and drive home to my nearby farm on the outskirts of Portland.

Reluctant farmer-image 2Grabbed by Farmland

July 11, 1965: One moment I looked down from a single-engine Cessna at the golden Coast Mountains, miniature whitecaps and the perfect curvature of the Pacific horizon (the world really was round!), and the next moment I lay in the wreckage of the plane next to my friend, the pilot. Never mind the how or why of the crash. Let's just say two young men in a small plane are no match for a mountain. In an instant my friend's life ended and my life in a wheelchair began.

Uncertain of how to reinvent myself, I managed to return to college and graduate while struggling with my new body image. Then I tried out a few roles--social worker, office flunky, wannabe documentary filmmaker, piano salesman, library helper--none of which led anywhere. Finally, seven years after graduating and now living in Oregon, I decided to return to school, get a master's and ... and what? The one thing I felt qualified to do was teach writing. Even though the prospect of returning to the classroom put me off, teaching writing seemed a logical extension of what I did best. Also, I was eager to transcend the stingy limits of SSDI and SSI checks. So I completed a two-year course of study, sent out job applications, and secured a part-time teaching position at Portland Community College.

 

What do you do when no one comes to your U-Pick and produce starts to rot on the vine? You start picking.

Three years later, now married and teaching full-time, I was living in a newly-purchased fixer-upper in Portland. It seemed the ugly city had changed, or maybe it was me. Then, as in a dream, the Ghost of Agriculture Past reared its not-so-ugly head and dumped a poor piece of California farmland-turned-development-property in my lap. It was not the San Joaquin Valley oasis by a long shot. My grandfather had purchased this parcel in 1912, but 25 percent ownership had eventually been divided among 40 nonfamily owners. Eager to liquidate an unwieldy situation, my brother and I and our cousins put the property up for sale.

While we waited for buyers to nibble, my wife Sam and I started cruising five-acre parcels. All we wanted was a quiet, wooded, secluded package of modest real estate a reasonable drive from Portland, but land is a living, breathing entity that has a way of reaching out and grabbing you. After three years of looking, we came under the spell of a turn-of-the-century farmhouse surrounded by huge walnut trees, Douglas fir and rolling pasture bordered by a peaceful creek. When the dust finally cleared, I had quit my teaching job, sold the fixer-upper and traded my percentage of the family property for a 27-acre farm.

Sam and I, questioning each other's sanity, then began the Great Farm Experiment. We had successfully molded garden plots from backyard soils, but the leap we were now making seemed more dream than reality. Could a paraplegic and his 110-pound wife make a living on a small farm, complete with pecking chickens, kicking horses, and stampeding cattle? (I had drawn the line at pigs.) At the age of 35, nearly three decades after learning that I did not belong on a farm, I was right back where I started--not belonging on a farm.

Right away I learned one of the first principles of farming: People are small; farms are big. I needed equalizers. I owned an all-terrain cycle already, but it was an old three-wheeler with no reverse. Exploring the property, I would unexpectedly run into dead ends--a sudden gorge drop-off, a deep creek, the corner of a barbed-wire pasture. Unable to back up, I practiced screaming.

 

Reluctant farmer -image 3
Dad and Lindsey on the farm in 1987.

I needed a small tractor with hand controls to work the ground. I needed a weedwhacker, riding lawnmower, chainsaw, sprayrig, cultivator, plow, disc, tiller and more. I needed things I couldn't buy: mechanical aptitude, the eye of a weatherman, a knowledge of metals, welding ability and experience farming. In time I needed a larger tractor. Most of all, though, I needed money. Luckily, the property exchange had spared me the humiliation of groveling at the feet of a loan officer: "Well, yes, I am a mechanically-challenged paraplegic with no farm experience other than running from chickens, pigs, horses and steers, but look at the positive side. I have a tiny wife who's as crazy as I am ...

