Once I had made the decision to strike out on my own, Ralph notified the various landowners that he would not be renting the ground, and recommended that they deal with me. One of the Camarillo ranches was no longer available, or I chose not to rent it. Iím uncertain about that. The dry-land ranch was going to be developed into a golf course and mobile home park. I was not interested in that ranch anyway. I made a deal for the Camarillo property south of Highway 101, across from the High School. There was only about twenty-five good acres on that ranch. A man named George Longo managed the property. He was a realtor in Camarillo, and married to a granddaughter of Adolfo Camarillo. I called Bernie Doan and made a deal with him also for the fifty acres that straddled Calleguas Creek. I farmed that ranch for at least four years before I finally met the man. All our negotiations were by phone. I also made a deal with Albert Beltramo to lease twenty-five acres from him in Moorpark. Albert also gave me the use of an old shop building on the ranch. All of the leases called for me to pay 20% of the crop as rent. That was standard for tomatoes. I sat down with Preston Taylor, the Hunt Foods field-man, to sign contracts for the crop. The price that first year was $28.50 per ton. There was a contract for each ranch. Hunts took the rent out of my checks, and sent the money directly to the landowners, most of them anyway. George just took my word for it. At the end of the season I offered to show him the statement from Huntís, but he told me that was not necessary. "I told you that I trust you".
I should backtrack here just a bit. About two years earlier my brother Alan left Simi to live on a small ranch he bought in Paso Robles. Tom asked me to take over the management of what was left of Sinaloa Ranch. There was no farming operation; just a matter of liquidating the remaining parcels of land, and paying off a note at Bank of A. Levy. In the process of doing that I had become very well acquainted with the manager of the Simi Branch of the bank. Jay Paxton and family lived on the lot in back of Mom and Pop Wilson. They were good friends. I went to the bank to talk to Jay about getting some financing for growing a crop of tomatoes. Barbara and I had some cash saved up, but not enough to carry us through the season. He offered to set up a line of credit for $20,000 that I could draw on as needed. Of course he asked me to fill out a financial statement to satisfy the main office in Oxnard. I put up no collateral; it was just a personal unsecured note. After using up our savings, I drew out each month enough to pay the bills for that month. I paid interest only on the length of time that I used the money. On average that was only three or four months. It was a very cheap way to finance. The interest that I earned on my money in the winter pretty well balanced what I paid out in the summer. This arrangement with the bank was to serve me well a couple of years later. (Leisure Village)
Ralph and I came up with a flat-rate per acre for each operation that I did with his tractor and equipment. He also offered to pay me by the hour to get his harvesters ready for the coming year. That included converting one of them to harvesting in bulk, rather than bins. This mainly meant attaching a much longer elevator to deliver the tomatoes into trailer mounted tubs. This elevator was hinged in the middle, so it also required another hydraulic cylinder and control valve. He also paid me to run the harvest for him in the fall. We balanced the books after harvest. I donít recall how we came out, but this arrangement made it easy for me to get into business.
One of the first things I did was to open accounts at some of the suppliers in Oxnard. Eventually I had accounts with seven tractor dealers, two auto supply stores, a bearing supply, a welding supply, a hydraulic supply, an auto electric supply, a diesel injection shop, two chemical companies, two seed companies, two blacksmith shops, two petroleum dealers, two tire dealers, and Camrosa Water Co. Iím proud to say that I was never late with a payment to any of them. Some offered a discount for prompt payment, so I took advantage of that. Whatever interest I paid at the bank was much cheaper than paying late fees at the various stores. Besides, when you pay on time, you can ask for special service without feeling guilty!
Another thing I did was to consult with Dee Domes, the accountant that had been handling the Buelton Ranch books and tax returns. She told me to buy a very simple bookkeeping system at a stationer store. I canít remember the name of the system, but it was very simple. It consisted of a journal where I registered all the checks, and all the income. Then there were a number of columns for recording what the checks were for; labor, payroll, taxes, water, fertilizer, rent, etc. Then there was another book for keeping the payroll records of each individual employee. I also bought a time-book. Iím pretty sure that Barbara was working at Kenís Stationers at the time, so she helped me with that. Dee also helped me get all the employers tax I.D. numbers, and the accounts set up. I had to send in Quarterly Reports and any payments due to Social Security, Workmanís Comp, and State Disability. Fortunately, there was no Income Tax withholding on farm labor, but I did have to send in W-2 forms to the IRS and State of CA. I took care of all of this myself the first year. Later, when my payroll got bigger, Barbara took care of much of it for me. I took all my records to Dee at tax time, and she did the income tax returns.
I did buy a little equipment that first year. The first thing was a front mounted cultivatorfor my Farmall tractor. The system we had worked out for planting required a front cultivator and a trailing sled cultivator. On the front I had a furrowing shovel in front of each rear wheel, and a chisel point in front of each outside sled runner. I also mounted a tank for soil fumigant, and six applicator shanks, to place the fumigant about four inches deep, in bands twelve inches on both sides of the three seed rows. This was a new product, and a new method of application. Fumazone made it possible to fumigate against Nematodes and other soil pests at planting time, or even after planting. All the older products had to be in the ground for two weeks before planting. That meant fumigating "solid", since you did not know where the rows were going to be. Being able to strip-fume meant that we were fuming only 40% of the field. The application rate was 4/10ths of a gallon per acre; total cost about twelve dollars per acre. The old method cost about thirty dollars per acre, including application. The planters were mounted on the back bars of the sled.
I hired Gerry to work with me. My deal with him was the same as the deal I had with Ralph when I worked for him. I paid him a monthly salary, a tonnage bonus, and $50.00 per month for the use of his pickup. Gerry had bought a used Chevy from his cousin Steve. I put him to work on Ralphís TD-9B preparing the ground for planting. I was busy getting my Farmall ready to plant, using Ralphís sled.
I think that Albert loaned me a fuel tank to store diesel in Moorpark. Actually, Albert did not own the ranch that I was farming; he just had a long-term lease on it. His ranch was next door. Thatís why there were extra tanks and an unused shop building available. I arranged with the petroleum distributor in Somis, Gib Sawtelle, to put one of his tanks on the Doan ranch in Camarillo. That tank was for diesel. Gib also had a service station, so we fueled our vehicles there or at the Mobile Station on one corner of the ranch in Camarillo. We referred to that ranch as the Mobile field. Wasnít that creative? We also had a couple of five-gallon cans that we used to take gas to the Farmall.
I planted the Moorpark ranch first. The other fields would follow, about one week between each planting. The crop had to be spread out, so that no two fields were ready to harvest at the same time. My plan was to do all the planting before going back to do the first cultivation. That turned out to be a disaster. By the time I got back to Moorpark the weeds had come up so abundantly, and grew so fast that I was not able to make the cultivator work. It simply plugged up with weeds, and then covered the little plants with dirt. I struggled with it for half a day before deciding to replant. I worked the weeds into the ground, and still had sufficient moisture left to sprout the seed. I was able to cultivate the other fields, each in their turn.
When the plants were about three or four inches high I arranged with a labor contractor in Oxnard to send a crew out to weed and thin. Fred Tafoya had been a customer of mine when I worked for Maulhardts. One of his sisters, Eleanor, had been in my class at school. I learned the hard way that these crews would only do as good a job as the crew foreman made them do. Some fields were left very clean and others just got a lick and a promise. Fred had one very good foreman that I had also known from past years, named Joe Molina. Later that summer he did something for me that was to have a lasting influence on my farming operation. More on that later.
I arranged with a young man named Dale Felton that worked for PureGrow to monitor my fields for pests. From him I bought fertilizer, chemicals and pest control application. He walked each field at least once a week. I made a habit of walking each field at least once a week myself. When the plants were just coming out of the ground I walked about every other day. A barely visible critter called a Flea Beetle could do enormous damage during those first two weeks. If they ate the tiny first "True Leaves" the plant would die. The only real way to detect them was to watch for damage, then use a magnifying glass to find the beetles. If they were detected we had to react quickly. Later in the growing cycle worms were our concern. Not the tomato worms as you might think, but corn-ear worms and pinworms. Tomato worms normally only attack the leaves, so if they only occur in small numbers they are not a problem. The other two attack the fruit, and that can be a major problem. I tried to do as many things for myself as possible, but chemical application I left for the experts. The exception to that was the Fumazone that I applied at planting.
Does this look like a worried farmer, or someone without a care in the world?
This picture appeared in the local newspaper.
As soon as the weeding was done I cultivated again, followed by an application of liquid fertilizer. This process was called "side dressing", as opposed to "broadcast". For this I used curved knives with delivery tubes welded to the back of the knife. Two shanks per row were mounted on the front cultivator. Pure Grow furnished a tank trailer with a wheel driven pump, and a flow divider to deliver a constant, even flow of fertilizer to each applicator. The rig was calibrated to deliver the equivalent of 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre. I used a mix that also contained some phosphate, and maybe some potassium. The nice thing about using liquid was that it was immediately available to the plants.
In my method of planting the field was basically flat, with shallow furrows on either side of the middle row of the three that we planted with each pass. That left what we called the "guess row" without a furrow. I "guess" I should explain that. The distance between the three planted rows was always 60 inches. The distance between the outside row on one pass and the outside row on the next pass might be a little more or a little less, depending on how straight the tractor driver could drive. Therefore it was referred to as the "guess" row. Before the first irrigation I made deeper furrows in all the rows, and turned the cultivator knives inward toward the plants to move a little dirt toward them. Finally I ran rollers on each side of the rows to break the clods and leave the beds as flat as possible. I had learned the importance of this while working for Ralph. In fact, I designed and fabricated those rollers for Ralph, with some help from John Cushman. We made them mostly of scrap material. Each roller was about twenty inches wide, 14 inches in diameter. The rolling surface was Ĺ inch bars, spaced about an inch apart. These we cut from worn out pick-up chain. (Potato chain). They were mounted by a hinge and spring arrangement that applied a little down pressure and still allowed them to float up over any major obstruction. These I mounted on a tool bar that fastened to the three-point hitch of my Farmall. When this was done my fields looked as though they had been planted on raised beds. I donít know of another grower that went to this much work to get his field ready for harvest. I should mention that it was important to have furrows for the harvester to travel in, even if you did not need them to sprinkle irrigate. Later, when I had my own harvester, I had occasion to work for several other growers. Without exception, my crew grumbled about how much harder they had to work to get all the dirt clods off the sorting belts while working in those other fields.
As irrigating time approached I rented mainline and sprinkler pipe from Rain For Rent, in Santa Paula. I think I rented 1800 feet of 6 inch mainline and 5000 feet of sprinkler pipe. That was enough to cover just over five acres at a setting; 29 sprinklers per acre. The rental agreement was for six months, with the option of applying the rent toward the purchase price at the end of the season. I planned to furrow-irrigate the ranch in Moorpark, known locally as the old Thorpe Ranch. For that purpose I bought 600 feet of six-inch gated aluminum pipe. Albert also loaned me some gated pipe for that ranch.
When it came time to irrigate Gerry and I ran the mainline and then put out the sprinkler pipe. Each field took five or six days to cover, moving the sprinklers every day. I gave them about16 hours of run time, always starting in the late afternoon. That was the most efficient time to sprinkle. There was usually no wind at night, and less evaporation. I had specified 9/32" nozzles for the sprinklers, which were spaced 30 feet apart in the row, and 50 feet between lines This spacing and nozzle combination gave me ľ" of water per hour. A 16-hour run gave me four inches of water. That was about the limit of what the ground would absorb without puddleing.
