WORKING FOR RALPH ROATCAP 1967-70

 

In July of 1967 I started working for Ralph Roatcap. I first met Ralph when he was living in Chatsworth, and farming in Simi. Later he started leasing ground in the Bardsdale area, near Fillmore. He lived in Moorpark for a few years, then bought a small parcel of land in Bardsdale, where he built a new house and planted an orange orchard. Over the years I had sold him a new TD-9, a Super C, an F-300 and an F560-D. The principle crop that he grew was canning tomatoes.

In 1967 he leased 300 acres in Newhall from Newhall Land and Farming. He ordered two Blackwelder Tomato Harvesters from me to do his own harvest. The year before he had hired a custom operator to harvest his crop. This represented a large expansion for him, and he felt that he needed help to manage the operation. My deal with him was for a monthly salary, plus a tonnage bonus. He also gave me $50 per month for the use of my own vehicle. Ralph paid for fuel and tires, as needed. I knew that I would be doing lots of driving, so I bought a new Ford Ranchero for more comfort than a pickup. I was happy with it at first, but little by little it became sort of sluggish to drive. Also it was so low to the ground that I could not drive out into a harvested field with it. Add to that the fact that the job turned out to be less managerial and more physical work than I had visualized. This meant that I started carrying more and more tools and supplies with me. At the end of the second harvest season I sold the Ranchero and bought a used IH Ĺ ton pickup. When I took all the tools out of the Ranchero, I suddenly realized that the reason it had become so sluggish was that I was carrying way too much weight in it. The pickup was built for this kind of work, and I was back in my element!

We got a terrible shock when we started harvesting. There seemed to be a nice crop, but it was about equally divided among over-ripe, ripe and green. The ability of the sorters to take all the unwanted fruit off the belts dictated the forward speed of the harvesters. Since they had to pick off more than half the fruit, the machines were traveling at a snailís pace. The result was not only a poor crop, but high harvest cost as well. Add to that the fact that we were having problems with the machines. It was a miserable time!

Even though I sold the machines, I really knew very little about them. For starters, they had long knives on the front that cut the plants at ground level, or actually a little below ground level. They were simply modified bean knives, and all of you faithful readers will remember that I never mastered bean knives when I farmed in Mexico! The first problem was that the knives needed sharpening often. Neither Ralph nor I had anticipated this. At first we were taking them off and sharpening them in the shop at Newhall Land. Later, Ralph bought a combination welder-generator that we used to operate an L-head portable grinder. That way we were able to touch up the knives at every break. Of course they would have cut better at a higher speed, but conditions made that impossible. When the knives donít do their job properly, it puts an extra load on the pick-up chain.

The ground wheels drove this pickup chain, or conveyor, so that it always moved at the same speed as the ground, no matter what that might be. The drive included a device to engage and disengage the ground wheels. It also had a slip-clutch, to protect the chain from overloading for whatever reason. It was a slow process for us to learn about that clutch and educate the operators to listen for the sound it made when it slipped. It was crucial to stop the machine as soon as possible when there was a problem. This was just one of the many things that we had to learn to deal with. That first season was a nightmare. We were constantly responding to emergencies! It was also a financial catastrophe for Ralph.

Some time during that season Ralph agreed to send one of the harvesters to help out Berylwood Inv. in Somis. I spent a week or so taking care of that machine, while Ralph stayed in Newhall. B.I. put an experienced driver on the machine, and they also had a decent crop to harvest. Their mechanics had several years of experience with harvesters, so I was able to pick up some pointers from them. It was reassuring to know that it was possible to do a good job of harvesting, given the right conditions!

My days in Newhall were LONG. We worked the crew about ten hours per day, then washed the machines with a high-pressure spray rig. This took another two hours, and I never left the field until the machines were ready for the next day. Add in about 45 minutes drive each way and you come up with a long, long day! Later I learned that using this spray rig was the worst mistake we could have made. First of all, it was a very slow method of cleaning. And worse, the high-pressure water forced itís way past the bearing seals, causing early failure. A far better way was to simply get under the machine with scrapers and hooks to remove the dirt and vines that had accumulated. Three men could do this in about 15 minutes.

