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An aerial view of the author's childhood farm home in Chandler, Ariz.; the silvery rectangle in the center is an old Quonset hut. To the left, a soulless desert development. To the right, a couple of faux-Tudor McMansions, set in orange groves with large swimming pools.

The Secret, Lost Lives of Farmers

by Tomi Owens

Mark and Rhonda Fischer own an orchard in the Hood River Valley near Parkdale, Oregon. Mark’s parents owned an original 35 acres and in 1995, Mark and Rhonda bought them plus 20 more. They grow pears: Green Bartletts, Green and Red Anjou, Bosc, Comice, Forelle. The first fruit is ready for harvest in late August and for the next six weeks everyone at the orchard helps to bring in the crop. Rodney and Jeremy Fischer (ages 13 and 10) help by driving around the bevarage cart and passing out water and soda pop.

The Fischers like to have the clean-up chores done by November and, if all goes well, there won’t be anymore orchard work until the pruning starts in late February. That means guilt-free skiing for almost four months.

Like the orchard, skiing is a Fischer family tradition. Mark’s parents taught him and Rodney and Jeremy have been skiing and snowboarding since they were five. Rhonda is a snowboarder, too. They spend the winter on the Mt. Hood snow pack and when spring thaw comes the same snow will melt into the Hood River, flow into the valley and irrigate the orchard.

My husband Daniel met Mark while working for one of the ski schools on Mt. Hood. Like Mark, Daniel prefers to earn his snow pass by working at the mountain rather than buying it. When our families get together for potlucks or barbeques we talk a lot about skiing. But we also talk about farming.

My grandfather and his younger brother owned a farm in the Salt River Valley near Tempe, Ariz. Their parents had owned the land since 1916. The farm was 400 acres of citrus, cotton and alfalfa fields. In the spring, when chores were few, my grandfather and his brother could finish early. They would jump into a battered pickup truck permanently hitched to a homemade trailer and haul their 14-foot aluminum Larson (more battered than the truck) up to Canyon Lake.When they returned, if they had had a good day, neighbors would be called for a potluck and fish fry.

Now and then grandfather would invite my sister and I along to the lake. While he and his brother finished morning chores, we would go to the citrus grove and fill a sack with oranges and tangerines. During the hour and a half drive to the lake we sat in the bed of the pickup and watched our world roll by; the farms turning to desert, desert to rocky, saguaro-studded hills, and finally, to steep, red canyon walls.

The farmers would fish all afternoon, talking very little. My sister and I sat quietly in the bottom of the boat peeling citrus. We would throw the orange peels overboard and watch them float away, looking out-of-place, so bright and festive in the dark, murky water. Just as the lake itself looked out-of-place, cool and green in the dry, tawny desert. This water would continue down the Salt River, into the valley and, eventually, irrigate our farm.

Then, in the mid-1970s, the land speculators came to the Salt River Valley, blowing horns and banging the big drum of Progress. They reached into deep pockets and eagerly paid a few farmers outrageous sums of money to purchase some of the choicer farmland. The orange groves and the pecan groves, some of the larger farms near the edge of the desert were their main targets. They divided these lands into one and two acre plots and zoned them “horse properties” and giving them names like Orange Blossom Terraces, Pecan Grove Estates, and Circle G Ranches. They sold these pre-packaged dreams for even more outrageous sums to the newcomers. Wealthy, would-be weekend farmers were lured to the country with promises of bucolic bliss.

But while the ink was still wet on the deeds, before the newly landed gentry finished building their faux-Tudor mansions or begun to decorate in country kitsch, the speculators were surreptitiously sneaking past city limits, ram-rodding new zoning laws through town councils and forcing the real farmers out. Speculators became powerful; one became governor.

My grandfather retired to Tempe, his brother moved to Ritzville to start over, and my family continued to live on the remaining acre in a little white farmhouse without a farm.

And then the speculators wiped the slate clean. They plowed under the alfalfa fields, bulldozed the remaining orchards, and converted vast swaths of untouched desert into a trange, empty void. Oh, they put in the major sewer lines and they paved the major roads but for many years to come, the land would be bare.

Of this weird, vacant wasteland, the media began to sing songs of easy money: Opportunity, growth, capital investment, shares, stockholders, Savings & Loan, limited partnerships available, invest, Invest, INVEST! And people did invest, people from all over the country, from all over the world. The speculators sold the land back and forth amongst themselves over and over, each time jacking up the price, each time bringing in new investors. Barren land, where nothing grew save for scattered colonies of tumbleweeds made more money for fewer people then it ever had before or ever has since. When the speculators had enough, they hid their millions in off-shore accounts and let the media pull the plug.

Right on cue, like a well rehearsed opera, the media changed its tune: Swindle, mismanaged funds, land scam, white-collar crime, foreclosure, bankruptcy, scandal, Fraud, Fraud, FRAUD! The fall guy, Governor Fife Symington, took the heat, was convicted of bank fraud and forced to resign in 1997. Many of the rest of the speculators, that merry band of thieves, packed it up and returned to their day jobs in Washington D.C.

Developers bought the land at rock bottom prices and did what it is developers do:  They buy huge tracts of land. One bought 30,000 acres for a megadevelopment. They opened the floodgates and wave after monotonous wave of housing development spilled across the valley floor. The media called it a “construction boom” and “economic upswing.” (Terms which strike one as tacky after so many people lost their shirts in the Savings & Loan scandal.) And it was a boom, there was construction everywhere. And construction workers need grocery stores, and grocery stores need clerks, clerks need houses, houses need construction workers.

Soon all that was left of my childhood was the little white farm house on its acre of land. It was a solitary island amidst an endless sea of red tile roofs and beige, stucco walls. There, surrounded by a hundred thousand people placidly going about their lives, it would have been impossible to feel more alone. So I left and I wandered.

When I came to Oregon ten years ago and saw the Hood River Valley and saw Mount Hood looking so out-of-place, fierce and white, standing sentinel over the petal pink rows of blossoming fruit trees, it reminded me of home.

Daniel and I bought a modest, hundred-year old house in the town of Hood River using bank loans, family loans and credit cards. We make improvements when we can afford it. I have never wanted to live on another farm. Losing one was enough. And from what I have seen lately, buying a farm would have meant losing it eventually.

What should I say to Mark and Rhonda? To Rodney and Jeremy? Something blithe like “Enjoy it while you can?”  I am the outsider in this valley, in this county, in this state. I am not from here yet still I must cry out some kind of warning.

My instincts and experience tell me that a dark cloud is passing over Oregon. Sinister, spectral shapes are moving just beyond our vision in the shadowy circles closed to people like you and me. The deals are falling into place. Nonsense, you say? Paranoid conspiracy theory? It?s just a coincidence? Well, it is a coincidence we should be aware of because you can bet your bottom dollar the speculators are aware.

Measure 37; the Warm Springs casino proposed for Cascade Locks; the sale of 730 acres of Forest Service Land in a National Scenic Area? It’s a three-ring act. The circus has come to town, blowing horns and banging the big drum of Progress. And, just as in Ray Bradbury’s dark classic Something Wicked This Way Comes, this circus comes promising to grant you your dearest wish.

Oregonians, please, be careful what you wish for.

Tomi Owens is a frequent contributor to New West Columbia Gorge. She’s recently written about the World War II pacifist camp in the Gorge.

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One comment

  1. Tomi, this is a powerful article. Thanks for bringing a strong voice to the issue of development.

    Susan Hess