We worked together to move pipe from one field to another, then Gerry did most of the moving of sprinklers. Each time we turned on the water we walked through the field to be certain that the sprinklers were all working properly. Plugged nozzles could usually be cleaned out with a stiff wire. For those times that the wire did not work, we had to learn to remove, clean and reinstall the nozzle under pressure. We always carried a Ĺ inch box wrench, just in case. We also learned from experience that it was a good idea to have a spare nozzle or two in our pockets. We got a little wet in this procedure. While you worked on the plugged nozzle, the sprinklers on both sides of you continued to turn, wetting you every time they came around. For real excitement, try changing a complete sprinkler head under pressure! All the water that can flow through a ĺ inch riser under 50 lbs. pressure goes straight into the air with no place to fall but straight down on top of you! Fortunately, the irrigating was done in warm weather, so we didnít suffer too much.
Mostly I took care of the Moorpark ranch by myself. The plants were not growing as well as they should have been. I had lost some of the moisture because of the replanting, so I decided to start the water a little earlier than normal. One of Albertís boys, Tommy, came by to show me about the pump and valves. I spent all afternoon regulating the water, to have each furrow get the same amount. When everything seemed OK I went home for dinner. The next morning everything looked great. The water had soaked all the way across to the plants. I canít remember how many days it took to get across the field; maybe three or four. I was very surprised at how soon the field was dry enough to cultivate. As I was doing that job it struck me that the plants had not responded much to the water. I continued to monitor the field every day or two without seeing much growth. Finally, two weeks after the first irrigation, the plants were starting to wilt for lack of water. So, I started the season-long routine of irrigate and cultivate every two weeks. Nothing worked. The plants grew very slowly, not reaching even half the normal size, and setting very little fruit. I realized that there was something very different about the soil in that field. It appeared to be mellow, and easy to work with, but the minute you put water on it, it sealed up tighter than a drum. So tight that the roots could not penetrate, and succeeding irrigationís did not penetrate. I have never seen anything like it, before or since. I suppose that there was a way to farm that ground to make it produce. Albertís sons had grown a decent crop of sugar beets on it the year before, but I made up my mind that I was not going to stick around to learn the secret! In the end it produced well under ten tons per acre. Ouch!
In Camarillo we irrigated constantly. By the time we finished the three fields, it was time to start over again. I know we irrigated three times at the Mobil field and either two or three times at the Doan ranch.
During that first summer I bought another wheel tractor. My old friend Fred Buchannon was working as a foreman on the B. I. Co. Bell Ranch by this time. He told me that they had a John Deere 420 Hi-crop that they wanted to sell for $250. I asked why it was so cheap. He told me that they had broken one of the rear axle drop housings. Their mechanics had replaced it with a new one, but it still leaked oil when it was working. They had taken it apart to replace all the seals, but it still leaked when working. They didnít know what else to do, so they wanted to get rid of it. I had need for a high clearance tractor to get in the fields when the tomato plants were full grown, so I decided to take a chance on it. Gerry took me to the Bell Ranch, and I drove the tractor the 5 or 6 miles to the Doan Ranch. Sure enough, when we got there gear oil was running down the side of the housing. I spent a lot of time studying the situation. The oil was running down between the housing and the drawbar support, so I couldnít see exactly where the leak was. I figured that surely the right and left housings were the same, just facing different directions. Both housings had oil level and fill plugs ahead of the drawbar, forward of center. So, it figured that both must have plugs back of center, hidden by the drawbar. We removed a few bolts to remove the drawbar and there it was; a tapped hole for a ĺ inch pipe plug, but no plug! A new flush plug cost me about 25 cents. The housing never leaked again! When I got around to telling Fred the story he laughed and said it was great that it turned out that way. He did ask me not to mention it to his mechanics; no need to make them look bad! They were also my friends and there is no point in burning bridges!
My $250 John Deere
Shop and diesel Farmall in the background
We made very good use of the little JD. It was used for all sorts of odd jobs that didnít require the larger Farmall. It would turn on a dime and leave change, so it was great for pulling the pipe trailer into and out of the tomato rows. After a couple of years the hydraulic lift system started to malfunction, so I took it to the JD dealer in Oxnard to be repaired. The main housing was worn beyond repair. Replacing that and all the other parts that went along with it cost me about $1300. My $250.25 tractor suddenly got sort of expensive! I have no complaints though; it was vital for many small jobs, and served me well. When I quit farming I got $900 for it.
Sometime in mid summer my friend, Joe Molina, came by to talk to me. He said that he had a friend that was an experienced Tomato Harvester operator. He and his family had been going up north every fall to harvest tomatoes, but now they wanted to find work in Oxnard. The manís name was Trinidad Ambriz, and he could bring a complete harvest crew with him. When I talked to Ralph, he told me that he already had two crews of sorters, but he needed one more operator. He agreed to give Trini a try, and if he worked out he could stay for the season. I called Joe and arranged a meeting with Trini. I was impressed by his manor and confidence, but disappointed that his experience was with FMC harvesters. He said that adjusting to a different machine would not be a problem. "Give me one day, then if you think I canít do the job Iíll leave." Naturally, he was disappointed that his family would have to find work elsewhere, but I told him that if he worked out, his family could come to work the following year.
I never will forget that first day! First days are always hectic. The machines may have a few kinks to straighten out, crews have to be trained as to what fruit to leave on the belts and what to take off, tractor drivers have to learn their responsibilities. And there is always the tension of getting that first load through inspection. Add to that the fact that all of us had to learn how to handle a bulk machine and highway trailers in the field to their best advantage. I had decided to put Trini on the bulk machine, for reasons that I donít remember. I brought Trini to the field the day before to show him all the controls, and let him practice a little on some open ground. Then on the first day I rode with him for a while to make sure that he knew how everything worked. The most crucial thing on those machines was the depth of the cutting knives. If that wasnít right nothing else was going to work very well. Once I was sure he understood all the controls, I left him alone. I knew that he would learn faster if I was not looking over his shoulder. I will have to say that he really struggled all morning. Ralph was getting restless, for good reason. I had a little private talk with Trini. I told him how Ralph felt. He assured me that by the end of the day he would have "la mano"óthe hand, or as we would say, have a handle on it. He did get better in the afternoon, but Ralph was still not convinced. I had to talk pretty fast to get him to agree to another day. I would like to think that it was great insight and wisdom that prompted me to go to bat so strongly for Trini. More likely it was the memory of how long it had taken to train other drivers.
Day two was much better. Trini kept pace with the other machine. Starting with day three he consistently outperformed the bin machine. Of course part of that was the greater efficiency of loading bulk rather than bins. For my part, there were fewer trucks to be loaded with the forklift, so that made life easier!
I truly donít remember what the Camarillo fields produced that year, maybe 18 or 20 tons per acre. Of course the Moorpark field was a total disaster. I rather think that when Ralph finished my fields he harvested for Birkenshaw again. I went with him to run the operation, as I had been doing all season.
When the crop was all in, the bills all paid, and the bank loan paid, it was time for some careful reflection on all that I had done, and where I could do better. In spite of a total failure in Moorpark, we had repaid the bank, had our own savings back, and had taken out enough money to pay our household expenses. After what I had experienced with Ralph, breaking even was a triumph of the first magnitude! Also, I had learned a few things about myself. Much to my surprise, I found that I worried much less about my own operation than when I was working for Ralph. I thought it would have been the opposite! I was able to make the daily decisions easily and quickly, then go home and leave it all in the field.
I also thought about all the successful growers that I knew. I figured that, on average, they were no smarter than I was, only more experienced. And some of them had much more overhead expense than I had. If they can make it, I can make it! I talked it all over with Barbara, of course. She seemed to be OK with my plan to charge ahead, though less enthusiastic than I.
By far my biggest expense that year was for harvest. Of the $28.50 I was paid for a ton of tomatoes, I paid Ralph $12.50 for harvest. If I was to stay in business, I had to have my own harvester. I didnít want to go through the learning process again, so I was looking for a used Blackwelder. Preston told me of a machine for sale in Buelton. I also got in touch with Tom Bettancourt, the Blackwelder sales representative. He told me of a machine in Gilroy, and two in Patterson, or thereabouts. He also said that they, Blakwelder, had a used machine in the shop that was for sale.
Barbara and I drove north to look at all of them. The machine in Buelton was in pretty good shape, but the owners had been waiting months for a Ford part that had failed. That sort of spooked me. The machines in Gilroy and Patterson were well used. So, we ended up at the Blackwelder plant in Rio Vista. Tom met us there. He explained that one of their dealers had made a deal that involved taking four older harvesters in trade. To help out the dealer, Blackwelder had agreed to take one of the trades. What Tom proposed was that they would completely overhaul the machine; all new bearings, new conveyor belts and chains, new shakers. In other words all the wearing parts would be new. In addition, they would put in all the upgrades that had come out up to that time. That meant a bulk elevator, and a sickle mower in place of knives to cut the plants at the ground. That feature alone was compelling to me! We made a deal in short order. I think that I paid a little more than seven thousand dollars, including sales tax and delivery to Oxnard. That had to be, far and away, the best deal I ever made in my life, as a buyer or seller. It was a fair price, but that machine made more money for me than anything else I could have purchased. Several years later I learned that a classmate of my brother Alan named Joe Smith had moved to Patterson to farm and that he was the one that had first owned my machine. It truly is a small world!
I knew that I would need my own crawler tractor sooner or later, so I started shopping for a late model TD-9. The only two that I found were not very attractive, so I ended up buying a used Alice Chalmers HD-6 from Wallace Machinery. By this time my buddy Norm Frost was working for Bob Powers, the AC dealer. I checked with him about the HD-6. He said that it had belonged to Nishimori Brothers, and that they had completely overhauled the tractor about a year before trading it in. I think I paid $3600 for the tractor. At some point I bought Ralphís disc, ring roller and subsoiler, including a second tool bar that carried coil-shank chisels.
Gerry worked with me to double disc, plow, and subsoil all the fields. In Moorpark all we did was disc the plants into the ground. It was understood that we would leave the ground clean whenever we left a ranch. I borrowed an Atlas two-way plow from a friend that first year. I returned it with all new shares and landsides. A good deal for both of us!
That winter Barbara did something for me that seemed insignificant at the time, but turned out to be the instrument of whatever success I had as a grower. She brought home a yearbook for me to make entries in. At first I didnít quite know what I was going to do with it. I sure didnít need to write down appointments, because I had no appointments. Anyway, I put it in the PU and started writing down the things that I had done every day; ground work, planting, cultivating, weeding, irrigation, harvest, etc. Along with the bare facts I made some comments about good and bad results. At the end of the year I realized that this book could be a guide for the following year. When I quit farming, I still had all those yearbooks. After the end of the following year I realized that there was a definite, repeating pattern to the farming cycle. There was a predictable time after planting that was best for the first irrigation, an optimum time between irrigations, and a predictable harvest date. Of course all of these things varied according to variety and soil and field location. Weather conditions had some, but very little effect.
Preston was a great help in figuring out a planting schedule. He always kept informed on the number of days that it took for each variety to get from emergence to harvest. Also he had the collective experience of all his growers to work with. When we sat down to write a contract he made out the delivery schedule. Huntís agreed to take a certain number of tons each week, usually 400 or 500 tons, starting in late August. Preston also had a good handle on how long it took for the seed to emerge at various planting times. Seed planted in late Feb. took nearly three weeks; March plantings were about two weeks; April plantings ten to twelve days. I had a few early May plantings that emerged in seven days. A variety that normally took 125 days from emergence to harvest might take 128 days if it was planted early. Naturally, the plants that grew in maximum heat and daylight matured the fastest. With all these variables in mind, I could start with a projected harvest date and work backward to get an emergence date and a planting date. Going forward from the emergence date I could predict when the irrigations should be. I also learned that I could be somewhat flexible on the first irrigation, but after that I better irrigate by the calendar, not what the field looked like. Having a schedule made out allowed me to use my sprinkler pipe efficiently. I never had two fields that needed water at the same time. Over time that changed of course, as I farmed more ground and had more pipe. It is sort of amazing how close all of this worked out. I seldom missed a harvest date by more than a day or two.
