Bob’s Garden puts down new roots as farmer mentors farmer
The Craigslist ad offered a 1989 Case International tractor for sale. That was, coincidentally, the same year Zay Lopez was born.
Anyway, Zay wanted a tractor. Maybe not that one specifically, but a tractor to do the job. He was making the leap into the mostly unknown. It was time, a now-or-never situation, and his dream included farm equipment.
So, this guy, this 23-year-old, still wet behind the ears, made an appointment with Bob Beasley to come out and look at the tractor. Zay and his girlfriend, Lacey, drove to Bob’s E 1/4 Road home, and in those following moments, after Zay bought the tractor, seeds of possibility were planted.
“It’s funny how we clicked right away,” Zay recalled on a recent, roasting morning, standing in tree shade with a view of squash blossoms and verdant pepper plants, melon vines not yet curling and tomato plants with ruffle-edged leaves.
“He’s 23 years old, but he’s a serious young man,” Bob added. “That was my initial impression: a focused man, just a good person.”
They stood companionably — Zay leaning on shovel handle, Bob listening as Zay explained his dream. The words, though, were almost supplemental, because the dream extended in rows across more than seven acres before them: Zay wants to be a farmer.
This is not a typical dream for a 23-year-old. A lawyer, a doctor, a graphic designer — this is what you expect to hear, the career trajectories you expect to see. Farming is something someone else does, even in an area as agricultural as western Colorado.
“Usually, you grow up on a farm,” Zay said. “Farming is passed down from generation to generation.”
He meant generation to generation in a family, and yet here he is, the recipient of generations of knowledge. Within an hour of meeting each other, within 59 minutes of clicking, Bob said to Zay, “Why don’t you farm my land?”
Bob, who turned 72 this year and last year retired from 44 years in the flooring business, hadn’t planned to farm the three-acre plot on E 1/4 Road this summer. He’d had back surgery last year and was looking forward to relaxing.
But farming isn’t something you just stop doing, as though one day you’re a farmer and the next day you’re not. Spend enough time with your feet rooted in the dirt and the plants begin curling and blooming up your legs. It’s always a part of you.
So, here was this young man, eager to learn, willing to work hard, unafraid to take blind steps into the unknown, and Bob had a lifetime of farming to teach. Bob calls himself Zay’s helper. Zay says Bob is his mentor and one of his best friends.
“I feel like I’ve known him my whole life,” Zay said, though it’s been just two months. Bob nodded in agreement.
“They have such a great relationship,” said Darla Beasley, Bob’s wife. “I said to Bob, how blessed are we that he was brought into our lives? He’s a good, sincere person, he’s interested, he’s likable, he’s got a good personality. And he really wants to learn.
“So much of farming is old-school. It’s dying off, it’s becoming a lost art. If you don’t have somebody to carry it on, it’ll be lost.”
Bob, then, is teaching Zay everything he learned about agriculture from growing up on a farm in Kansas and cultivating orchards and gardens in the Grand Valley. Just a year after moving to this area in 1974, Bob bought an orchard.
Several of the longtime orchardists in that area taught him about trimming and spraying, irrigating, picking, hiring workers and every other facet of successful fruit growing. They offered their knowledge freely and generously, he said, and that spirit of giving — perhaps even more than the information itself — is what he remembers.
In 2009, he began cultivating a multi-acre garden on land he and Darla bought on E 1/4 Road in 2001. They set up a Bob’s Garden produce stand at the edge of the property and also took their produce to farmers markets in Meeker and Eagle.
But last year was a bad year, as it was for many area farmers, and this year he just hadn’t planned to plant the garden. Then came Zay.
Zay did not grow up on a farm. In fact, he grew up in Reston, Va., an upper-middle-class suburb of Washington, D.C. His father, John, was a 35-year employee of the U.S. Forest Service. He grew up playing football and wrestling and dreaming.
“Ever since he was a little kid, he was a dreamer,” remembered his mother, Linda. “He’s come up with these ideas and we knew that one day he’d pursue one of them. He’s not really materialistic and never has been. He just wants to love what he’s doing and be successful enough to make a living.”
