Locust Hill: Chapter 10 by Carl Parsons at

Locust Hill: Chapter X

Locust Hill

Chapter X


written by: Carl Parsons



Despite its long history as a farm community, dating back to the early-1800s, Locust Hill was beginning to change by the 1970s. As the county continued losing jobs and with those jobs its people, the decline most immediately affected the South Side with its factories, but eventually shops and stores in the downtown area started to close as well. The service dominos, it seems, always fall right after the manufacturing ones. Even the lovely old hotel near St. Benedict’s went out of business and was eventually torn down, as were many other landmarks in the downtown area. Soon—too soon, really—our St, Benedict’s parishioners had no trouble at all finding parking spaces as empty lots began to replace buildings throughout the downtown area. Once a large shopping mall opened on the north side of town, no one wanted any of the rapidly emptying downtown buildings any longer. In short order, the combined effects of the declining population and the new mall destroyed the town’s shopping district, despite the city government’s stubborn attempts at urban renewal, which only hastened the destruction of landmark buildings.
As the town’s old neighborhoods and inner-city area decayed, at least some of the residents sought a more congenial place to live and found it in Locust Hill, where the farmers, struggling with their own problems, were more and more disposed to sell their farms for residential developments, often at whopping profits. Many of these farmers had reached retirement age without much in the way of savings. Others, like Jim’s Uncle Ed and Aunt Evelyn, simply didn’t have any immediate family members who were willing to continue farming their land. It seemed that most of us in the post-World War II generation wanted a life less demanding than farming, which, especially during the Great Depression, had become associated with poverty and ignorance. Thus, Locust Hill was beginning to lose some of its rural character as one farm after another became a subdivision of cookie-cutter homes—exactly what Jim had long feared would happen.
But the desertion of farming was also due to economic pressures. Even though food prices rose steadily, farm incomes did not, especially in our area where the small acreage farmers were increasingly at a great disadvantage to the much larger corporate farms in the South and Midwest.
To make matters worse, as the local factories shed workers, these increasingly desperate people could no longer pay the tabs they had run up at their neighborhood grocery stores. In those friendlier times local grocers routinely allowed their regular customers to buy groceries on a monthly tab. But when their furloughed customers could no longer pay, the grocers were typically stuck with the unpaid and uncollectable tabs. The individual debts were generally too small to make legal action practical. Soon the grocers too were going out of business and joining the local army of the unemployed themselves, eventually causing the collapse of the town’s grocery cooperative and greatly decreasing demand for food from the local farms, such as ours. Worse still, a suspicious fire had gutted the grocery cooperative warehouse, which forced us to make deliveries to individual stores for a while, until the cooperative began to use one of the closed factories on the South Side as a warehouse.
Early on, Jim saw this dilemma developing and realized that the only way for Locust Hill to remain even somewhat rural, and for us personally to survive as farmers, was for the small independent farmers to unite in more than just a farmers’ cooperative for purchases and pricing. We had to create a higher level of coordination that would reduce our costs of doing business by joining our operations into an alliance that would effectively transform our many small farms into a single, larger, more efficiently managed farming operation that could then better realize economies of scale, reduce costs, boost margins, and compete with the corporate farms, at least on a regional basis. Otherwise, all our farms would eventually be lost to developers’ bulldozers, developers who hoped to lure people from the struggling town into the peaceful countryside, a process that would gradually destroy the natural beauty that drew people to the country to begin with. What we had yet to discover, however, was the means for achieving this partnership of farmers.