So we did what nonfarm people always do with a small acreage--we grew a huge garden and called it a U-Pick. We planted an acre of tomatoes, beans, snow peas, squash, cucumbers and peppers, then tacked up signs at intersections, placed ads in the paper and waited. And waited and waited.
We soon discovered we were too far off the beaten track. What do you do when no one comes to your U-Pick and produce starts to rot on the vine? You start picking. You get out there in your wheelchair with your wife ragging at you for having such a stupid idea in the first place and you pick until you can't pick anymore, then call your friends and their kids and beg them to come over and help. Then you pile the best-looking produce in the trunk of your car and drive it around to the kitchen doors of restaurants and pretend you know what you're doing. And so began our vegetable delivery business.

A Septic Adventure

Reluctant farmer-image 4Owning land can provide easy opportunities for therapeutic sulking. Whenever I felt overwhelmed with weeds, besieged by bugs, or depressed by my own general ineptitude, I would ride my ATC to a secluded corner of the land and listen to the birds and watch the grass grow. One day, when I had been gone for a couple of hours, my wife started to wonder if it was time yet to worry. She was sweeping off the deck when she thought she heard a small voice in the distance.

The voice, of course, was mine, but from where I sat, it seemed quite loud, thanks to all that screaming practice. While exploring down by the creek I had decided to test out some curious-looking lumpy ground next to a blackberry thicket. When I got to the middle of the lumpy ground, it began to give way, moisture rose, and down went my ATC with a sucking sound, down to the axles, and a strong, sickening odor rose from the muck. I inspected what now looked more like primordial slime than ground. A large prehistoric insect with hundreds of legs slithered by. I had discovered the terminus of the septic drainfield.

My options were: (1) Dismount and crawl out of the slime, but for a paraplegic this would be like swimming in sewage, and besides, once free, how would I get back to the house? (2) Scream for Sam, then ask her to bring down the small tractor and pull me out with a chain while I sat, dry and safe, atop the ATC seat.

When Sam arrived, I made my request with my most reasonable face, but remembered that the tractor was still in the field where I had run out of diesel earlier that day. To bring the tractor down would first require her to carry a five-gallon fuel container across an acre of cloddy ground, climb up on the tractor and fill the fuel tank, bleed the lines (which she had not had the pleasure of doing before) and drive down a steep, dangerous hill to the creek where I sat waiting like a fool.

It turned out there was a third option: hers. I dismounted the ATC, she lightly bounced across the muck and hopped on the seat, and I crawled around to the back wheels and pushed. When the ATC finally broke suction, Sam gunned it and tore out of the muck, flinging slime from fat, knobby tires. As for me, I might as well have taken that swim in the septic tank.

Of Fertilization and Birth

Despite my shortcomings, we managed to gain regular customers and a modest delivery route. We traded our Saab for a minivan and bought an old pickup. We hired high school kids even more inept than I to pick produce and hoe weeds, but I did all the tractor work and selling myself. Sam did a lot of picking and delivering. We eventually began to make a profit, but not until we got rid of the high school kids, hired professional farm workers and expanded. Before we knew it, several years had passed and we had acquired more than 25 regular delivery customers and a reputation built upon neatly packed boxes of vine-ripe tomatoes, fresh lettuce picked the day of delivery and small green beans that shoppers fought over in supermarkets. We added fresh basil, baby corn, radicchio and other specialty items.

Then one day my past reappeared. Maybe I wanted to prove I wasn't that wimp who didn't belong on a farm. I decided to change our small herd of crossbred cattle to a larger herd of purebred Simmentals, then rent adjacent land and raise breeding stock that would sell for a pretty penny. So I purchased a superior-looking bull. His name was Bud--2,400 pounds of solid muscle with a curly top and a sweet disposition.

Bud's first calf crop was a test run--only three calves, all beautiful and large. The next year we bequeathed the whole herd to him, then waited for his offspring. This would be the generation that would propel us into the purebred business for real. While we waited, we trucked Bud to the Cow Palace in San Francisco for a range bull sale. He took top honors in the Simmental breed, selling for more than any other bull.

We were off to a promising start, and country living was agreeing with us. The farm was teeming with life everywhere we looked--newborn calves, herons, coons, possums, skunks, deer, coyotes, ducks, geese, beaver. Countless species of birds made nests in outbuildings and trees, making every spring a symphony. Mama Kildeer returned each growing season to lay four speckled eggs between furrows. Only one thing was missing--a baby of our own.