Another lesson I learned was to concentrate on the things that I could control. It was a total waste of time and energy to worry about the things I could not control, such as the weather. I just had to do the very best I could with those things that were within my power to control. Fretting over a decision never made it easier. I tried to bring all my knowledge and experience to bear on the problem and make a decision immediately. If action was needed, why not get started on it as soon as possible? That way I could go home with an uncluttered mind.
That second year I planted the Doan Ranch and about 35 acres of the Mobil field. As I mentioned, I wanted out of Moorpark. Albert was kind enough to let me continue to use the old shop, so that was sort of a home base for storing things.
Gerry helped me through the winter and early plantings, then left on his extended trip to Europe. I could handle the late planting and cultivating by myself. I had figured out that I could mount both the planters and cultivating knives on the sled at the same time. To plant, I raised the knives up out of the way. To cultivate, the planters came up and the knives went down. Using soapstone markers, I marked the exact depth of the knives in the down position, so making the change was only a matter of minutes. This way I never got behind on my cultivating, like I had the year before.
I really enjoyed cultivating. It was a very important operation, but more than that it was so rewarding to look at a clean field at the end of the day. For the first cultivation I used three pairs of concave discs spaced about two inches apart that straddled the three tomato rows. Since the discs were rolling they never got plugged with weeds or trash. The discs also moved the dirt slightly away from the plants. Behind the discs came two flat knives on each side of each row. The dirt coming over the knives filled the depression left by the discs. Behind these knives were another set of V-shaped knives to cut the weeds in the furrows. Finally, there were furrowing shovels to open the furrows again. I ran the tractor at about four miles per hour. I covered fifteen feet in width with each pass, leaving only three two-inch wide bands of un-cultivated ground. I could easily do 30 acres in a day, and have plenty of time to go to town for coffee! Just think; it had only been thirty years since I had done that job with two mules and a riding cultivator, one row at a time, and at a snailís pace! For subsequent cultivations I did not use the discs, and in some cases I used fewer knives.
When it came time to irrigate, I was able to hire a young man to help out with that. He was in school, so he only came in the afternoon when it was time to move pipe. I used the labor contractor again to weed and thin. Sometime during that spring Ralph came over to talk to me. He needed to sell his TD-9B. His creditors were after him, and that tractor was somewhat at risk. He offered to sell it to me for $4000. I had intended to rent a second tractor for harvest, but this was too good to pass up. I talked to my banker, and he was agreeable to extending me more credit. So, for someone that didnít want to go too fast, I wasnít doing too well! I had bought two crawler tractors, a harvester, and most of Ralphís tillage tools! Oh well.
TD-9B I sold new to Douglas Recreation in Simi Valley. Later, I bought it back
and sold it to my employer at the time, Ralph Roatcap. I bought it back from
him during my second year of farming.
When I quit farming, Glenn bought it from me.
I bought the yellow TD-9B, used, during my third or fourth year of farming
I pretty much played the irrigation by ear the second year. When the season was over, I realized that there was an identifiable pattern. The lighter ground, Mobil, needed water every three weeks, three irrigations. The heavier ground, Doan Ranch, could wait longer for the first irrigation, then only required two irrigations, four weeks apart.
Gerry was home from Europe in time to help me with harvest. Earlier in the year I looked up Trini to arrange for him to bring his crew. The entire family worked for Bob Jones Berry Farm in the spring, picking strawberries. Trini was a crew boss. As the day approached for harvest, I went to Oxnard to make final arrangements, only to find out that Trini was in Mexico on business. Panic time! I was assured that he would be back in a few days, but I was still concerned. As it turned out he did make it back in time for harvest.
That first morning was sort of like an episode of the three stooges. I had to break in two tractor drivers and the sorting crew. We had not yet worked out a good way to open "lands", that is lay out a pattern of 40 or 50 rows that the machine could go around, making all left turns. This had not been necessary with the bin machines and small trailers. The year before, with Ralphís machines, we had used the bin machine to open lands for the bulk machine. Anyway, we started off trying to go back and forth, rather than round and round. That meant backing up the big trailers to be able to turn around. What a mess! Of course all of my friends had to stop by to see how we were doing. All of their good-natured advice didnít help one bit! All in all, it was not an auspicious beginning. By midmorning things were running smoothly. I think we picked two loads that day, then pretty much three loads a day the rest of the season. My fields all produced 22 to 24 tons per acre, which was a big improvement over the first year.
When my harvest was winding down, Preston told me that Berylwood was going to need some help. I arranged with Fred Buchannon to start work on a field in Somis the day after we were done in Camarillo. We worked in Somis for about a week, then we moved back to Camarillo to work for Dick Underwood for nearly a week. I donít remember the figures exactly, but I know that the profit on those two jobs completely paid for my machine. Add to that the money that I saved on my own harvest, and it made for a very nice year! I forgot to mention that we got a couple of dollars more per ton from Huntís that year.
I was pleased with the way the harvester performed. Getting rid of the knives, and replacing them with a sickle mower sure made life easier. The sickle did require some maintenance, but you always knew it was going to cut! I bought one or two extra cutter bars that I could keep new sections on, ready to be installed on the machine. Sections, by the way, are the actual cutting blades that do the work. The sections would wear out in time. We also had a few weeds that could break the sections, or sometimes a rock would break them. I learned to have a spare sickle on the machine at all times. I gave Trini a few tools, so that he could change sickles when needed. It only took a few minutes.
When harvest was over, I moved the machine back to Moorpark. I parked it outside the little shop that Albert let me use. As time permitted through the winter, I did the work necessary to get it ready for another year. Gerry double disced all the fields. I had seen a pull type four bottom Atlas plow in front of Wallace Machinery for some time. It seems as though, partly through my own efforts as a salesman, everybody was using wheel tractors with mounted plows. This plow had become obsolete, even though it was new. I kept dickering with the salesman until I was able to buy it for about half itís original price. So, I started plowing in back of Gerry. At this point, I sort of broke ranks from the other growers. They tended to subsoil, then plow. Sometimes they did one or the other. I decided to plow, then disc to break up the clods, run a leveler over it, and then subsoil. This left the ground open at least twenty inches deep, without a bunch of clods on top. Iím not sure if my system was good or bad, but it seemed to work for me. In the spring I used a springtooth harrow to loosen the ground and get rid of the weeds. To prepare for planting I went over the ground a couple of times with a wooden harrow with short spikes on it. The idea was to have the ground nice and firm, with the moisture close to the surface.
During that winter one of the old time farmers, Gus Ferro, cut back on his farming operation. He had an auction to sell his surplus equipment. I bought a twenty-four foot harrow and a bin trailer, of all things! I built some pipe racks on it for moving irrigation pipe. The harrow I bought to leave on one ranch that was hard to get in and out of.
Little by little, I was accumulating lots of "stuff". I canít put an exact time frame on some of these purchases, but in the first three years I bought a Miller Roughneck welder generator. It was small enough to carry in my pick-up all the time. I also got a small electric air compressor that I carried in the truck. My acetylene-welding outfit was bolted to the floor of the truck. One side of the full width toolbox had welding supplies, electric drill, portable grinder, and impact wrench. The other side had wrenches, hammers, etc. I had a small vice bolted to the inside of the tailgate, so when I let it down, I had a nice workbench, and all the tools. Having everything in the truck was handy all year, and vital at harvest time.
There were two Schreiner families in the equipment business in Oxnard. Matt and his son Bill were Oliver dealers. Schreiner Bros., George and Walt, sold Case for years then changed to David Brown, an imported tractor. Both of these dealers did lots of fabricating. I had George and Walt build me a twenty-foot springtooth harrow frame, with drawbar, or "evener". I used the shanks from the old harrow that I got from Douglas, and a few new ones. They also built a twenty-foot wooden peg harrow for me. I had them make a special high clearance pipe trailer. I used that for the sprinkler pipe and the bin trailer for mainline. I bought a used ĺ ton IH PU for Gerry to drive. I got a 120-gallon gas tank and transfer pump for his PU, to use for fueling tractors and the harvester. He also had a large toolbox, and a set of wrenches. From Matt Schreiner I bought a new Marvin sled cultivator and also a three point hitch cultivator. Berylwood had sold their ranches to Etna Life Ins. Co. Etna got out of the row crop farming business. That meant they had several tractors for sale. I bought a Farmall 540-Diesel with front cultivator from them for $2400, I believe. I also got several long tool bars for my new cultivators. This tractor became the main workhorse for planting and cultivating. It was cheaper to run than the gas tractor, and most importantly, it had a GREAT seat. It was fully adjustable, mounted on shock absorbers and springs, and could easily be swung up and back, so that I could stand up to rest my back while cultivating. I loved that tractor!
Walt Schreiner told me that they had sold a new 45 ft. Eversman Leveler to Tom Brucker, and were taking in a used 40 footer. He suggested that I deal directly with Tom if I wanted the Leveler. I made a deal to buy it for $1200. I bought a "tool porter" from Manuel Gill. A tool porter is a trailer that can straddle large implements, pick them up and transport them on the highway. Another thing that I had to buy was what is called a "converter gear". That consisted of a truck axle and short drawbar, with the lower half of a fifth wheel mounted on top. We used this to convert the semi trailer from a set of doubles to a pull trailer to be pulled by one of the tractors. (For tomato harvest). Actually, I had one converter gear stolen right out of my yard in Santa Rosa Valley, and had to buy another one.
In 1973 I bought a new ĺ ton IH pickup for myself, tomato red, of course! By then one of Gerryís friends was working for me and I let him drive to and from work in my old truck. By then it was getting hard to get gasoline, so I had a second gas tank installed in my truck. The only other thing I bought new was an IH Vibra-Shank chisel. I used this on some of the heavier ground to work a little deeper than a springtooth was capable of.
In order to start the fall groundwork before we had finished harvest, I bought another used TD-9B, from Matt Schreiner. This way, as soon as a portion of the field was harvested, I could get a tractor and disc started. I always tried to get all that work done before the winter rains. At the time I bought this tractor, I probably should have found a large wheel tractor instead. The problem was that would have meant buying new tools to go with it. With all crawlers, the tools were interchangeable.
After the second year, I exercised my option to buy the rented irrigation pipe. In the next two years I bought two more systems of similar size.
For the next portion of this story, I need to go back to 1946, after I got out of the army. Bob Cannell mentioned that there were a bunch of large picnic style tables with benches for sale in Hueneme. They had come out of the Navy Base there. He suggested that we take the ranch truck down, and bring some tables back. I think they were $10.00 each, and he bought two or three and I bought one. What I remember about that trip was that as we drove through the lower end of Santa Rosa Valley he pointed out a ranch that was known as the Camarillo Dairy Ranch. It belonged to Adolfo Camarillo. Bob told me that everyone that ever farmed that ranch had gone broke. "Just tuck that little bit of information in the back of your head Leigh boy. It might come in handy some day". I drove past that ranch hundreds of times while I worked in Oxnard, and most of the time the ground lay idle. Then, in the mid sixties, that portion of the ranch, and more, was sold to a large development company. The first thing they did was to create the Camrosa County Water District, to supply water for the development that was to follow, as well as agricultural water to the farmers. The development didnít happen as planned, so they started leasing the ground for farming. A man named Gus Ferro leased the portion that had been the Camarillo Dairy. Gus was what I guess you would call a non-customer of mine when I was selling equipment. I called on him regularly, but never sold him anything. Gus hired Mel Nunez to do some extensive earthmoving, in order to be able to furrow irrigate all the fields. Then he started planting various vegetable crops. It seemed to me that every time I drove by the ranch, they had water running in every field. After about three years Gus pulled out. Maybe Bob was right!
I was working for Ralph when Gus gave up on that ranch. Ralph suggested that maybe he should try to rent it. I told him what Bob had said many years before. That and the fact that Gus was telling everyone that the ranch had been his "write off" ranch, kind of spooked Ralph, so he didnít pursue it. So, once again the ground was idle.
