Losing the Farm

Published Marylhurst Review: A Journal of Literary and Visual Art, 2006

From my small urban lot in inner northeast Portland, I sometimes find myself looking back with longing for those fields and gardens on the 240-acre parcel near Independence, Oregon, where my maternal grandfather once raised hops.

There were two identical 1910 houses, set for privacy at opposing corners of the farm. When my mother inherited this property, we moved into the house my grandfather had chosen to remodel in the early 1940s. The second house was occupied by the tenant farmer, a dour and silent man whom we might see in the distance, riding the tractor. My parents extended my grandfather's improvements by planting artichokes and roses and wide green lawns on which to play croquet.

Supposedly, we were confined to the five acres immediately around the house that the tenant farmer didn't work. But I trespassed that absurd boundary at the first sign of good weather.

My grandfather had taken out the hop yards in the late forties, and the land lay quiet and lush with wheat and barley. But the old hop barn and dryers still stood, buildings of mystery and substance, and I liked to prowl around there even though I'd been warned repeatedly to stay away. I often found wooden-handled hop knives in the overgrown weeds and, one summer, I climbed the iron track that ran up a long ramp leading to the second floor of the dryer. At the top, I pulled on the two bulging double doors, but they were fastened with rusty wire and wouldn't give. Finally I broke in through the ground floor and stood tentatively looking around. Dust motes flickered in the pale shafts of sunlight from the open cupola, and I could make out a few old bushel baskets and gunny sacks strewn about the floor. When my eyes grew accustomed to the dimness, I saw the extinguished kilns. Looking up toward the high rafters, I almost stopped breathing: those upper doors bulged because the old iron hop-hauling car was resting against them from the inside, ready to cut loose and fly down the track. I never went near the hop dryer again.

Between my mother's farm and the Willamette River lay the Horst Ranch, 1,100 acres of river-bottom land that had once been the largest hop field in the world. E. Clemens Horst was a German-born New York hop merchant who had moved out to San Francisco in 1902 and, within a few years, started hop ranches in Oregon and British Columbia. In 1934, the Oregon Horst ranch could house 3,000 workers. After the hop boom was over, in the fifties, Dole Pineapple leased 500 acres to plant asparagus. But with management headquartered in Hawaii and a merger imminent with Castle & Cooke, Dole abandoned the lease after the 1960 asparagus season.

That fall, Dave Kennedy, a neighboring farmer, mentioned to my father that the Horst Company might be willing to sell, now that the Dole revenue was gone. My father contrived to act fast, before the property was officially put on the market.

Kennedy also did some nightclub singing on the side, and he happened to be booked for a weekend engagement in the lounge at the Village Green Resort in Cottage Grove. My father invited two friends to spend the weekend at the Village Green, his own law partner and a buddy who sat on the bench of the Marion County Circuit Court.  After Kennedy's set was finished, the four men set up a makeshift bar in one of the rooms and talked for hours.

I heard none of the discussion, of course, because I was at home babysitting my siblings. But I heard the announcement when my parents got back on Sunday night: they were buying the Horst Ranch and changing the name to Green Villa, a reference to the resort where they'd made their decision.

This new property was four times as large as my mother's farm and it ran for several miles along the Willamette River, between Salem and Independence. It had a 40-acre lake, three labor camps left over from the hop years, and in one of those camps a cantina and a dance hall.

The real magic of that ranch didn't come from the added acres to explore, but from the community that would soon take up residence. On buying the asparagus operation, the four partners had also bought into a deal with a labor contractor, and he was on his way, the partners soon learned, from Eagle Pass, Texas, with a caravan of 750 people, due to arrive in April. For the first time, we would have neighbors.

They came as families, two hundred adults and their children, of Mexican descent, Catholic, hardworking. They settled into the cabins in Camp One and, within days, had come forward to sign up for a tract of asparagus, its size based on how many men in the family would work the harvest. The women either stayed in camp to mind the children or worked in the asparagus packing plant, which Dole had built in the former Camp Two.

Asparagus was a lucrative crop for these families and would become the means by which many were able to leave the migrant labor stream altogether. Green Villa needed a full crew of reliable workers for the asparagus season - April 15 to June 15 - after which there were strawberries, beans and other crops to harvest. With five months of work on the same ranch, there was no need to move.  By 1965, 63 families had settled permanently in Independence - 25 of which were, by then, purchasing their own homes.

In summer, I spent 16-hour days on the farm, running the asparagus plant, weighing and loading strawberry flats, and coming home only to sleep.  In their homes, women and girls taught me to make carne asada and laughed at my clumsy tortillas; in the strawberry fields, they pestered me to put on a broad-brimmed hat, to cover up with a long-sleeved shirt; at dances, they pulled me down into their laps, where we sat in one pastel-colored satiny heap, waiting for the men and boys to make their way across the floor.

Then we lost the farm. We lost it in the most unpredictable way possible: Father died unexpectedly, at age 49.

Our family did not inherit. Instead, Mother received a payment from the partnership insurance that had been purchased at his suggestion. Designed to protect the cash-shy enterprise in its fledgling years, the insurance spared the farm having to sell assets, in the unlikely event of a partner's death, to buy a widow out.

And so we lost Father and Green Villa on the same day.

