The Son, His Hus­band, and Their Farm

story of a home­stead

Hello Mr. Magazine - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - Text by BLAKE MONT­GOMERY Pho­tog­ra­phy by JA­SON HANASIK

Af­ter their daily lunch to­gether, Leon Etche­p­are and his fa­ther Allen stroll through Grand­fa­ther’s Grove, an almond or­chard planted gen­er­a­tions ago at their farm in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Each man ob­serves the strong, deep roots un­der his feet. The trees here don’t pro­duce much com­pared to their younger sib­lings else­where on the farm, but Leon and Allen take im­mense pride in their fruit. These trees are fam­ily his­tory.

Leon grew up here on Emer­ald Farms, the fourth gen­er­a­tion of his fam­ily to till the land. He’s short, with a quick pace, brown hair, and a pair of work boots al­ways on his feet. He smiles of­ten, his teeth bright in the Cen­tral Val­ley sun.

But the shad­ows grow long. Leon, heir to the farm, won­ders if he’s ready to take over the full oper­a­tion. His fa­ther’s not young. Leon spent his early days float­ing through jobs and pin­ing to work on the farm, but he has re­turned with plans to ex­pand the fam­ily busi­ness. Pass­ing the es­tate on won’t be easy, though. The in­her­i­tance tax on the farm is nearly half the farm's to­tal net worth.

Leon’s re­la­tion­ship with his fa­ther has come a long way. He’s suc­cess­fully taken charge of the farm, shep­herd­ing it through a crit­i­cal time when his fa­ther con­sid­ered sell­ing the land. Allen has stopped re­fer­ring to An­drew Pen­te­cost, Leon’s hus­band, as his son’s “buddy.” Af­ter leav­ing a beloved ca­reer in emer­gency medicine, An­drew him­self has also set­tled here.

Leon hasn’t al­ways felt so confident about his place on the farm. Af­ter he grad­u­ated col­lege with a de­gree in plant sci­ence, he asked his fa­ther for a job. Armed with new knowl­edge, the younger Etche­p­are ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated re­turn­ing home. He be­lieved the farm was what he knew best and where he could con­trib­ute most. His fa­ther re­buffed him. Allen didn’t think Leon had the nec­es­sary skills; Leon had no work ex­pe­ri­ence beyond the con­fines of the farm or his col­lege cam­pus.

Adrift, Leon moved to San Fran­cisco, and, as he de­scribes it now, spent a year im­mers­ing him­self in the gay party scene. He felt turned away from agri­cul­ture and his own home. His re­la­tion­ship with his fa­ther soured.

He soon grew tired of the chaos of the city and moved north to the Sonoma Val­ley, where he

started two doomed com­pa­nies. One pro­vided out­door kitchen equip­ment and setup, and an­other grew mi­cro­greens and sold them to restau­rants. The re­ces­sion dogged and ul­ti­mately killed them both. Only af­ter los­ing those did Leon try again to re­turn to the farm, though he had been think­ing of it all along.

n gets po­etic. He feels a con­nec­tion to the land and his fam­ily’s long­stand­ing pres­ence on it. The farm recharges him, gives him en­ergy. Feel­ing the breeze and smelling the up­turned earth and nur­tur­ing the plants and tast­ing the nuts – these things in­vig­o­rate him. He posts pic­tures on Face­book of­ten, es­pe­cially ones of sun­sets over the almond groves, re­it­er­at­ing how lucky he feels.

“I can see the suc­cess of what my fa­ther, great grand­fa­ther, and great great grand­fa­ther have built ev­ery day,” he said. “It’s so beau­ti­ful.”

Emer­ald Farms is a flat green swath of 8,000 acres that pro­duces a gi­ant crop of al­monds and wal­nuts ev­ery year. The clos­est town has a pop­u­la­tion of 1,100. Not only is the farm pro­duc­tive, it's also gor­geous. Tan, dry hills frame the long rows of almond and wal­nut trees. Shaded lanes be­tween the trees stretch qui­etly away. Dirt roads run through the groves and out to meet the dusty hori­zon. In spring, the almond trees burst into puffs of small, pink flow­ers. In sum­mer, as the trees bear fruit and the petals fall, the ground mir­rors the pale sun­rise. Emer­ald Farms is the start of the almond and wal­nut sup­ply chain, so pro­ces­sors and ven­dors need its prod­ucts for their busi­nesses to be­gin. The farm’s pre-1914 wa­ter rights su­percede ma­jor ci­ties and en­vi­ron­men­tal uses, en­sur­ing it will pro­duce crops ev­ery year. The farm needs the wa­ter. One almond re­quires over a gal­lon of wa­ter to grow, and a sin­gle wal­nut de­mands nearly five. The farm pro­duces dozens of tons of both nuts per year.