In the late winter of 1972-3 one of my neighbors in Camarillo, Dick Giesler, told me an interesting story. Another development Company had purchased all the ground that Gus had been farming, with the intention of building a gated community called Leisure Village. Some mutual friends of Dick and I, Miller and Bocalli, had leased the portion of the ranch that was not going to be developed right away. They then went to the Production Credit Association to arrange financing for the farming operation. I guess they told the loan officer about leasing the ranch. I think it was a clerical error, but in any case Production Credit filed a lien against the property, in order to be certain that they would be repaid. When the project manager for Leisure Village got a notice of the lien he was furious, naturally. He would not be able to start his project with a lien against the property. He kicked Miller and Bocalli off, and got the lien removed.
Dick was farming a field adjoining Leisure Village, and assured me that it was good ground. I badly needed more ground to farm, so I decided to see what I might be able to do with it. The first thing I did was to talk to the last man to farm it. I already knew what Gus Ferro thought of it, so I looked up his ranch foreman instead. His take on it was very different. " I know that Gus bad-mouthed the ranch, but I always grew good crops there. In fact, the best crop of spinach I ever grew was on that ranch". Armed with that information I spent some time walking over the property with a shovel to turn up some soil to look at and feel. The soil ranged from good to nearly pure sand. There were several water meters strategically located for irrigating. It had not been farmed for a year or two, so it was overgrown with weeds. There was an area where the tumbleweeds had accumulated in a pile 8 or 10 feet high in places, several hundred feet long and 50 to 100 feet wide. This happened to be on some of the better ground. I knew from my conversation with Dick that the tumble-weeds would have to go, one way or another. I also knew that the Fire Dept. wanted all the standing weeds put down. I spent a few minutes digesting all of the facts before deciding to make an offer. I put on my salesmanís hat and formulated a plan. What I needed to do was to sell them on the idea that they needed me as much as I needed them.
I went to the construction office on the property to look for the Project Manager. I found out that the manís name was Howard Schau. The secretary sent me to an office in Westlake village, and there I was told that he had left for the day. It was suggested that I go to the field office at 9:00 the next morning. This gave me a little time to think the whole thing through, and refine my sales pitch!
I did catch up with Howard the next morning. I introduced myself and told him that I was interested in leasing ground. He immediately told me of his past experience with Miller and Bocalli, and expressed his reluctance to enter into a deal with anyone. I knew this was coming, so I played my ace right away. I told him of my financing arrangement with the bank, and guaranteed him that there would never be any liens against the property. I could tell that I had my foot in the door, so I pressed on. I proposed to pay $100 per acre for all the land that I deemed worthy of planting to tomatoes, and a lessor amount for any other crop. This would be paid half in advance, and half after harvest. I further proposed to double disc all the remaining land for $15 per acre, and to get rid of the tumbleweed mountain for a flat $300. My first rent payment was two or three times what I charged him for my work. I knew that being able to show his bosses a little income rather than a considerable expense for cleaning up the property would be appealing to him. Soon enough we had agreed on a deal. He had his secretary type up an agreement that we both signed. It was a good morningís work! Howard and I had a long and mutually beneficial relationship.
The next thing I did was to arrange to get the TD9-B hauled to the ranch. Hauling the large tractors was one thing that I never did for myself. I donít really know why I didnít buy a tilt-bed trailer for this job. Next I moved the disc with my tool porter. In the process I found that one of the bearings on the disc had failed. That meant a trip to Oxnard for a replacement. Using the tool porter as a hoist and a long bar for leverage I was able to get the shaft with eight blades out from under the frame, replace the bearing, and put everything back together that afternoon. I started disking the next morning. The weeds were still green, so the disc did a good job. I should mention that all of this happened while Gerry was away on his extended trip to Canada to visit David and Susan.
When I offered to get rid of the tumbleweeds I didnít have a clue about how I was going to do it. I didnít think the Fire Dept. would let me burn them. My last resort would have been to hire someone with a hay baler, and hand feed the weeds into it. This would have been a very slow and tedious chore. I had seen Dickie Giesler burning weeds on another property nearby, so I asked him how he managed to get a burning permit. He said that what I should do was go to the Fire Station in Camarillo to ask for a permit. They would turn me down, but then I should go back a few days later and talk to a different Fireman. He said that little by little I could figure out what they wanted to hear and what they didnít want to hear. The problem was that NO burning was allowed in the City Limits. I also figured out that they would be delighted to be rid of the tumbleweeds, as they were a fire hazard. Finally, on the third or fourth try, the Fireman said, "where you want to burn is outside the City limits, isnít it?" Bingo! That was the key. I said I thought it was just outside. I got my permit, and was told to call in the day I wanted to burn to see if it was a burn day. They wanted a clear day, so that the smoke would rise, rather than hang in the air. A few days later I awoke to crystal clear air, and just the slightest hint of east wind. I figured that the Fire Dept. in Ventura, where burn days were designated, would not be aware of the east wind. I called the Fire Dept. in Camarillo and got clearance to burn. By the time I started lighting a fire at the east end of the tumbleweeds, the wind was blowing enough to carry the fire downwind through the entire stack of weeds. As the fire moved I followed behind to make certain that everything burned. It was all over in about twenty minutes! There was nothing left but ashes!
By the time I had finished the disking I had decided how much ground I would pay rent on. I gave Howard a statement of the work I had done, and a check for the rent, deducting what he owed me. He was pleased and I was pleased. I guess thatís the definition of a fair deal, isnít it? Both parties were satisfied.
Because planting season was getting close, and I was working alone, I decided to make Ralph Roatcap a deal he couldnít refuse. He was in the process of getting back into the tomato business. I told him he could have about sixty acres of the Leisure Village property for 10% of the crop; half the normal rent. He came to take a look at it, and decided he would take it. That was a relief to me. For me to farm it that first year, without Gerry, would have been tough.
Meanwhile, I got the other fields ready to plant. I think I had planted one or two of them before Gerry came home. We usually made planting a two-man operation; one driving and one tending the planters. Doing it alone just meant that I had to turn my head often to be sure the planters were doing their thing.
Gerry was talking some of going to Europe again, and possibly settling down in Ireland. I thought that it was time he committed himself to something, whether it was working or going to school. Since school didnít seem to be a consideration, I suggested that he stay to work with me and that we do some farming together. That appealed to him. Over the years I have had some guilt feelings for having interfered in his life in this way. Itís something I donít really believe a parent should do to an adult child. It all turned out well. Today he thanks me for what I did. He realizes that it really was time for him to commit to something. Obviously, time has proven that he committed to the right thing!
We decided to plant some rather sandy ground on the Leisure village property to banana squash. I bought some seed from Albert Beltramo and arranged to borrow his modified bean planter. Albert had been growing banana squash for much longer than the twenty or so years that I had known him, starting in San Fernando Valley. He sort of guided us through the entire planting, growing and harvest process. There was never a market for squash in the fall. The general practice was to put the squash in stacks of 20 or 30 right in the field, then cover them with vines to protect them from the sun. After we were finished with tomato harvest, I hired four people to stay and stack the squash. I think we started to sell it in December and January. That first year I paid all the expenses, then Gerry and I split those expenses and the income evenly. I donít think either of us made any money, but Gerry was hooked! The following year he farmed on his own and worked for me at the same time. He bought a small used cultivating tractor for himself, and paid me for the use of the larger tractors and the tomato harvesting.
I was still in the learning process as far as growing the crop, but things were starting to fall into place. The pattern that I spoke of was becoming more evident, and the whole process more routine. I had a nice crop, maybe about 25 tons per acre. Also, the contract price of tomatoes was going up a little every year.
Ralph got a job harvesting for Mike Brucker, the son of Rip Brucker. Rip and Mike both farmed near me in Camarillo. Ralph only had one harvester prepared for working, so he asked me to bring my machine and crew to help out. We both worked there for several days. By the time we finished, the Mobil field was ready to harvest. Ralph and I made a deal for him to help me at the Mobil field in exchange for me helping him harvest his field at Leisure Village. We kept track of the tonnage and settled at the end of the season. I worked alone to harvest the two fields at the Doan ranch. As we were finishing Ralphís field at Leisure Village, Howard Birkenshaw came by to ask Ralph to harvest for him. He had lined up someone else to do the job, but that someone couldnít get there in time. I ended up taking my machine to Moorpark to help with that job. When that was done Ralph still had one very small job to do in Camarillo. He asked me if I would mind if he hired my crew to work on his machine for a couple of days. I talked to them, and they were happy to get the work. Obviously, Ralph had observed what I already knew; I had a very good group of people working for me. I made the statement many times over the years that I had the best crew in the county, and I still believe that to be true!
All in all, it was a very good year for me; better crop, better price, I did some custom harvest, and I made a little money from subleasing the Leisure Village field. I rewarded myself with a new ĺ ton IH pickup, tomato red, naturally! I think it cost me about $3500. Wow, what happened to the price of vehicles since then?
I settled accounts with Howard Schau for the first year. By then I had a better idea of what ground I would plant in tomatoes. To my surprise, there was really nothing wrong with most of the property. It seemed to grow good crops. The drawback was that it took lots of water if you tried to furrow irrigate, as Gus Ferro had done. We solved that problem by using sprinklers. So, for the following year, I paid the higher rent on almost all the property. I also bumped the rent up to $150 per acre. Howard seemed to be pleased with our arrangement.
Harvesting in Santa Rosa Valley
This series of pictures were taken in 1974, or 75
For the following year, 1974, I thought it would be a good idea to use chicken manure on the Leisure Village ground, since it was rather sandy. I got in touch with another acquaintance from the Maulhardt days, Henry Luna. Henry had started as a young man with one small truck, loading and spreading steer manure by hand. As time went by, he got his own loader tractor, several spreader trucks, and finally a large truck and trailer to haul the material to the field. By this time the egg business in the county was very big, and the influx of Japanese vegetable growers created a demand for chicken manure. We decided to apply twelve cubic yards per acre. This would give me the sixty pounds of nitrogen that I wanted, and ample phosphate, as well as some trace minerals. We applied the manure in the fall, after plowing, subsoiling, disking and leveling. Then we used a springtooth harrow to cover the manure.
Those fields produced very well the next growing season. So well, in fact, that I decided to use only chicken manure on all the fields in the future.
I let Gerry farm some of the Leisure village ground. I took him to talk to Howard Schau so that he could lease directly from him. Over the years he grew tomatoes, Lima beans, broccoli and some hybrid sweetcorn seed for Associated Seed Growers. He probably grew other things that Iím not remembering. Limas were the only crop that did not produce well. I kept him on salary and gave him whatever time he needed for his own fields.
About this time I made a change in the way I got the fields weeded and thinned. I asked my friend Joe Molina to send me a few men that I could hire directly to do these chores. I figured that if I had the same crew for the entire season, under my supervision, that I could get better results. He brought me four men. One of them, Salvador, had a car for transportation. I spent lots of time with them the first day or two, then just checked with them once a day. This turned out to be a good move. I was getting consistently good work from them. I found enough other jobs to keep them busy until the last field was cleaned.
One of the worthwhile things they did was to pick up rocks. Most of the fields had some small rocks in them, from two to four inches in size. These rocks could cause lots of problems in the tomato harvester. They could damage the sickle, or lodge themselves between the frame and various moving parts. I asked Albert Beltramo if I could borrow a small two-wheel box trailer from him. He said that I could take the older of two, and keep it for my own. Thatís what you call a bargain! The system was to put the trailer behind the little JD tractor and drive through the field. Three men walked behind, cleaning one row each, tossing rock into the trailer. When the trailer was full, it was backed up to a wash, or other designated area to be dumped. The hitch was fastened to the rear cultivator bar, so it could be raised up enough to make unloading fairly easy. This operation was performed just after the second cultivation. That way it was not likely that any more rocks would be brought to the surface. To my surprise and delight, this operation cost me less than ten dollars per acre. Every year there were fewer rocks to pick, and the harvest went much smoother.