He knew he was good enough to play Division II football, and chose Mesa State sight-unseen because he thought Grand Junction seemed like a nice place. His freshman year, he played football and wrestled, but subsequently focused on football.
It was as he was getting to know the Grand Valley that his interest in agriculture began growing. The summer after his freshman year, he called every orchard in the phone book and had no success until his last call, to Z’s Orchards and Produce. Owner Richard Skaer hired him as a general worker: He weeded, thinned, picked, went to farmers markets and did whatever else was needed.
“I loved it,” Zay said. “It just fascinated me. It’s amazing to me how you can plant a seed and see it grow.”
Zay worked at Z’s Orchards for three summers. He graduated with a degree in sports management in May 2011, afterward worked at the Montrose Boys and Girls Club and did some property management. But he always thought about farming. The small plot he planted in Palisade just wasn’t enough.
He turned it over in his mind, considering the difficulty of farming, the hardship of being at nature’s mercy, the expenses, the unexpected and, ultimately, the satisfaction.
His parents gave him a loan. He bought the tractor. And then, in May, Bob’s offer: Farm my land.
Dave Amico, who owns the four-acre plot next door, made the same offer, with the agreement being that he’ll get paid in fresh produce.
Because it was May, Zay felt the clock ticking. Would there be enough time to get plants in the ground and reap a decent harvest? Yes, Bob told him, don’t worry.
So they planted. Zay recruited some of his friends from the football team to give him about two days of labor, and they planted about 6,000 tomato plants, 1,300 jalapeno plants, six varieties of cantaloupe, four varieties of watermelon, squash, green peppers, eggplant, sweet potatoes, beans, cucumbers, corn and a handful of other crops. Some were seedlings and some were simply seeds.
Zay, normally laid-back and mellow, took to worrying. Would they come up? Were they healthy? He paced the rows — 500 feet on Amico’s four acres, 350 feet on Bob’s — scanning for sprouts, yanking intrusive weeds, wondering what more he could do.
It’ll be OK, Bob assured him, offering a steadying calm.
“I don’t know what I would do without Bob,” Zay said.
Every day, some mornings as early at 6, they’re in the fields. Because neither believes in using pesticides or herbicides, “weeds are a constant battle,” Bob said. So, they pull and hoe. Bob helped him in hiring a three- or four-person crew that comes in the evenings to weed.
Bob taught Zay about flood irrigation and how to distinguish sick from healthy plants. He taught him about dealing with pests, supplementing the soil, watching the weather, timing the planting, mooning over the seed catalogs. He taught him about maintaining and fixing farm equipment and loaned Zay his tools. He introduced Zay to the neighbors, who adopted this fledgling farmer.
“You know that saying that it takes a village to raise a child?” Darla Beasley said. “It takes a neighborhood to teach Zay.”
“These are such good people around here,” Bob said, and Zay nodded in agreement. “They’ll always help, they’ll teach him what he needs to know.”
Everybody is rooting for Zay’s success, Bob said, not just because they’re encouraged to see a young person choose farming, but because “he’s so personable, so willing to learn and listen.”
“I don’t worry about him at all,” Linda Lopez said. “He’s really good at making connections with people and they care about him because he cares about them. They want him to be successful. We’re all rooting for him.”
As soon as the first crops ripen, Zay plans to set up stalls at farmers markets as The Produce Peddler (theproducepeddler.com). His mom maintains the website and his sister, who lives in Virginia, designed his logo. Though his parents are in Santa Fe, N.M., and his sister is even farther, it’s a family enterprise, Zay said.
“We’ve just extended our family,” Darla Beasley said.
Ultimately, though, it’s Bob and Zay, among growing things.
“That’s lambsquarter,” Bob told Zay on a recent morning, pointing out a weed growing near a blooming squash plant. “I grew up eating that. It has more vitamins and minerals than spinach.”
Zay made note, one more thing he’s learned from Bob.