Be­ing out in agri­cul­ture also re­quires power. The farm’s size and legacy pro­tects Leon from ho­mo­pho­bia. Its pro­duc­tiv­ity al­lows him to be proud and gives him lever­age. In 2013, he sev­ered a ma­jor busi­ness re­la­tion­ship be­cause of the buyer’s re­marks in the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle about gay mar­riage.

"If I were a nut buyer or de­pended on farm­ers to buy my chem­i­cals, it would be a lot harder to be gay,” Leon said. “The peo­ple that I do busi­ness with need me. If they have a prob­lem with any­thing about me, then I can choose not to do busi­ness with them. If they do have an is­sue, they get over it. They won't get my prod­uct.”

The other source of Leon’s strength is his hus­band. An­drew is a bear of a man – bearded, broad-shoul­dered, and a foot taller than his hus­band. He grew up in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia in a fun­da­men­tal­ist cult then dropped out of a strict Chris­tian univer­sity to work as a field para­medic – a job he ex­celled in.

He met Leon for the first time at the San Diego Pride Pa­rade. Leon was dat­ing some­one else, but he was im­me­di­ately drawn to An­drew. Leon ad­mired his con­fi­dence and liked his deep, loud voice.

Leon knew An­drew drove an am­bu­lance

and lived in his area. Ev­ery time one passed in the years fol­low­ing that Pride, he stood on his toes and searched for the tall man with the dark eyes and black hair.

They met again two years later, dur­ing a raft­ing trip on the Amer­i­can River on Me­mo­rial Day. Leon was crushed to re­al­ize that An­drew didn’t re­mem­ber him. The Amer­i­can River doesn’t flow very fast though, so they spent a long, slow day in the sum­mer sun to­gether and cooked din­ner with their friends. They’ve been with each other ever since.

Leon and An­drew had been dat­ing for five years when Leon asked An­drew to move to the farm with him. Leon was ner­vous about both no and yes. The for­mer might spell the end of their re­la­tion­ship, but the lat­ter would mean Leon had no more ex­cuses to keep An­drew from meet­ing Leon’s fa­ther, who had pushed Leon away for so long.

An­drew said yes. He knew his hus­band could han­dle the re­spon­si­bil­ity of run­ning the farm. He also knew their re­la­tion­ship could not weather much more ten­sion. For two years he and Leon had lived to­gether in Con­cord, Cal­i­for­nia, each com­mut­ing from the mid­point – Leon north to the farm, An­drew south to his job in Oak­land. They were hardly to­gether, pulled in op­po­site di­rec­tions and fight­ing of­ten.

Hav­ing just shut­tered two busi­nesses, Leon looked to the farm as a way to re­vive his pro­fes­sional con­fi­dence. With An­drew’s sup­port, he asked his fa­ther if he could come back to the farm. Allen was un­sure; he had seen his son’s pre­vi­ous ven­tures fail and wasn’t sure Leon could man­age the prop­erty. Be­fore Leon could come back to the farm, he would have to work to al­lay his fa­ther’s old fears and show his ap­ti­tude for busi­ness, his de­sire to be on the farm, and his knowl­edge of agri­cul­ture. Leon suc­ceeded. Rather than sell three gen­er­a­tions of his fam­ily’s work, Allen brought Leon back into the fold.

An­drew spent his first months as a res­i­dent of Emer­ald Farms in cri­sis. He had sac­ri­ficed his thriv­ing ca­reer in emer­gency medicine to re­pair his re­la­tion­ship. It was his first time be­ing un­em­ployed in years. For as long as he and Leon had been to­gether, he had worked a sta­ble job he loved while Leon cast about for a call­ing.

An­drew knew Leon could make enough money on the farm for him not to work. Leon was also happier on the farm than he had been in years. But that didn’t al­le­vi­ate the twinges of jeal­ousy An­drew felt when he scrolled through the Face­book pro­files of his old co­work­ers. He had been com­pe­tent and happy in emer­gency medicine, with a steady ca­reer ahead of him.

Mean­while, Leon slept eas­ily.

At the same time, An­drew could sense re­sent­ment from the peo­ple of Co­lusa County. It wasn’t some­thing he could point to, just an oc­ca­sional, word­less feel­ing of ex­clu­sion dur­ing con­ver­sa­tion.

The sen­ti­ment lurked in the back of his mind. At a Hal­loween party soon af­ter ar­riv­ing, he and Leon won Best Cos­tume dressed as a pair of breasts. One drunk man wasn’t happy; he cir­cled the party ask­ing, “Who in­vited the

fags?” It made An­drew think twice about leav­ing Oak­land for the farm. He won­dered who else was think­ing the same thing as the loud­mouth. He re­mem­bered the pis­tols he and Leon kept in their house for pro­tec­tion. He wanted to leave.