I tried my best not to hire any illegals. For one thing I thought that those that had spent the time and effort to be legal should have priority. The other, more selfish, reason was that I did not want to loose my crew in the middle of a chore to "La Migra". I always paid above minimum wage, so all in all I never had any trouble finding people to work.
When it was time to irrigate I had Salvador and one other man help Gerry and me put out the pipe, and then they worked every afternoon to help Gerry move the sprinkler lines. When all the fields were clean of weeds and rocks, I let two or three of the men go. I kept Salvador to help out until we were through irrigating and harvesting.
One thing I remember very well that year. We had planted a 30-acre field at Leisure Village with rather marginal soil moisture. The seed came up nicely, and was about two or three inches high when we got a very hot east wind. Barbara and I were going to go to San Miguel for a week. Gerry and I drove to all the fields, and I told him what to do with each one. Some were to be watered, some weeded, some cultivated, etc. When we looked at the Leisure Village field all the little plants were lying on the hot ground. I told Gerry to just forget about this field. All our irrigation pipe was committed to other fields. Besides, by the time we could react it would probably be too late. When I looked at the field a week later I could not believe my eyes. The plants were a lush green and had grown two or three inches! The field produced a nice crop in the fall. I also remember Gerryís first words when I got home. "Boy, am I glad to see you! I have been running in circles trying to do what you seem to do so easily!"
I had another conversation along those same lines a few years later. Staben Brothers farmed close to one of my ranches. They grew tomatoes, sweet corn and maybe other crops. They came to me one day to ask how I was able to do all that I did. They farmed less ground than I did, but they were working till dark every day, while I was in the PU headed home at 4:30. I had to think about the answer for a bit. "Well, for starters Iíve observed that the two of you spend lots of time arguing about what to do, and how to do it. Beyond that, the most important thing is to do everything at the right time. There is a time to cultivate. Too soon and you make a mess. Too late and you donít kill the weeds. There is a time to weed, a time to irrigate, a time to do each job. If you want to do the job quickly and well, do it when it should be done! Before I go home in the afternoon I know what I am going to do the next day, so there is no time lost. Last, but not least, have the right tool for every job." A year later they did take part of my advice to heart; they split up and went their separate ways!
My daily routine was to get up at 6:00 AM, eat breakfast and be at the ranch by 7:00. As soon as I was certain that everyone else knew what was to be done I went to my own chore for the day. About 8:00 I headed for the coffee shop in Camarillo. If Gerry and I were working together I took him with me. Frank Gill was always there and a few others that I visited with. During harvest season I skipped breakfast at home, in order to be in the field early. I wanted to have everything ready when the crew arrived. I checked the oil in all the engines, started them, and hooked up at least one trailer. When the crew arrived all they had to do was climb on the machine and start down the row. When I was sure that all was going well I went to town for breakfast.
All the fields produced well that year. The price of tomatoes was moving up every year, so the combination of good price and good production made for the best year, by far, that I had up to that time.
I had one little mishap while we were harvesting the Mobil field. The harvester engine began to make a noise that I had heard before from one of Ralphís machines. I knew it was the timing gears wearing out. The engine was a 134 cu. in. Ford. The hydraulic pump was driven by the camshaft, which in turn was driven by the timing gears. This arrangement worked fine for tractors, but Blackwelder put a much larger pump on the engine to run the hydraulics of the harvester. This put an extra load on the timing gears. Also, the engine was a little overloaded by the extra hydraulic pump that was added to run the sickle. Because of that I had decided to replace the engine with a Ford 172 at the end of the season. I called the Ford engine distributor in Long Beach to see what it would cost, and to find out if all the dimensions were the same, so that I could use the old radiator, clutch, etc. I was told that the two engines were totally interchangeable. By the time I got off the phone, the harvester was stopped at the far end of the field, and the crew was milling around. When I got there I found that the engine had quit entirely. The timing gears had failed and in the process snapped off the end of the camshaft.
Fortunately, it was a Friday afternoon, and we had nearly completed our last load for the day. I sent the load off to the inspection station and went back to the phone. To my dismay I found that the distributor did not have a Ford 172 in stock. Before I could panic completely they said that they did have a 192 that was also interchangeable. So much the better! I didnít even know Ford made a 192. I arranged for someone to open the store for me at 8:00 the next morning. I was back in Camarillo before lunch and had the new engine installed by late afternoon. Our harvest schedule was to be off on Saturday and work a short day on Sunday. So Sunday morning we were ready to go back to work. Putting that larger engine in the harvester was one of the better things I ever did. The machine was now able to work in 3rd gear, low range. For some reason it ran much smoother in 3rd gear, low range than in 2nd high range.
During the winter of 1974-75 I got the idea of buying a shop building. I had seen an add in one of the farm magazines for a metal building that I could put together myself, sort of like an erector set. When I talked to Howard about it, he said that it was OK with him, on the condition that I remove it when he needed the ground. We selected a place that would be the last to go into houses. He helped me get a permit from the city for a temporary farm building. I ordered a 22x50-foot metal building with a large sliding door at one end and a walk-in door on one side. I think it cost about $2500 delivered. I had befriended a building contractor that was doing some work at Leisure Village, and he helped me lay out, and set the concrete forms. We poured a four-inch slab, without footings or steel, so that it would be easier to remove when the time came. My contractor friend lined up a cement finisher to do the pour and finishing.
About that time I hired a friend of Gerryís named Terry Lyon to work with us. His first task was to help us put up the building. Each truss came in four pieces, two posts and two roof-beams. These were bolted together on the floor, then raised and bolted to the floor. These trusses were of 1/8th in. metal, formed and welded into a box shape for strength. They were not so heavy that we could not handle them, using ropes, bars and long poles to get them in place. They were spaced 10 feet apart, with 2-inch lightweight square tubing between them to hold the outside skin, which was corrugated metal with baked on light green paint for the sides and white for the roof. I think the job took about a week to complete. When the building was up, I got Edison to bring in power. We were next to Santa Rosa Rd, so they only had to set one pole. There was no charge for that; I just had to commit to use the service for three years. Thatís something else that has changed drastically!
I had an electrician come out to wire the new shop with overhead lights, and outlets along the walls. I had a telephone line brought in. I think the whole job was about $3500, floor, building and wiring, not counting our labor. Meanwhile, Maulhardt Equip. had sold out to Gibbs International, and Gibbs was moving out of the old building. I was able to buy several wooden parts bins and a storage cabinet for next to nothing. I think I had at least six bins, each six feet wide, with twenty compartments in each bin. Those bins were used in the original Maulhardt building in downtown Oxnard, then moved to the new building where I worked. I still have one of them, along with the storage cabinet, in my shop here in Mariposa. The parts bin is at least seventy-five years old.
At a consignment store in Simi I bought a nice wooden desk for $20 and a swivel office chair for $5. A man that lived in Leisure Village used to walk out into the fields to visit once in a while. He gave me a very old dresser that served as a rodent proof place to store seed. Thatís also in my shop today. I built a long wooden workbench on one wall of the work area. Across from that was a free standing welding table. So, the final layout of the shop was twenty feet of storage in one end, and thirty feet of work area at the end with the drive-in door. My desk was just to the left inside the walk-in door, with the dresser on the other side of the door. I felt as rich as a king!
The new shop allowed me to stock lots of spare parts. Having things on hand saved lots of running when repairs were needed. My three Pickups used the same water pump, so keeping a repair kit on hand was worthwhile. I also kept a water pump kit for all the IH tractors. They were very easy to install, and dirt-cheap. On the other hand, when I needed to replace the water pump on the John Deere, I had to buy a complete new pump, to the tune of about $150. Installing it was impossible without removing the radiator!
My new shop and relatively new truck
For the harvester I kept nearly everything you can imagine, enough to do a complete yearly overhaul. I had dozens of ball bearings of varying sizes, drive belts, drive chain, pulleys, and sprockets. I bought drive chain, four sizes, in bulk, as well as hydraulic hose, three sizes. I used re-usable hose ends, so that I could make up my hoses as needed. I had learned that I could save money on almost all the parts for the harvester by buying from industrial suppliers. Buying in bulk made it even cheaper.
I bought a tool from Blackwelder that was worth its weight in gold. They designed a tool to remove the worn or damaged cycle sections from the cycle bar. One pull of the long handle sheared the rivets. Another tool was then put in the devise to punch out the old rivets, and still another tool set the new rivets. Doing all that with a hammer and punch was quite tedious!
Every winter we overhauled the harvester, and gradually made some improvements that made it more productive. Some of these were my own invention, but most were things that Blackwelder was putting on the newer machines. They always made the improvement packages available for retrofitting. Probably the best thing they did on the newer models was to shorten the rear cross conveyors. In the original design the cross conveyors extended to the outside of the sorting conveyors. They used a metal deflector to deflect the tomatoes onto the sorting belt. On the newer machine the cross conveyor belts dropped the fruit off the ends, onto extended sorting belts. The immediate result of the longer sorting belts was that there was now room for six sorters on each side, instead of five. In theory at least, that increased the capacity of the machine by 20%, since sorting dictated the forward speed. I donít think that Blackwelder made this available for installation on the older machines. I decided that I could duplicate what they did with a cutting torch, welder and some steel. I bought new shorter cross conveyor belts. The old ones had to be replaced every year anyway. The new belts were much thicker and more wear resistant. It turned out that they lasted at least three years. The old sorting belts needed replacing also, so I just ordered the new long ones. I also had to lengthen the conveyor frames and the platform that the sorters stood on. It was quite a chore all in all, but very much worth the effort.
The other major thing I did was my own design. The rear cross conveyors were originally driven by a long belt from the secondary, low-speed jackshaft. No mater how tight we kept this belt, the slightest overload would cause it to slip, causing the fruit to pile up at the back of the machine. It was a constant source of trouble. I fabricated a double reduction chain drive to run off the rear, primary, high-speed jackshaft. This worked wonderfully well. It did have one flaw. There was not room to incorporate any kind of slip-clutch protection for the cantilevered belt drive drums, in case a rock jammed the belts. I figured I would deal with that when it happened. I think it only happened twice in the six years or so that the new device was in place. The repair turned out to be rather simple. One of the gears was fastened to the shaft with a drive pin, which sheared off. It was a simple matter to drive the old pin out and a new one in.
All of the changes I made, along with better crops, made it possible to pick five loads per day as easily as we had picked three in the beginning. Reducing the amount of "down time" in the field also contributed. I tried my best to anticipate problems. I was under the machine at every lunch break and after we finished harvest in the afternoon. I made sure that the tension was correct on all the belts and chains. Saturday mornings I made a more detailed inspection, checking for loose bearings, and excessive wear on all parts. Experience had taught me that certain bearings and sprockets needed to be changed once during the season. Doing so was fairly easy. Allowing them to fail caused all sorts of collateral damage.
I should also give credit to the crew for the increased production. Trini was a very good operator. He also supervised the sorting crew, most of them family members; his wife and daughter, a cousin and his wife and two daughters, plus various other nieces and nephews. The tractor drivers were also part of his crew. At various times two of Triniís sons, and some nephews. Trini always asked to be paid by the day. All the others were paid by the hour. I paid the tractor drivers and Triniís cousin Efren one hour extra every day for them to help clean the machine. This was done four times a day, at every break, and at quitting time.
The Ambriz family was with me until I had to quit farming. They were just a delight to work with; always on time, always cheerful, and always hard working. I always tried to pay the crew a little more than other farmers were paying. I figured that they were the best, and deserved a little extra. They were guaranteed four hours of pay just for showing up for work. There were mornings that I had to send them home because of rain. Starting the second year I gave each of them a bonus of $100.00 at the end of the season. Obviously I wanted to keep them happy! I think they appreciated the fact that I could speak to them in Spanish. Once or twice a week I would take my lunch box to where they were eating, just to visit. The family came from a small town in a farming area in the State of Michoacan, Mex. They all lived together in a large two-story house in Oxnard that they rented year-round. They had built a large Ramada in the back yard that was the cooking and eating area. Sound familiar? Barbara and I went to a barbecue there one weekend, and also attended the wedding of Efrenís youngest daughter, and the reception afterwards.
