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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