But then a re­cent ac­quain­tance, a fel­low for­mer para­medic, stepped in and told the man he would “kick his fuck­ing teeth to the curb” if he didn’t get out. The drunk man left and later apol­o­gized to Leon and An­drew. It was a mo­ment that al­lowed An­drew to re­lax in his new en­vi­ron­ment. He knew peo­ple were look­ing out for him and his new fam­ily. He knew he and his hus­band could live a good life within the com­mu­nity. He wanted to stay.

For a while, An­drew oc­cu­pied his time by pur­su­ing an on­line de­gree in emer­gency man­age­ment. He fin­ished that, and Leon asked him to op­er­ate the farm’s wal­nut huller, a huge cor­ru­gated tin struc­ture that cleans and pro­cesses the farm’s en­tire yearly out­put. The one-of-a-kind ma­chine was a $5 mil­lion in­vest­ment. An­drew be­came the huller’s man­ager, work­ing seven days a week for 15 hours a day in the first six months it opened. He en­joyed the toil, glad to be work­ing.

Though the new job made An­drew happy, it wasn’t easy. While bring­ing the huller into oper­a­tion, Leon and An­drew spent al­most ev­ery hour of ev­ery day to­gether, dis­put­ing quar­terly goals and load­ing truck sched­ules at work and then din­ner plans and what movie to watch. An­drew was ex­hausted at home. Nei­ther he nor Leon had much en­ergy to sup­port each other.

An­drew was also con­cerned about main- tain­ing bal­ance in his re­la­tion­ship with his hus­band. One night dur­ing din­ner, he said to Leon, “You’re not my boss. We’re equals.” Leon un­der­stood; An­drew had just quit a job in which he over­saw dozens of em­ploy­ees, so he balked at be­ing a sub­or­di­nate.

But work­ing to­gether did reignite old tensions, which came to a head when, in An­drew’s words, "Leon told me he didn’t want me to work with him. That was the bot­tom line." Leon was the Op­er­a­tions Man­ager and a Part­ner in the farm’s busi­ness; he out­ranked his hus­band. An­drew’s ten­ure at the huller ended a year af­ter it be­gan.

An­drew main­tains that he and Leon are a good team, just not when one re­ports to the other. They com­ple­ment each other: An­drew loves read­ing con­tracts; Leon hates it. Leon is the more cre­ative of the pair, pos­sess­ing what An­drew calls “an amaz­ing busi­ness imag­i­na­tion.”

Af­ter the huller, An­drew be­came a con­tract para­medic at nearby rac­ing events and a part­time man­ager at a seed bank that worked with Emer­ald Farms. These odd jobs filled up some time, but not a full day. Mostly, he spent a lot of time at home look­ing for­ward to be­com­ing a stay-at-home dad.

Then came their wed­ding.

In the most strik­ing of their wed­ding photos, there is a sense of in­credulity. Leon pushes his tear-rimmed eyes into An­drew’s shoul­der. An­drew leans over his hus­band and presses his hands into Leon’s back. An­drew’s face is red­den­ing; his eyes are fill­ing up. There is dis­be­lief that Leon, the boy from the farm, and An­drew, who

sac­ri­ficed so much for the re­la­tion­ship, could re­ally ex­change rings un­der an orange sun­set. That they could live to­gether on the farm.

The photo was taken in Oc­to­ber 2013. Their twins, Cade and Lena, were born in Au­gust 2015. An­drew’s pa­tience was re­warded. He’s had been wait­ing and search­ing for a pur­pose in life on the farm; and then he found two.

An­drew and Leon still fight some­times about the tran­si­tion to the farm. Leon thinks An­drew uses the sac­ri­fice to make him feel guilty. An­drew says he doesn’t mean to, but he still con­tends with feel­ings of lone­li­ness out in the mid­dle of nowhere.

In the end, how­ever, An­drew is happy about the move. It made hav­ing chil­dren a real pos­si­bil­ity. He could be at home with the kids. Though it was dif­fi­cult, he says, it was the best de­ci­sion that he and his hus­band could have made.

For the past two years, the cou­ple has hosted an ‘An­nual Bloom Ride’ in Fe­bru­ary, open­ing their home and their farm for a day to cel­e­brate the up­com­ing har­vest. They lead their friends on bikes, golf carts and horse­back through the almond groves in bloom. This year, their bikes towed the twins.

The flow­ers, the light­est pink, have un­furled, and the slight­est touch sends them spin­ning. They flut­ter down like but­ter­flies onto noses and hair. The al­monds are ripen­ing. This is Leon and An­drew’s fa­vorite time of year. This is when they feel most con­nected to one an­other. Their rea­sons for work­ing so hard to live to­gether on the farm be­come tan­gi­ble.

The ride ends with a view of the en­tire farm. The petals, whipped up by the breeze, dance with one an­other in a sky­ward spi­ral.

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