Their routine was to come up in late January to work in the strawberry harvest on the Bob Jones ranch. When the picking season ended some of the men stayed on to help pick up plastic, etc. They had a week or two of down time before coming to work for me. Then when we had finished harvest, some of them went back to the berry fields to plant for the next season. In early November they went back to Michoacan, but not necessarily to rest. Trini owned a small farm there, and his crops were harvested in the winter. He left one of his sons to run the ranch while he was in CA. Trini also owned a movie theatre and a small bus service. One year he casually announced that he had purchased a new tractor for his ranch. He had paid $35,000 dollars for it. "Trini, there is something very wrong here. You work for me, but you can afford a new tractor and I canít." He just grinned!
The Executiveís office inside the door, with parts bins in the back
1973, 74, and 75 were all good years for me, each one better than the last. In 1975 I averaged a little over 30 tons per acre. I had one field that produced 45 tons per acre. Gerry and I together put more than 4,500 tons through my harvester, and the price was very good. I was beginning to feel invincible. "Pride goeth before a fall."
During those three years I made some very bad decisions that would haunt me later on. Soon after I started farming the Leisure Village property a man stopped by to talk to me. He owned a ranch in the east end of Santa Rosa Valley. I think it was about 50 acres, planted to oranges. He said that he was planning to take the trees out, and was looking for someone to farm the ground. I told him that I had all the ground I needed, so I passed on the offer. I really should not have been so cautious.
After harvest in 1975, when I was flush with money, Frank Gill told me that a ranch he was farming in Santa Rosa Valley was probably going to be for sale. A Mr. Kreis from Los Angeles had bought several properties in that area that Frank farmed, or took care of. He must have been a little over-extended. He told Frank that he was considering selling the 50-acre Brewer ranch. Frank was certain that I could get it for $5,000 per acre. I thought long and hard about it. I had the ability to buy it. Not for cash, but more than enough down payment to make it easy to finance the balance. On the one hand, I knew full well that buying farmland was a good long-term investment. On the other hand, the interest on $5,000 was more than double what I was paying per acre in rent. In the end I did not pursue it. Buying that ranch would have been a very smart thing to do, as we shall see later. The ranch did not sell at that time.
The starboard sorting crew
1976 started out well. All the fields looked good going into harvest. Before we got very far there was a heavy rain. Rain on ripe tomatoes is a disaster. Black mold starts to grow on the outside. The fruit splits open and white mold forms in the cracks. The rest of the harvest was sort of a salvage operation. The crew worked long, hard hours to get out two or three loads a day.
This might be a good time to talk about the inspection of the tomatoes before delivery to the canners. When my father grew tomatoes in the thirties the canners did the inspection. They set their own standards, and did not hesitate to drive the price down for fruit that did not meet their arbitrary standards. Tom got so mad at this process that he helped to organize the growers statewide to do something about it. What came out of that effort was the California State Inspection Service. An appointed board representing both growers and canners set the standards. Later on there were also board members that represented the consumer. The State Inspection Service hired, trained, and paid the inspectors. The growers and canners were assessed per ton to cover the cost. The inspectors were rotated from place to place, so that there was little chance of them becoming too chummy with either side. The result was that we got a fair inspection. By the time I started growing, the Inspection Service had implemented a mechanical sampler that took samples in a pre-programmed pattern, each load different. They also used a smaller random sample to put through a blender to be electronically read for color. In other words they tried to take as much of the human factor out as possible. There was a limit set on various defects, and on total defects. A load that had more than 2% worm damage was rejected. Thatís not 2% worms, but 2%, by weight, of tomatoes that showed worm damage. 5% was the limit for mold damage. 15% was the limit for total defects, which included sunburn, sunscald, overripe, grass green, mechanical damage and "extraneous material". I tried to keep the loads as good as possible. The cannery docked for worm damage, mold and extraneous material. They gave us a 5% tolerance on all other defects. With good harvest conditions my loads averaged less than Ĺ % worm damage, and about 1% mold. I very seldom took dockage for general defects. I wanted to be paid for all the tomatoes I put in the tanks! Our inspection station was located between Oxnard and Camarillo. Preston Taylor, the Hunts field man maintained an office there. The truck dispatcher also had an office in the same building.
Harvesting after a rain was a totally different proposition. We were constantly fighting the mold problem. A load that was rejected for other defects might be "reconditioned" by putting very clean tomatoes on top, in the hopes that enough of them would get into the sample to make them pass. Mold, however, was a lost cause. Every hour that passed made the problem worse. We just had to dump them in the field, which was a large chore in itself. I dumped a load or two in 1976. As soon as I thought that my first load of the day had gone through inspection, I drove to the station, or sometimes called in to see how my grade was going. Depending on what I found out I could either loosen up or tighten up on the sorting.
At the end of the season, when all the dust, or rather mud, had settled I figured that I had barely broken even for the year, not counting our living expenses. Of course when the books say you are breaking even, you are really losing money. For one thing, you are a year older, and your equipment is also a year older.
I think it was in 1977 that the country experienced another "oil crises". Gib Sawtelle was having trouble keeping his customers supplied with gas and diesel. Gerry and I were spending lots of time waiting in line for fuel. On one of my routine coffee stops in Camarillo I happened to run into a man that I got acquainted with while working in Oxnard. His name was Mac, and he was an independent distributor of petroleum products. John Maulhardt had created a small industrial park on some of his ranch property, and Mac leased from him. When I told Mac of my fuel problems he told me that he could take care of me. He was not taking on new customers, except for farmers. The farmers had been his primary customers for years and he was determined to take care of them. Mac operated a service station in Simi, so he had a truck going by my ranches twice a week. The driver was most obliging. He would drive out into the field just to fill the 120-gallon tank on Gerryís pickup. My fuel problems were solved, all for the price of a cup of coffee!
1977 didnít even start out well. Howard Schau informed me that he was going to start developing a large part of the Leisure Village ground I had been farming. Planting season was getting close by the time I got this news. I scrambled around to try to find more ground, to no avail. In desperation I made a deal to farm 30 acres adjoining the Sinaloa Ranch in Simi. A developer had purchased it, and he was also trying to buy some of the Sinaloa Ranch. He told me to farm the ground for no rent if I wanted it. I moved a tractor and disc in to put down a large crop of weeds, then plowed, and disced again. There was a water meter on the property. I pre-irrigated, worked the ground again and planted. From there on nothing went right. As soon as the plants started to come up the birds started to eat them. As near as I could tell they were Lark Sparrows, which donít eat plants. I think that they mistook the little plants for worms. When the plants got a little bigger the birds were no longer a problem. Next the ground squirrels came into the field from all sides, and they ate the plants to the ground. I went to the field every day to put out poison. The plants that survived did not want to grow; no matter how much fertilizer and water I gave them. They finally set a small crop, but the ripening was so spread out that there was never a time that was right to harvest. Naturally, it rained again that year, more than once. I moved the harvester up and spent one long day to pick one load. I pulled out and never went back. Why are some lessons so hard to learn? I had gone through starting too late many years before, and vowed never to do it again. I guess I can console myself with the fact that I have not done it since 1977, but the reality is that I have not had many opportunities to repeat that error!
With all the rain, none of the fields produced much. Harvest was a nightmare. It rained so much that the harvester, even with four-wheel drive, could not get through some of the fields. The crew worked twelve-hour days. I know that they were exhausted, but they never complained. I fell way short of breaking even that year. How many times did I kick myself for not jumping on the opportunity to rent that ranch in Santa Rosa, or to buy the Brewer Ranch? Donít ask! Iím still kicking myself. Being a little more aggressive earlier would have kept me from trying to farm in Simi. Did I mention that those two ranches were side by side? I could have had 100 acres in one place, with two irrigation wells.
Tomatoes going up the elevator, into the tank
During the following winter Frank Gill approached me with an interesting proposition. He wanted to form a joint venture to grow tomatoes on the Brewer Ranch. He proposed to have me do the farming, and make all decisions. I would use my equipment and bill him for half at custom rates. I would pay all the bills, and bill him monthly for half. The rent was $200 per acre, which we would split. The proceeds would be split down the middle. This seemed like a good deal for me. Most importantly, I would be in charge. Also I would make a little money on all of my equipment, including irrigation pipe. The ranch had a well, so water would be cheap. The arrangement worked out well. I billed Frank every month, and he paid me promptly. He also lived up to his agreement not to interfere with my judgement. That must have been hard for an old tomato grower like Frank!Going back in time a bit; UC Davis had been bringing out newer varieties of machine harvest tomatoes. I first ran into them when I harvested for Berylwood. I found that they were hard to get off the vine. A couple of years later I started growing 20 acres or so every year, because it was evident that the canners liked them. They were slightly elongated, had a tough skin, and inside they were mostly meat with small seed pockets. That translated into more salable product per ton. They held very well on the vine, and transported well. But there was still the harvest problem. What I learned was that I could make a little adjustment to the harvester to keep the vines on the shakers a little longer. Also, the riper the fruit the easier it separated from the vine. About this time a product called Ethereal came on the market. It was a manufactured form of a chemical that plants produce in small amounts. When applied to the leaves in spray form it hastened the ripening of the fruit, by shutting down the plant growth. I was a little afraid of it at first. Then Preston told me of growers that were using it to ripen the new varieties to make them come off the vine better in the harvesters. I finally used it on a field of the new UC-134. It worked very well, and strangely enough, made it possible to hold the fruit in the field longer if necessary to accommodate harvest. I was behind the curve in changing to UC-134, and the newer UC 92. Had I changed completely a couple of years earlier I would not have lost so much fruit to the rains. They were not rain proof, but they handled it better than the other tomato I was growing
My crew insisted on stopping some of the belts, in order to gather lots of fruit in the machine, then starting the belts to make it look like we were harvesting much more than we actually were. In fact, they had devised this little maneuver to allow them to start picking after completing a turn at the end of a row. As soon as the tractor driver had completed his turn and positioned the trailer under the elevator, they started unloading the accumulated fruit. No lost time that way.
I planted the Brewer ranch first in 1978, because it was far enough east of Camarillo to be quite a bit warmer, and beyond the coastal fog. Warm days mean warm soil, which means faster sprouting of the seed and faster overall growth. I think I planted all UC 92ís on that ranch. One reason for this was that they took about eight or ten days longer to mature than my old variety.
Next I planted what had been the Doan Ranch. It had been purchased by a friend of mine from Oxnard, Stan Foster. He urged me to plant the new "hard" variety, but I was not yet ready to make that big a jump in one year.
Since we had lost most of the Leisure Village ground, I let Gerry farm the Mobil field. The last to be planted was what was left at Leisure Village.
A nearly full tub
The growing season was pretty much routine, except for one little bump in the road. Gerry was getting discouraged with his financial situation. He was offered a job as field manager for Alfie, a newly formed produce company. Gerry had grown broccoli for them, and maybe some other winter crops. He felt that he would be better off with a good monthly income. He had fared better than I in the two rainy years, but I suspect he had not yet learned the financial discipline needed to stretch out over a full year income that comes all at one time. Whatever, I wished him well, and assured him that I would take care of his crop for the rest of the year. That turned out to be a promise I couldnít keep, at least not through harvest.
Salvador had acquired a good grip of the irrigation, so he and his helper handled all that with some supervision. I had also trained him to drive some of the tractors. I should say that I tried to train him. As much as he wanted to be a tractor driver, he had no aptitude for it. He had no mechanical skill, and no "ear" for problems. I had to keep a pretty close watch when he was driving the crawlers.