My principle chore through the winter was to overhaul the two harvesters. We had parked them in an old barn in Bardsdale. Blackwelder sold a repair kit that contained all the things that they recommended changing each year. The kit included dozens of bearings, most of the drive belts and some sprockets and roller chain. Fortunately for me, about this time Ralph hired a young man that had worked for Peto Seed Co. for several years. His name was George McMullin. He had operated Blackwelder harvesters, and also had experience repairing them. Together we got the machines ready for the next season.

At some time during that first winter I got word that Ventura Production Credit Association had repossessed a Farmall 504 that I had sold while working at Maulhardtís. Ralph had to rent tractors to pull the bin trailers during the harvest season, so I asked him if he wanted to buy it. Ralph also financed with Production Credit, so it seemed like a natural for him. He said that he did not want to ask them for more credit, as he was already stretched to the limit. I asked if he would rent it from me at harvest time if I bought it. He said yes, so I bought it for $1200. I didnít realize it at the time, but I had just taken the first step toward farming for myself.

For the next crop year Ralph rented sixty acres in Santa Rosa Valley, in addition to the larger acreage in Newhall. Before I went to work for him, I had sold Ralph a three-row trailing sled to pull with his F560-D. He used this rig to plant seed, and apply fertilizer and soil fumigant all at one time. Then we irrigated to sprout the seed. This was pretty much standard procedure for planting the new tomato varieties. Because the Santa Rosa ranch was so far removed from the main operation, I suggested that we use one of the smaller tractors to plant the seed directly in the moisture, as I had done in San Telmo. He was sort of doubtful, but finally agreed. We pre-irrigated to be sure that we had plenty of moisture. When the ground was dry enough, we worked it enough to kill all the weeds that had sprouted. With a little trial and error we managed to get a good stand of plants. I told Ralph that if he bought a sled to mount on the three-point hitch of my tractor, I would do the cultivating of the ranch, and not charge him for the use of the tractor. The sled only cost about $400. We just left my tractor in Santa Rosa for the growing season. I pretty much took care of that ranch. I did all the cultivating, and most of the irrigating. It was handy for me, since it was only ten minutes from the house.

Ralph contracted his tomatoes to Hunt Foods. The Hunts field man was Preston Taylor. Preston put Ralph in touch with a farmer in Wasco, near Bakersfield, that wanted to grow tomatoes for the first time. They came to some kind of arrangement that called for Ralph to advise and council the grower on the planting and growing of the crop. Then Ralph would do the harvest with his machines. This could work for us, timewise, because Bakersfield, and all the Central Valley, harvested earlier than we did in the south. When the time came we had the harvesters trucked to Wasco, and Ralph and I drove up to unload and get them set up for harvest. The grower was to furnish the crew, including the operators. All we had to do was keep then running. The plan was to have George stay there and take care of the machines. Ralph rented a Motel room for him, and I stayed for a couple of days, to help get things started.

Because of the heat in the Central Valley, tomatoes were harvested at night. In the heat of the day the fruit got so soft that it couldnít be handled. The practice was to start about midnight and work until nine or ten the next morning. This meant we had to do our service work in the hot time of day. We quickly learned that we could not leave our tools in the sun; they would burn your hands when you picked them up. The solution was to carry the tools in a bucket partially filled with water. This venture turned out badly for both Ralph and the grower.

By the time we finished in Wasco it was time to start harvest in Newhall. We had learned to anticipate and prevent some of our mechanical problems, but the crop was only slightly better than the year before. For some reason the plants just would not set enough fruit at any one time, so there was never a right time to harvest. We speculated that the smog might be keeping the flowers from pollinating. Looking back, I suspect that growing tomatoes in the hotter climate of Newhall was just enough different from the coastal areas that Ralph was not able to figure out how to do it properly. It was another long, unproductive summer in Newhall!

