The Son, His Husband, and Their Farm
story of a homestead
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.