We had tried just about every method of conception known to mankind short of in-vitro fertilization, but nothing had produced a full-term pregnancy. Now we were older and time was running out. We decided to travel to a Cleveland hospital that had perfected the latest sperm-gathering technique for paraplegics. It would be our last and best shot at having a baby. Oddly, or perhaps not, the technique the doctor was going to use was strikingly similar to what our vet used to gather sperm from Bud for the Cow Palace bull sale.

We tried this method, coupled with insemination, three times in five days while staying in Cleveland, and after each procedure, we left the hospital for a late breakfast. We thought it was comical, and hopefully symbolic, that the name of the restaurant was--no lie--Pufferbelly's. But a month later we found ourselves disappointed again.

And it was much the same at home. When spring rolled around, we looked forward to seeing Bud's calves hit the ground. We thought those innocent white furry faces would surely help us forget our misfortune, but number 80 popped out twin bullcalves, one brain-damaged and near death. We tube-fed him three times a day and after weeks of constant dedication he and his brother--Cheech and Chong--eventually romped happily in green pastures.

Then came disaster. Our most beloved cow--Beebee--had a stillborn calf and became paralyzed in the process. Soon after, the same thing happened to Heartface. I rode out on my ATC twice daily to dispense feed, water, steroid injections and advice on how to cope with paralysis, but in the end both had to be destroyed.

The problem was oversized calves, some weighing 125 pounds at birth. Bud was too much for our cows. Two more calves were born with damaged legs from being cramped in the uterus, a third developed a disabling infection, and there were other birth-related problems. I began to feel a kinship with my herd--it seemed fate had it in for both of us. I sulked until the calving season ended.

Then I began to face the truth. When I looked deep into my motives, I had to admit the Great Farm Experiment had evolved into a compensatory endeavor to "overcome" my disability. My ambition to succeed was another way of denying my disability, something I thought I had accepted long ago. The farm--and the herd--had become my experimental laboratory. I had been trying too hard to prove my paraplegia was not a limitation rather than running the farm like a business, with attention to the bottom line and deference to common sense and practicality. The blame for the calving problems lay with me.

The Next Generation?

Wisdom, they say, often follows a hard lesson, and limitations, once accepted, can lead to unexpected happiness. Sam and I decided the time had come to try adoption. Our first attempt at this also met with failure, but we persevered, and through God's grace we found our way to someone who believed my disability had nothing to do with fathering a child. Fatherhood, she knew, derives from love, not sperm.

And so, Lindsey Elaine Gilmer came into our lives August 9, 1986. We brought her home when she was one day old. Instantly our priorities rearranged themselves. Eventually, thinking mainly of her health and safety, we changed to organic farming. As a result, our business grew. More important, our hearts began to grow in a way that we could not have anticipated. We continued planting, harvesting and delivering like always, but now the farm was a place to grow something precious--a family. Everything centered around the new life that had been entrusted to us.

We began to learn another well-known lesson: Time really does fly. Soon Lindsey was in kindergarten and l returned to teaching--part-time--at a nearby community college. I decided to do less hands-on farming and more teaching and writing. I began to notice that my body did not recuperate as easily. A day on the tractor left me stiff and sore.

Lindsey spent her early childhood petting calves and eating tomatoes and baby corn straight from the field. Later she began to do what kids have always done on farms--work. But she most enjoys walking down by the creek, appreciating the alder grove, cedars, cottonwoods, birds and butterflies. Now she is 13 and looking forward to the day she can drive. Unlike some parents, I also look forward to that day; her mother has taken a job off the farm, and we could use another delivery driver.

This past summer I drove Lindsey around to the usual stops and she got her feet wet handling a hand truck and heavy boxes of romaine lettuce. At Pastaworks, Lindsey was instantly recognized wearing her mother's familiar blue apron. "Uh-oh," said Robert, one of the owners, "here comes the next generation."

But you never know. Maybe living and working on a farm will not appeal to Lindsey. After all, it's a big world out there, filled with possibilities. Maybe one day she will even vow that this work--this way of life--is the last thing she wants to do.

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