When we had finished harvest in Newhall we moved the machines to Santa Rosa Valley, stopping along the way to harvest for our mutual friend in Moorpark, Howard Birkenshaw. Howard had a decent crop, but it was sort of over-ripe, so the harvest was rather slow. I think B.I.Co. had a machine working there also, trying to salvage Howardís crop. Meanwhile, I was checking the Santa Rosa Ranch every day, and it was ready to harvest. I told Ralph that we should move, because it was already the 1st of October, and rain could arrive any day. He couldnít bring himself to leave Howard stranded, so we stayed several more days, until we were finished.

The day we started in Santa Rosa it rained. We managed to pick the entire ranch, but harvest was much slower because of the rain. A certain amount of fruit went bad, and we were fighting mud buildup in certain places on the machines. In spite of the problems, Santa Rosa was the best crop we had that year. One amusing thing happened while we were working there. I was at the extreme far end of the field from where the machines were working. I heard a chorus of loud screams, and looked up to see people flying off one machine in all directions. I drove as fast as I could to see what sort of catastrophe had struck. When I arrived the operator was holding up a gopher snake that had been picked up with the vines, and came out on one of the sorting belts! No harm, no foul!

While I was working in Newhall I had some contact with several of my old customers. Arthur Icardo asked me to stop by his ranch office when I had a chance. When I went to see him, he told me that he and some associates had bought a large ranch on the West Side of San Joaquin Valley. The new California Aqueduct was making water available to an area that had been dry. He offered me the job of managing the ranch. He said they were going to buy all new equipment, and furnish me with a new pickup. I didnít have to think about that for very long. I canít remember what the pay was going to be, but probably more than I was getting from Ralph. I just simply did not want to move to the Valley. I never mentioned this to Ralph; no need to stir up hard feelings!

Another customer, Milton Feldman, had a brother working for him that I visited with on occasion. He did not strike me as being overly intellectual, but he asked me a very profound question that I have thought about many times. "Did you ever wonder where birds go to die?" Where do birds go to die? The only time you see a dead bird is when it has come to a sudden and violent death. Think about it.

Ralph decided that he needed to get out of Newhall. We drove up to look around in the Buelton area. We could have farmed my ranch, of course, but we needed more acreage than that. There seemed to be nothing else available, so I introduced Ralph to some contacts that I had in the Camarillo area. Actually, some of them were Camarilloís, by blood or marriage! Ralph ended up renting three properties owned by various members of the Camarillo family. Through another contact, he rented twenty acres in Santa Rosa. He also had the other ranch that we had already farmed. That ranch, by the way, was known as the Howard Ranch. I was delighted to be out of Newhall, and back in my element! I still sort of think of Newhall as being the armpit of creation. The available labor was unreliable. It had to be the worst place on earth for theft and vandalism. Ralph finally hired a man to watch the equipment at night. Another tomato grower from Santa Paula tried his hand there after we left. He did somewhat better, but gave up after two or three years.

During the winter I overhauled the machines again, this time with a different helper. George had moved on to another job. Sometime during that winter we had a very heavy rain that came down from the north. It lasted for two days, and was followed immediately by a tropical rain that came from the south. That storm lasted two days also. One of the bridges over Sespe Creek washed out. The Saticoy Bridge over the Santa Clara River washed out. I think that one of the approaches to the Fillmore Bridge washed out. Bridges at both ends of Simi Valley were out of commission. Ralph had a part ownership in a young orange orchard that was near the Santa Clara River. We walked down close to the river and watched a whole row of orange trees fall into the river every fifteen minutes, as the rushing water ate away at the bank. The river was carrying thousands of orange and lemon trees from farther upstream. The damage to Ventura County was many, many millions of dollars.