On the Brewer Ranch the plants were doing very well. We irrigated twice with sprinklers. I was afraid they would not hold up until harvest without more water, but by then they were loaded with fruit. I decided to run water in the furrows for that third irrigation. The ranch had uniform fall, so that worked well. By the time we started harvest it was obvious that the crop was going to be very good. The first twenty-acre block picked over forty tons per acre. Of course it rained before we were finished with it. Three years in a row! All in the month of August! That was unheard of.
The rest of the ranch produced well, but we struggled some to harvest it. We dumped one load rejected for mold. Overall, Frank and I both did well on the Brewer Ranch. Next we moved to the Foster (Doan) Ranch.
Moving from field to field was a chore in itself. We had to remove the elevator that carried the fruit to the trucks. We used the tool porter to remove and haul it. The transfer case on the machine had to be shifted to high range. Even so, it only traveled about ten miles per hour. Without the elevator the machine was nearly fourteen feet wide. We just took off down the road with one pickup in front and another behind. I pulled the portable toilet behind my truck. I tried to do this job on Saturday, but it didnít always work out.
Ready for harvest
I think the second day of harvest on the smaller of the two fields on the Foster ranch was the 10th of Sept. This field was at the end of a freeway frontage road. We had to cross Calleguas Creek to get to the other field. Every spring we managed to get a large culvert pipe in place and build a dry crossing. As soon as the crew got started down the first row I took the bulldozer to push a little more dirt onto the crossing, so that the trucks could cross without problems. I pushed several loads of dirt onto the roadway, then got off to pull some brush out of the dirt. I felt a pain in my chest when I did that. The pain was still with me when I climbed back on the tractor. The next thing I was aware of was the singing of blackbirds. It was like I was awakening from a sound sleep. When I was able to raise my head and open my eyes I saw the willow trees in the creek. Then I was able to make out the harvester far away, probably on itís first pass through the field. Next I saw a truck with two empty trailers crossing the creek. I couldnít seem to raise my arm to flag down the driver. By the time he had dropped his trailers and turned to leave, I managed to raise my arm enough to get his attention. I asked him to get my truck and take me home. He drove me home and helped me get inside, then returned to the field and his own truck.
Terry and her children were staying with us at the time. I had only been home a few minutes when Barbara and Terry decided to call for an ambulance. Before long I was on my way to Adventist Hospital in Simi. Dr. Jones, our longtime doctor, checked me out and decided to have a cardiologist, Dr. Johnson, see me. They seemed uncertain about what my problem was. During the next week I had a series of tests. Blood work indicated that I had had a heart attack, but they needed to eliminate other things. Finally, I was sent to Las Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks for an angiogram. By this time I was feeling pretty good, so the doctor consented to have Barbara drive me there.
Meanwhile, on the first day Barbara got a message to Gerry. He was able to leave his work long enough to oversee the harvest for a few days. By that time Dan and Cath were on the scene. Dan volunteered to take time off from his work to run the harvest, with some coaching from Gerry. Between them, they kept things going for three weeks or so.
When Dr. Johnson had finished the angiogram, he told me that if he had known how bad my arteries were he would have insisted that I be transported between hospitals by ambulance! The surgeon had all the available family members come into my room and then told us that my arteries were very bad, and that I needed surgery right away. He said he could get his team together that afternoon, or first thing the next morning. I opted to have it done in the morning. I figured that I wanted all the doctors when they were rested, not tired from a dayís work!
I guess the best way to describe the next week was that it was eminently forgettable! Needless to say, I survived! I talked Barb into driving me to the field on the last day of harvest. I wanted to see my crew and thank them for all their help in the harvest. They knew their jobs so well that all Dan had to do was keep the machine running. While I was there I arranged with one of the tractor drivers to stay on long enough to do the disking. After about a month at home I got feeling very weak and ended up in the hospital again. I was having all sorts of irregular heartbeats. After a few days Dr. Johnson had me settled down with medication. Soon after that he sent me to Cardiac Rehab for a monitored exercise program. I was released from Rehab about the end of January.
I made enough profit, thanks to Gerry and Dan, in 1978 to make up for my loss in 1977. That meant that for a three-year period I barely broke even. It was only because we had put money away during the good years that we were able to get through those three years. Our household expenses came out of our savings. For the winter of 1978 I did something I had never wanted to do. I sub-leased the Brewer ranch to Bob Miller for a crop of broccoli. The Mobil field I leased to a produce company for growing mixed lettuce and other greens. (By this time that ranch had a new owner, and I paid cash rent, rather than a percentage.) I also agreed to have someone grow vegetables on the Foster ranch. The grower dealt directly with Stan on that. In all cases I was supposed to get the land back in time for next years crop. I also rented out some of my irrigation pipe to the grower on the Foster ranch. I rented my TD-9 bulldozer to the Hartman ranch, at the foot of Conejo grade. I had known the foreman of the ranch for many years, and he promised that he would drive the tractor himself. They were taking out some lemon trees. All of these things I did to try to recoup some of my losses. Everything worked out OK. I shared the rent money on the Brewer ranch with Frank. I made a few dollars, not much, on the Mobil. The Tractor rental was fine, the pipe rental was fine, except that it was sort of a hassle to get my pipe sorted out from the other growerís pipe.
remember correctly, this field produced about 40 tons per acre. 40 tons=80,000
lbs. / 8712 lineal feet per acre=about 9 lbs. per lineal foot of 60 inch row,
or about 30 tomatoes.
I thought you would like to know that!
In December I went to talk to Stan Foster about planting his ranch the following year. He wanted cash rent, which I understood, because I had not done well by him the two years that he owned it. I would have been willing to pay cash, but he wanted rent on all the acreage of the property, and there was lots of it that could not be farmed. He also wanted me to spend a bunch of money to get rid of a long levy of large rock that had once been the bank of Calleguas Creek, then level the entire ranch. I felt that as the owner this work was his responsibility. I told him I would think about it, and immediately started looking for something else. What I came up with was an arrangement with Bob Miller to farm some of the ground that he grew broccoli on in the winter. The timing of the two crops worked out well. I got 25 acres across Calleguas Creek from Leisure Village and 30 acres near the High School. Ralph had farmed that field when I worked for him. In exchange he rented the Brewer Ranch from me. All of these rentals were cash, both ways. In January I went back to Stan to tell him I would not be farming his ranch. We had been friends for many years, but the friendship ended in bitterness when he refused to pay me for the water meter that I owned. It seemed like a small thing; only $300 or so. Again, as the owner of the ranch it seemed to me that he should own the meter, but he would not budge. I sold the meter to the man that rented the ground that year. Iím not sure Stan and I ever spoke after that. What a pity; we were both very nice people, we just happened to cross on that day. I canít think of another time that this happened to me with a friend, associate or customer.
When I was given the OK to go back to work on a limited basis I went to the shop and started getting the harvester ready for the upcoming season. I worked a few hours a day at first, then more as I was able. After two weeks or so the clutch went out on my PU. I backed it into the shop, then pulled the engine, using the tool porter as a hoist. I drove one of the other trucks home in the afternoon. The next day I installed the new clutch and swung the engine back into the PU.
Dr. Johnson put a limit of about forty pounds that I could lift. I made some changes to the tool porter to accommodate the weight restriction. I put an adjustable jack-stand on the hitch, so that I would not have to pick it up by brute strength. I also put a jackshaft with a three to one sprocket and chain reduction on the crank that lifted the tools. That made it possible for me to lift any tool I owned without undue stress.
In February I had Salvador come to work. As the fields became available to me after the winter crops I had him disc, plow, disc, and level. I decided not to do much tractor driving myself. Pulling on the steering clutches was sort of hard on my chest.
For a number of reasons, I changed my method of planting that year, 1979. For starters, the fumigant I had been using, Fumazone, or Row Neat, had been banned. That meant fuming ten days before planting. Because of the winter crops I could not start this process early enough to do all the operations necessary to plant the seed in moisture. The only alternative was to have someone make beds, and apply fume and fertilizer. When the ten days were up, I came in with my rig to plant. Then we used "solid set" sprinklers to irrigate. I had enough sprinkler pipe to cover about 13 acres at one setting. I rented enough more to cover 20 acres total. At any given field I only had enough water to cover five acres at a time. Since we were not looking to put on a lot of water at one time, we changed sets every 8 hours. When the seed had sprouted and was nearly ready to come up, we gave another light irrigation, to moisten and soften the crust. By then it was time to move all the pipe to the next field and start over. We went through this routine on all four ranches. It was not a lot of fun, and very expensive. I spent as much just getting the seed out of the ground as I would normally spend for the entire season.
Starting in 1979 Hunts accepted only "hard tomatoes", UC 92ís or something similar. How I wish they had done that two years earlier! I should explain a little about the way Hunt Foods contracted. The contract always spelled out how many tons they would accept per week and for the season. These limits were based on the number of acres I farmed and the historical average per acre yield. Obviously, the last three years had lowered my average considerably. Therefore, my contract had a 3,000 ton limit. I really felt that I needed more than that. I didnít worry too much about it. In all the previous years of my experience, they had never imposed the seasonal limit on anyone. About the time I started planting Preston came by to congratulate me for finding 15 more acres to plant. I told him that he was misinformed, that I had not found more ground. He said that he had 300 tons more available to contract, and the only way he could justify giving me the tonnage was if I had more ground. So, on paper, we came up with the extra ground, and I got the extra tonnage. Whatever works!
The base price that year was $55 per ton, a far cry from the $28.50 I got in 1971! The canners had also put into effect a sliding scale of higher prices very early and very late. This was done to extend the canning season. California was producing an ever-increasing share of US grown tomatoes. There were no new canneries built during this period. They just ran more hours per day and operated for more days. The early price only applied to the tomatoes grown on the desert; Brawley and El Centro. Our prices went up $2.50 about the end of Sept. and another $2.50 the following week. I usually delivered some fruit in that first week, and some times into the second week.
One very nice thing about growing for Hunt Foods was that the pay was so prompt. They closed their books Saturday midnight, and I had a check in the mail on the following Thursday.
While I was getting ready to plant the Brewer Ranch a car drove onto the lower end of the property. Two men got out and started looking around. I drove down to see what they were doing. After introductions, one of the men told me that he had purchased the property. I was a little panicked by that. Frank only had a verbal agreement with Mr. Kreis, the old owner. The new owner assured me that he would honor that agreement. However, since I was the one doing the farming, he wanted to do business only with me. I talked to Frank about it, and assured him that our joint venture was still in place, at least for that crop. He was fine with that. I never confirmed this, but Frank told me later that the ranch sold for $12,000 per acre! What a fool I was to pass up the chance to buy it four years earlier! I do have good hindsight!
The growing season was more or less uneventful. I did all the cultivating, as I had always done. Salvador and his small crew did the weeding, rock picking and irrigation. Monday was usually the day that we moved pipe from one field to another. I always kept a close eye on that, to make sure that the pipe was laid out correctly.
In July I started having pain in my chest. It always seemed to start in my stomach and work itís way up. Dr. Johnson did a number of tests, but found nothing wrong. He was quite convinced that it was not Angina. That was reassuring, but it didnít make the pain go away. I hurt more and more as time passed. As harvest approached I was really feeling bad. I decided that I would take the motor home to the field, and just live in it. That way I wouldnít have to do much driving, and I could go inside to rest when I was not needed elsewhere. Of course Barbara insisted on being with me during that time. We used this plan as an excuse to have an awning installed on the motor home. That would give us a shady place to sit outside and keep an eye on things.
We started harvest toward the end of August at the Brewer ranch. We had, at most, one week of gung-ho harvest. After that the cannery got jammed with tomatoes, and we were restricted on the number of loads we could pick. Once again, that ranch produced a very good crop, well over thirty tons per acre. How I wished that I had bought it when I had the chance! 20-20 hindsight again! By the time we left that ranch I knew that we were getting behind schedule.