Within a year, we four kids had talked our young mother into selling her own farm to Green Villa and moving away from all this nature, where birdsong and blackberries had the power to break our hearts.

Though I lived an itinerant life after 1965 - San Francisco, Carmel, Santa Fe, Montreal, Seattle, Cape Cod - I made it my business to know what was going on in Oregon. Commercial asparagus shifted to Washington, and Oregon came to lead the nation in Christmas tree and hazelnut production. Hops are still grown, though on only 6,100 acres - a fraction of the 26,000 acres harvested in the peak year of 1935, when my grandfather's hop ranch was in full swing.

At Green Villa, the three remaining partners - the lawyer, farmer, the judge - grew rich and easy. The amount of the partnership insurance was increased, but they never altered the basic rules of the Russian roulette.

The judge died next.

Then Kennedy, the farmer, was diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life.

In 1978 my father's law partner - the last man standing - sold to a Dutch family for $6 million dollars.

* * *

Since the late eighties, I've been back in Oregon. Portland, where I now live, has grown into a city, and Mexican people are no longer the only link to the larger world. Here Iranian poets recite Farsi verses into the night; Latin Americans bring energy and style to a dozen tango clubs; and in every neighborhood Vietnamese chefs prepare squid salad, lettuce rolls and beef noodle soup.

I welcome the new arrivals: life in Oregon in the days before espresso and Chamber Music Northwest and Powell's Books: it could be pretty flat. Forty years ago, the only thing we had much of was each other - and our farms. And that's changed, too, of course: in 1960, when there were only 1,768,900 people in the entire state, we were using twenty million acres as farmland; today, with twice the population, we're farming four million acres less.

Though it's increasingly rare to find someone in Portland who actually grew up in Oregon, from time to time I do bump into someone who spent their childhood on Green Villa - a lawyer, a film editor - and we share stories. Their Hispanic surnamed families now go back decades in the Pacific Northwest. We may wax nostalgic - about the peaceful twilights on the ranch or the lively paso dobles of the dance hall - but none of us would return to the long days of labor in the baking sun. Nor would I return to any moment prior to 1964 because I could not bear to once again live through the unexpected and defining moment that was my father's death.

The land, though, is in my blood, as are its distinct and eloquent sounds: the singing of many asparagus blades being sharpened at once, the switch-switch of the big irrigation sprinklers, and shouts of ¿A dónde vas? or ¡Ven acá! floating across the fields.

In the forty-year period since my father's death, I must have attended ten productions of Chekhov's play "The Cherry Orchard" because it speaks to my private loss. After the cherry orchard has been irretrievably sold and Lyuboff Andreevna is forced to leave the estate, she says to her brother: "I'll just sit here one minute more. It's as if I had never seen before what the walls in this house are like, what kind of ceilings, and now I look at them greedily, with such tender love."

* * *

A few years ago, my niece got married, and I went to the reception afterwards, a pool-side cocktail party at her uncle's home, pitched high above the Willamette River, with a view of growing Christmas trees and the State Capitol to the east and the lavish homes of neighbors to the south. From that height, sipping from a champagne flute and gazing across the blue pool to the lazy end of a summer day, one owned the world. But of course we didn't anymore. My family had dwindled to two grown siblings in urban high-powered jobs and my once beautiful and flamboyant mother, now confined to post-stroke silence in a wheelchair. Landless. Long on memories.

Our host pointed out to me that the man over there, the well-dressed one dancing with his wife, was one of two Dutch brothers who had bought Green Villa twenty years before. My heart jack-knifed. I had no need to meet him.

Yet after the sun had gone down, and the first batch of guests had drifted to their cars, someone cranked up the music and I found this man standing next to me. After an abstracted moment watching the dancing spread dangerously close to the lip of the pool, we quietly introduced ourselves.

When he heard my name, he asked if I were the daughter of Parker Gies.

"You know his name!" I said. My father had been dead for 14 years before this man's family arrived.

"People still speak of him with respect," he said.

I turned to get a good look at him, a handsome man my age, intelligent, kindly.

I told him I'd heard that the farm was doing well, and we talked about the grass seed and the flowers that grow there now.

"Have you seen your old house?" he asked me.

I couldn't understand why he was smiling: our old house was a disaster. Mother had no sooner sold it to Green Villa than the partners turned it into a rental. Last I saw it, the gardens were gone and an unkempt yard was weed-infested inside a chain link fence.

He saw the confusion on my face. "You have seen how my brother remodeled it, haven't you?"

I realized he must be talking about the other house, the tenant farmer's house.

"I always thought your family lived there," he mused.

"No," I said.

After a moment's silence, he told me he had grown up in the Netherlands, where his grandparents lived in a 1754 house. "When my grandfather died, my grandmother hired a famous Dutch garden architect to design a one-acre garden. I lived in that house for twenty years after she died. The garden was famous," he told me. "You can even read about it in a textbook."

"I'm sure it must have been lovely," I said. We were both staring at the diving board at the far end of the swimming pool.

"When I went back to Holland some years later, I visited the house," he said softly. "But they had let the garden go to ruin."

"I'm sorry," I said, and we turned and looked at each other briefly.

And then I went to see about my mother, stranded in her wheelchair, and he went back to stand at the side of his pretty wife.

I can't say I was consoled, but I had met the rare person who so loved the land that he could sense the loss in me.

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