Soon after that Ralph and I were in the Airport Café in Santa Paula. A mutual friend and former customer of mine came over and sat with us. Don told me that he wanted to buy a used Cat D-7 with bulldozer to put his ranches back together. He asked if I could help him find one. I made a call to a man that I knew in City of Industry. He bought and sold used construction equipment. I think he bought mostly at bankruptcy auctions and anywhere there might be bargains. He always had a big inventory. He also paid a generous commission to anyone that brought him a customer. I donít think that I had ever sold anything for him, but I had been there two or three times looking for things that we did not have on our used lot at Maulhardtís. He told me that he had just brought in a D-7 that sounded like it would do the job. Don wanted to look at it, and suggested that we fly down the next day. We flew in his restored vintage Howard, landing at the nearest airport to our destination. There was a car and driver waiting for us. He took us to the sales yard and Don made a deal for the D-7. After the tractor was delivered I got a check in the mail for $500. It was a very good dayís work!

Meanwhile, there was work to be done on the ranches in Camarillo. Part of one of them had been in walnuts. The trees had been pushed out and removed, but there were still lots of big roots in the ground. I got my brother Tom to send one of his TD-24ís over to cut the roots under ground, so that we could gather and haul them away. I had to sweet talk another friend of mine to get the use of his "straight-knife". A straight-knife is two ripper shanks with a heavy horizontal blade between them. This blade runs about two feet underground, cutting anything in its path, and bringing most of it to the surface. When the ground was clean we did the normal things to get ready for planting. I canít remember for sure, but I think we planted some fields on beds and irrigated the seed up. However, most of our planting was done "on the flat", as opposed to on beds. The seed was placed in moisture and allowed to sprout on itís own. The two ranches in Sata Rosa were furrow irrigated. The Camarillo fields were irrigated by sprinklers, which was a radical departure for tomatoes. The main reason we used sprinklers was that we were buying water from Camrosa Water District, which was very expensive. Sprinklers were more efficient than furrow irrigation. The Howard ranch had itís own well, so the water was cheap.

One ranch that Ralph rented had no water at all. We planted it to barley and oat hay. We had decent rains and harvested a fair crop of both barley and hay.

In late spring or early summer my long time friend, John Cushman, mentioned that he would like to do some ranch work. I was quite surprised at this, as John was an accomplished mason, having been in business, with a partner, for many years. He said that he had sold out to his partner, and just wanted a change of pace. When I mentioned this to Ralph he told me to make him an offer, which John accepted. The two of them knew each other from the time that Ralph farmed in Simi. They had shared some fishing trips to Bahia de Los Angeles.

I got John started on one of the wheel tractors. Later we did lots of different jobs together. I really enjoyed working with him. He was willing to do anything and was always cheerful. Nobody enjoyed a good laugh more than John did. Later we broke him in to run one of the harvesters.

The harvest went better that year, but obviously we still had lots to learn about growing the crop. Once again the Howard ranch produced the best crop. I think that when we were done with our own harvest we worked for Howard Birkenshaw again.

Ralph hired a forklift operator the first year we were in Newhall. After that the two of us shared that chore. We both got fairly proficient at it. The truck drivers usually used a bar to slide the empty bins out over the side of the truck about 18 inches, then got on the truck and pushed them over. When done properly they would land flat on their sides, with very little damage. When Preston was around, we unloaded with the forklift! In those days Huntís hired individual owner-operators to haul fruit to the cannery. We got the same drivers every day, but the rigs themselves were a mish-mash; truck and trailer, forty-foot semi, or tractor and double trailers. Even within the categories there were differences. The semi trailer would only hold forty bins stacked two high. The drivers naturally wanted to carry the maximum legal load, so sometimes we put a few bins on top, making them three high. One of the tractors had a long enough wheelbase to have a small deck between the cab and the fifth-wheel that carried four bins. The driver referred to this as the poopdeck. The other rigs could carry a maximum of forty-eight bins. Ralph had a way of disappearing in the late afternoon, so if there was a truck to be loaded after normal working hours, I was the one to stay late to load it. He was the boss, after all!