The next ranch was the one in Santa Rosa, across the creek from Leisure Village. That field had the poorest stand of plants of any I ever farmed. In spite of that the plants seemed to grow bigger and fill in the spaces. We harvested more than a load, 25 tons, per acre. While we were there the delivery schedule got worse and worse. There were days that we were only allowed two loads. The clutch in the harvester was starting to slip, so my Saturday chore was to pull the engine and replace the clutch and clutch plate. The engine was a Ford Tractor engine, but the clutch and transmission were from a Ford Truck. I had learned this the hard way while working for Ralph. I got all the parts together ahead of time and had Salvador help me on Saturday. He was not too handy with a wrench, but he was a big help with the strong-arm stuff!
The next day, Sunday, we were only given one load. Sunday was always a short day, but one load was ridiculous! I doubt that I have ever been so angry before or since. I vented my anger on my good friend, Preston. I felt terrible about that an hour later, and drove from ranch to ranch until I found him to apologize. None of my problems were his fault. He was allocating the available loads as best he could. The problem was that every area of the state had a bumper crop that year and there was just not enough cannery capacity to handle it.
We should have harvested that field in five or six days. Instead it took ten days. On Friday afternoon of the second week there was one load of tomatoes still to be picked. I knew that I was going to leave fruit in the field sooner or later, so I opted to move on Saturday, so as to be ready to start the Mobil field Sunday. By then we were at least a week behind schedule, so the fruit was somewhat over-ripe. Preston had already told all of the growers that Hunts was going to cut us off when we had delivered our contracted tonnage. About halfway through the Mobil I decided to abandon it to move on to the last field for easier harvest. I think that while we were in that last field Preston arranged for 100 more tons for me. When my contract was filled I still had one load left in that field. All in all I guess I left about three hundred tons in the fields, maybe more. In spite of that, it was a good year. It could have been a Very Good Year!
Moving our "home" from field to field worked out well. I was able to rest much of the time, going out only for emergencies and at the breaks, to check out the machine. Barbara went back to the house two or three times a week to pick up the mail and do laundry. We had our checkbook and ranch accounting in the motor home, so we could do payroll and pay the bills.
The company that Gerry was working for folded about the time harvest was over. I hired Gerry to do tractor work for me. I was still very much undecided about what I was going to do the following year. The two fields that I had leased from Bob Miller reverted to him, naturally. I leased him the brewer Ranch and the Mobil for a fall planting of broccoli. I wanted to hold onto them, to keep my options open.
I didnít do much at all in the month of November, but I wasnít feeling any better. I felt that I had to know whether or not it was my heart that was bothering me. I finally insisted that Dr. Johnson do another angiogram. He was very reluctant about it. He explained that it was a somewhat risky procedure, and he did not feel it was indicated. I won out in the end. The test showed that there was only a very slight blockage, not enough to be causing my trouble. Soon after that we went to San Miguel to spend Christmas with the folks. By the time we got home I had made up my mind to quit farming. I was not feeling well, and it was just too risky to get started on a project that I might not be able to finish.
I took a notebook and made a list of all my tractors and equipment. Next I went to various dealers to get an idea of what those things might sell for. Barbara typed up a nice list of everything, with the prices. I had purchased a new hat after harvest. With that and a briefcase full of price lists I was ready to go back to work as a salesman!
My hat was the first to hang on this Wall of Fame, or was it infamy?
Incidentally, I bought cheap western felt hats from K-Mart. During the growing season they got sweat-stained and dusty. During the harvest season they got filthy from working underneath the harvester. At the end of each season I sort of made a ceremony of burning the old hat and putting on the new one. At the end of the 1979 season I casually mentioned to Prestonís secretary that I was going back to the field for the hat burning ceremony. She asked me to give my old hat to her. She wanted to nail it on the wall in her office at the inspection station. That was OK with me. The next time I dropped into the office there were several hats on the wall, and before long the wall was covered with hats. It was quite an honor to have been the first to have my hat immortalized in this way. How many of you can remember the first person to get their name immortalized on Hollywoodís Walk of Fame? I felt that my achievement was equally as great! And you can say, "I knew him before he became famous!"
Meanwhile, Gerry had worked for Duane Bocalli for a while, then took a job with Bob Lamb. They were growing vegetables on a large ranch in Santa Rosa Valley. Bob was married to a granddaughter of Mr. Camarillo.
When I was getting prices on my sprinkler pipe the manager of Rain for Rent thought maybe I was there to apply for a job. He had advertised for a salesman. I told him that I was not interested, but I asked if I could send Gerry over to talk to him. Gerry did talk to him, and was hired on the spot!
I started my sales campaign in some coffee shops and calling on various farmers that I knew. I also mailed fliers to some of my old customers. Everywhere I went I handed out price lists. The word spread rapidly. I had one thing in my favor as far as price was concerned. The years that I farmed had been years of high inflation. That meant that I was able to recover nearly all the money I had spent to accumulate everything. In some cases I got more than I had paid. Within a few months I had sold nearly everything.
Alfie, the produce company that Gerry had worked for the previous year, hired an auctioneer to sell their equipment. The auction was in early January. Everything sold at sky-high prices. The same year that I quit farming, another tomato grower, Archie Haven was forced to quit. (Archie was a cousin of the Haven family that I had known years before) He hired the same auctioneer to sell his equipment in April, or early May. The auction was a disaster! I think the difference was that the price of vegetables was high in January, and had crashed by April. Another factor was that it was wet in January, so the growers in the San Joaquin Valley could not get in the fields. By April it was dry, and they all went back to work. I had not had any interest in my Atlas plow, so I took it over to the auction. Not surprisingly, I took a beating on it. Some brothers from Saticoy paid $400 for it, to take to Colonia Guerrero. Gee, that sounds familiar! I was sure glad that I was able to sell most of my equipment myself.
The one thing that I could not sell was the thing I treasured most, my harvester! It was a better machine than it was when I bought it. It would harvest tomatoes very cheaply. I think people were just spooked by itís age. Granted, the new machines were larger, faster, and had electronic sorting. (For color only.) On the downside, a new machine cost $100,000 or more. So, when you figure the investment in each machine, my old machine would be cheaper to operate, per ton, than a new one. Whatever, I could not find a buyer for it.
I sold many items to people that I had known for many years, some of them had been customers. There were also people that came to me as referrals from some of my friends. I think that Robb Frost had referred the young man from Santa Paula that bought my TD-9B and disc. A produce company in Saticoy was a referral from Joe Nishimori. I sold the shop building to someone that Ralph Chamberlain sent my way. I sold the JD tractor to someone sent by the blacksmith in Camarillo.
The tool porter I bought from Manuel Gill I sold to Frank Gill. The Eversman Leveler I bought from Tom Brucker I sold to Bill Brucker. In both cases the selling price was more than my purchase price. I told Frank that I had bought the tool porter from his brother, but I did not tell Bill where the leveler had come from.
Glenn asked me to hold the TD-9B with bulldozer for him, until he could get the money together.
I financed four large sales. Ernie Gomez from Simi bought my Alice Chalmers HD-6 and one or two tools to go with it. The total price was about $6500. Ernie was younger than I was, but I had known him for a while. He had been farming with Carroll Vaniman in the Tripas area, above the Tapo. I think he gave me half down and the balance in six months. He paid on time. Felix Tapia wanted to buy my Farmall 504 Gas tractor. He asked if I would trust him until July 1st. Offhand, I canít think of anyone that I would have trusted more than Felix, and his brothers. That tractor left the yard without any down payment. I happened to be going by the produce stand they operated in Santa Clarita in early June. I stopped in to say "hello" and get some corn. Felix told me to come into his office. He started counting out twenty-dollar bills. When he had finished he handed me three thousand dollars, in cash. That was by far the most cash I ever held in my hands.
Joe Nishimori farmed next to me on the Camarillo property that I had leased from Bob Miller. He offered to buy my thirteen thousand feet of sprinkler pipe for my asking price, seventy cents per foot. He wanted to make three payments, spread out over several months. He paid me ahead of schedule. Joe was the son of Min Nishimori, one of the original owners of the HD-6 that I bought used.
The last sale I financed is a story within a story, another one of those detours that I have been known to take. I can remember, as a very small boy, going with my parents and Grandma Bennett and Grandma Whitzel to visit a family that lived near Carpenteria. They had a citrus ranch in the canyon that is south of Carpenteria. I sensed that they were friends from very long ago. At some point in later years I learned that the familyís name was Hales. Frank Hales and his family had lived in Los Mochis in the early days of the Colony. Tom told me that Frank Hales and Tom Whitzel had been partners in farming. When the Hales family left for CA, Tom Whitzel bought Frankís mules. Tom R. remembered seeing mules with the FH brand on them.
Fast forward to the Buelton Ranch years. George Chamberlain introduced me to a young man named Hales. He operated the Rain For Rent store in Santa Maria. The name Hales kept rolling around in my head. It finally came to me why it sounded so familiar. When I asked, he confirmed that his family had indeed been in Los Mochis before coming to Carpenteria. The next time we met he gave me some old newspaper clippings about his grandfather.
I donít know how he heard that I had pipe to sell; maybe from George Chamberlain. Anyway, he called and arranged to meet me to look at the pipe. I had found that the mainline pipe was going to be hard to sell in Oxnard. My pipe was all twenty-five foot lengths, for fifty-foot lateral spacing. The common spacing had changed to forty feet, which meant twenty-foot lengths. He said that he would like to buy all the mainline pipe and all the fittings I had. He also explained that he had purchased the Rain For Rent Store, and was short of cash. We made an arrangement that spread his payments out enough that he could handle them. Some of those payments were a little late, but I did get all my money.
To wrap things up I sold the harvester and some odds and ends to Tom Staben for $500 on the condition that he move them as soon as possible. I needed to vacate the Leisure Village property. I got my brother Tom to bring his dump truck and TD-9 loader to take up the floor of the shop. I got permission from Leisure Village to put the broken concrete in a rather deep wash that ran through the property. The rest of the trash we hauled to a landfill near Oxnard. Like Gypsies in the night, I had folded my operation and disappeared, leaving no trace.
When Bob Miller had harvested his broccoli he wanted to go back on the Brewer Ranch with a second planting, to be harvested in the late spring. I tried to get Bob hooked up directly with the owner, but that didnít work. The owner wouldnít do business with Bob because Bob couldnít pay all the rent up front. Bob finally prevailed on me to rent the ground and then rent it to him. I think I paid $4000 for the ranch and charged Bob $7000, which was a reasonable rent. I think he was to pay me a little up front, and then make two more payments. He kept putting me off and putting me off. There was no market for the broccoli, and one day Bob just disappeared. I did some snooping around and found out that he had taken a job with Newhall Land and Farming, managing a ranch near Merced. I managed to get through to him on the phone, but to no avail. He made it plain that I was never going to get my money. If I had been healthier I might have pursued it further, but I really did not need the hassle. I recall that when I first started working with Bob the year before, Frank Gill told me to be very careful. He had heard things that made him think that Bob could not be trusted. I didnít have too many regrets. The land swaps I made with him the year before had worked out to be very profitable for me, and for him, I suppose. I had also made a little money on the fall leases. So I was not out of pocket the entire $7000.
Those nine years of farming were far and away the happiest of my working life. I very much enjoyed being able to make decisions without having to explain myself to anyone. Since I was only growing one crop a year, Barbara and I were able to do some traveling in the fall and winter. The operation was just the right size. Managing other people never appealed much to me. I was happier doing some of the work myself. Of course I did have people working for me, but managing them was a small part of my day. I think I earned the respect of my peers. In spite of some setbacks, I managed to come away with enough money to make it possible for me to retire. Barbaraís help and support were invaluable to the success of the venture. Her frugality, and mine, made it possible for me to start farming, and then to save our profits for a "Rainy Day". I guess being forced to quit something I loved qualified as a Rainy Day!
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