The fruits of farming come with 'lessons'

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

For a time, and before my back rebelled in protest, I was a “gentleman farmer,” the kind who was “somewhat” invested in the outcome of the yearly harvest.

My cash crop came in the form of trees, thousands of evergreen and deciduous varieties that grew from pint-sized to mature height in a matter of a few years if given the proper TLC that such wonders of nature deserve.

I learned from the hands of my predecessor in the tree nursery operation, a man who built his fortune in the business and with his knack for shrewd real estate investments. Within the span of a year, he gave me a crash course in tree farming, doing his best to prepare me for the inevitable ebbs and flows of the pursuit, encouraging me to remain steadfast with my business plan even when things looked bleak.

He asked me to remember a time-honored farm story that he was willing to share “time and again.” It goes something like this:

A man is driving down a country road when he spots a farmer standing in the middle of a field of wheat. He pulls the car over to the side of the road and notices that the farmer is just standing there, seemingly doing nothing, looking blankly into space. The man gets out of the car, walks all the way out to the farmer and asks, “Excuse me mister, but what are you doing?”

The farmer replies, “I’m trying to win the Nobel Prize.”

“How?” asks the man, in a puzzled state.

“Well, I heard they give the Nobel Prize to people who are out standing in their field.”

Within four months of taking over the tree nursery operation, I felt much like the farmer lost in his “field of dreams,” trying to determine how to keep hundreds of newly-planted trees alive in the midst of a summer-long drought that ravaged the Midwest.

It was nearly a lost cause, but for a back-breaking routine of hauling buckets of water to moisture-starved seedlings each morning and night. Thankfully, most of the trees survived, growing into marketable additions to lawns and landscapes around adjoining communities.

Over time, much as my predecessor had predicted, the business sprouted profits, supplying supplementary income that would help me ride the economic waves sweeping through the newspaper industry. Yet, his value as a prognosticator wasn’t nearly as important to me as listening to the lessons in his life story.

His name was Harold Mason and he was a believer in the power of the press, which was brought home to him in 1949, shortly after his wife of 10 years died, leaving behind a husband and six children.

“I put an ad in the paper for a homemaker,” Mason once told me. “It read something like this, ‘Homemaker needed to care for six children. Lots of work, little pay, please call . . .’
“I guess I shouldn’t have made it sound so appealing, because the calls just kept coming,” he said with a chuckle.

Although he was accused by one caller of wanting three women in one, Mason somewhat miraculously found the woman of his dreams. The result was a marriage that lasted more than four decades.

During their time together, the couple built a successful wholesale nursery operation, catering to professional landscape firms and other tree growers. The proceeds from their farming operation would help fund their real estate purchases that included gold and silver mines in California and Canada, respectively.

While growing up, Mason was part of a family that experienced the pains of financial ruin, losing two houses during the Great Depression. He spent 15 months with FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, earning $30 a month ($5 for himself and $25 for his parents) while gaining a taste of “hard work in the great out-of-doors.” A long life in the steel mill then came calling, where he sweated in every blue-collar job up to the high-paying post of “manipulator,” a term that carried only positive connotations for steelworkers.

It was after 29 years there, and just six months short of qualifying for pension benefits, that Mason decided he had more pressing interests, casting aside a career with Great Lakes Steel for life as a nurseryman. He claimed that it was “just one of my many goof-ups in life,” but in fact it was testimony to his innate desire to explore, to gamble for that ever-elusive “pot at the end of the rainbow.”

He eventually latched onto it, converting his many land dealings into a rich harvest that figures to pay dividends for many generations to come. One part of his legacy will be etched in a theory first expounded by Will Rogers on the value of land as a wise investment.

“Buy it,” the legendary pundit urged, “because they’re not making any more of it.”