During the following winter John and I overhauled the harvesters, including installing an improvement package in each of them. The package consisted of one large fan in place of the two larger ones. By this time we had learned which bearings needed replacing every year and which did not, so the work went faster. All this work we did in the implement shed on one of the Camarillo ranches. Part of the other Camarillo ranch was still in walnuts, which the owner wanted taken out. Another mutual friend, Frank Gill, took the trees out in exchange for the burls, which were in great demand. They were trimmed, sealed with wax and shipped to Italy for carving. Then we had to do all the clean-up work afterward. John and I both took home some walnut firewood from that project. Some eucalyptus trees had come down on that ranch in the storm of the previous year, so we got lots of that wood also.

Ralph leased another 50-acre ranch at the foot of the Conejo Grade from a man named Bernie Doan. He lived in Los Angeles, and had bought the ranch from the Camarillo family. It had been idle for several years, so we had lots of clean-up work to do. Ralph had a meter installed so that we could get water from Camrosa. This ranch straddled the Calleguas Creek, twenty acres on one side, thirty on the other. In the beginning we had to drive two or three miles of frontage road and freeway to get from one side to the other.

I think the lease had run out on the Howard ranch, and we dropped the smaller ranch in Santa Rosa. That left us with about 175 acres, all in the Camarillo area, plus a commitment to harvest for Birkenshaw.

While I was working for Maulhardtís I sold a new TD-9B to Douglas Recreation Ranch, which was owned by Douglas Aircraft. The ranch was in the eastern end of Simi Valley. They traded in an older TD-9 that had a Bucyrus Eirie Bulldozer mounted on it. We took the Dozer off and mounted it on the new tractor. During that last summer that I worked for Ralph, I got word from someone at the parts counter in Maulhadtís that Douglas wanted to sell the tractor. Ralphís old TD-9 was in very bad shape, so I drove up to the ranch to look at it. My good friend Jerry, the ranch manager, told me that they had sold the ranch, and now wanted to sell the equipment. The tractor was in near new condition. There was also an old disc, a springtooth harrow and a chisel. None of these things amounted to much. Jerry confided in me that if I were to offer $3,000 for everything, Douglas would accept it. He also asked me not to repeat that conversation with anyone else. I told him immediately that I would take it. I talked to Ralph about it, but he said that he just could not buy it at that time. He offered to buy it from me after harvest, if I had not sold it to anyone else. I shopped the tractor around with my old friends at the Somis Café. Rick said that he knew someone that might buy it, but that didnít pan out. In the end I did sell it to Ralph. I think he gave me $4,000 for it. That was still a terrific bargain. Soon after that I was able to get a good deal for him on a used 12-foot disc harrow. That was also something that I had sold new. Two years later he sold tractor and disc back to me. Who says that pigeons donít come home to roost?

Also during that summer Gerry graduated from High School and came to work for Ralph.

Our harvest was the best that we had in the four years, but nothing to get excited about. We still averaged less than twenty tons per acre. The harvest itself was getting a little easier all the time. Still, the best day we had was six loads between the two machines, and most days only four. Those were about twenty-two ton loads, deducting the weight of the bins. At the end of our season we moved the machines to Moorpark to harvest for Birkenshaw. That went rather well. While we were there Albert Beltramo approached Ralph about renting him thirty acres of his nearby ranch for the next season. A deal was not struck at that time.

After harvest, I got Gerry broken in as a tractor driver, disking the fields we had harvested. John followed with the F-560 and plow. Ralph made a deal with the Strathearn Ranch to plant barley and oats on a couple of hundred acres of ground that had recently burned off. A fire had started out near Newhall, and pushed by a strong east wind, burned all the way to Saticoy in about two days. It moved too fast to burn all the fuel that was on the hills. When the wind died down, the fire started burning from west to east, moving very slowly. The heat was so intense that it burned the roots of the brush two feet deep in the ground. All we had to do was disc and plant the seed. In order to speed things up, I had John driving in the daytime, and Gerry at night. I also took the old nine-foot disc that I got from Douglas to pull behind the Farmall 560. I drove that because I had a better sense of where it was safe to work with a wheel tractor. I worked mostly fairly flat ground, and the TD-9 worked the slopes. About the time we were done with this job Ralph told me that Production Credit had shut him off on any more credit. That meant that he would not be able to go on farming tomatoes. He said that if I was interested in getting into farming this would be a good time to do it. He would help me to take over the leases, and the Hunts field-man had already agreed to contract with me. He also said that I could rent his tractors, and he would harvest for me in the fall.

All this came as a shock to me. In my heart I knew that I wanted to be in business for myself. On the other hand, did it make any sense to get into a business that had been so cruel to my friend and employer? Also, I was already 47 years old. To risk our savings, and fail, would not leave much time to recover. For only the second time in my life, I was out on the street, so to speak. As some of you know, itís not a fun place to be! I talked it over with Barbara, and I would say that she was rather apprehensive about me taking this bold step. So, I spent a couple of days calling on some of my old customers, looking for some sort of supervisory job. Nothing was immediately available, and my heart was really not into this job search! Stan Foster was the last man that I talked to. He was also a tomato grower, so I was really looking to him for advice as to whether I could make a go of it on my own. He didnít want to advise me one way or the other on that, but he did give me one good piece of advice. "Anybody can sleep with a clear conscience; some people can even sleep with a guilty conscience; but nobody can sleep with an undecided mind". In other words, I had better jump one way or the other if I expected to sleep at night! By the time that I got home I knew that I was going to get a good nightís sleep!

Barbara and I talked at length about it, and we reached some sensible compromises. I would not buy any more equipment than absolutely necessary until we were certain that we could be successful. I would just take it one year at a time, so as not to jeopardize our equity in the Buelton Ranch and our house. By then we had sold the Big House, and moved to the smaller Los Amigos house. I know that Barb was apprehensive about all this, but she knew how badly I wanted it, and gave me her total support. Is she some kind of gal, or what? One of a kind, I say!

I felt bad for Ralph. I knew after the first harvest that he was in big trouble financialy. I offered to do anything that I knew how to do to help out. I became chief mechanic, part-time tractor driver, part-time irrigator, as well as trying to direct the activities of others. In the end, it was to no avail. He eventually had to liquidate his interest in three properties in Bardsdale and Santa Paula, including his home. While I was still working for him he planted his first Christmas treeís on a 20-acre ranch in Santa Paula that he managed to hold onto. This ranch had a house on it, and they lived there for a while. By then the kids had all left home. Like everything else, there is a considerable learning process to go through to be successful growing trees. He and his wife, Thursel, mastered the art! They eventually rented some small plots in Newhall to plant trees on. One of those tree farms was at the intersection of I-5 and Highway 126. By then we were living in Mariposa, so we drove by there whenever we traveled south. I could see that he had planted the entire farm at one time, rather than staggered, as would normally be the case, so as to have a continual flow of trees year after year. I figured that meant that he did not have a long-term lease. We drove by about a week before Christmas the year that the trees were ready to sell. There were cars parked for a half mile in each direction. The next time I saw him he told me that he had sold over 20,000 trees from that one ranch, at $30.00 per tree! So, maybe getting out of the tomato business was a blessing in disguise! Soon after that they built a new geodesic dome house near Frazier Park.

Ralph had always been a good, successful farmer. He started with nothing and gradually built himself up to own a nice home, and have interests in various parcels of land. The years that I worked for him were the only time that he really stumbled. Does that make you wonder? Stay tuned!

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