For our part, shortly after we were married, Jim and I began to explore a relationship with the most popular regional grocer in our area. When a large new Kloss grocery store opened on the South Side, we made a point to meet its manager and ask him about the possibility of supplying his store with fresh produce. He explained that he wasn’t authorized to buy from us directly but was kind enough to give us the name and phone number of the company’s produce buyer for the region, a man named Roland Weisman, whose office was in Cincinnati. Jim called him, repeatedly, pestered him actually, and eventually got an appointment. Leaving the farm in Javier’s hands for a few days, we made the trip to Cincinnati. Except for the business appointment, it was like a second honeymoon for us. We toured the city, rode a riverboat, went to a Reds baseball game, and drank a fair amount of Cincinnati beer.
The meeting with Mr. Weisman was instructive but not as promising as we had hoped. He said that he was always looking for regional produce growers to support the increasing number of Kloss stores but required those growers to be able to reliably supply in quantities that made the contracts worth his time. We showed him photos of our farm, explained our cultivation practices, and provided statistics to show just how productive the farm was. He was interested but was still not sufficiently impressed. Our farm, he said, no matter how efficient, was simply too small; in fact, we needed twice the current output to compete for a contract.
Then Jim asked about prospects for organic produce, thinking that perhaps even a small producer might have an opportunity in that product segment. “Not yet” was his answer, “perhaps someday, but not yet. The market is still more price than product sensitive.” According to the company’s consumer surveys, Kloss’s customers were not yet willing to pay for the extra cost of organic fruits and vegetables. Before we left, Jim asked if we could reapply when (he did say “when” and not “if”) we had access to more land. “Yes,” said Mr. Weisman, “Most assuredly. But you must also show that you can produce to the Kloss minimum requirements in both quantity and quality, which are more important criteria than just available acreage. You’d go through a trial period first.”
At least after the visit we knew what we had to do and so went home encouraged. We now had a talking relationship with an important buyer and knew what he needed in terms of crop varieties and quantities. And Mr. Weisman was right. Produce like watermelon, cantaloupes, green beans, summer and winter squashes, and sweet corn—on a scale that he required—would indeed take up much more acreage than we currently had available, nor were these crops as amenable to our intensive growing techniques as the smaller crops, like lettuce and spinach.
After our trip Jim became more concerned than ever about timing as the purchases by the local grocers’ cooperative had by now gone into a steep decline. Thus, our original strategy of buying up farms as they became available was now too slow, too capital intensive, and therefore unworkable. Besides, families moving from town to Locust Hill had driven land prices up, not down as Jim had once hoped. Plus, our own cash flow was starting to decline due to the impending collapse of the local grocers’ cooperative, making it impossible now for us to save enough money for such large purchases. So where could we gain access to more land without a huge investment, which we could scarcely afford?



Several months went by with no resolution in sight. Then, closer at hand than we could have imagined, an opportunity sprang up. The Nestlerode farm lay about a quarter mile south of ours down Ridge Road, in fact, just on the other side of the farm owned by Wanda’s family. Jacob Nestlerode, the family patriarch, had died recently, leaving the farm, on which he largely raised hogs, encumbered in debt. His son, Robert, who was only a few years older than Jim, inherited not only the farm but the debt as well. Now he was in a panic because the bank was requiring a new, more aggressive loan repayment schedule, the old one having been largely unmet by his father. Against this new schedule, according to local rumors, only the farm itself stood as collateral, and consequently Robert was in considerable danger of losing a farm his family had worked and lived on for decades, as well as losing the house in which his young family currently lived. Jim became aware of the Nestlerodes’ problem when Robert announced that he was dropping out of our farmers’ co-operative because he could no longer afford the membership fee. Since Jim was now the Cooperative treasurer (we had risen in status in the community by that time), he thought that we should at least investigate ways to help Robert. So, we called him and arranged a visit.



It was raining hard the afternoon of our visit. We drove our new Ford station wagon from Uncle Ed’s, where we were still living, up Locust Hill toward the Nestlerode farm. When we pulled into their gravel driveway, we found it deeply rutted and pocked with mud puddles. The station wagon bounced hard several times despite Jim’s slow, cautious driving. The Nestlerode’s had obviously not been replenished the gravel for a considerable time and most of what remained had long since been beaten into the ground by use, and so well past the point of being useful any longer, or washed onto Ridge Road by the rain, as was happening on this day.
The Nestlerode house, a simple two-story wooden farmhouse with a front porch that supported a small second-story balcony, was larger than our own homestead farm home by quite a bit and sat much closer to the road, leaving only a small front yard vegetated with scattered thin patches of grass and weeds. Today the yard’s soil was also pouring out onto the road, joining the gravel from the driveway, and leaving the patches of grass and weeds like tiny green islands in a sea of brown gushing water.
The house itself had fared little better than the yard with age. Its white paint was now so thin, indeed peeled away in many places, that the house appeared more brownish-grey than white. The windows had blinds—some pulled down, some partially raised—but only a few were graced with curtains. Two faded red brick chimneys, soot staining their tops, stood on either side of the house; the one nearest us was chuffing dark coal smoke as we carefully picked our way among the puddles to the front door. Jim was trying, as best he could, to keep our red and white umbrella over me with one hand while keeping me close by him with his other hand at my waist.
The fields that flanked the house were filled with deep tractor ruts and hog wallows, all flooded now with rainwater, much like the driveway. Several young hogs were sloshing and squealing with seeming delight in the wallows; the older and perhaps wiser hogs had taken shelter in the pens that stood farther back in the field on the side bordering the Williams farm.
When we reached the front door, Jim gave me the umbrella to hold while he opened the aluminum storm door and used the pitted brass knocker to announce our arrival; there was no doorbell. Midge Nestlerode, Robert’s wife, whom I thought I had seen peering out at us from one of the front windows as we approached the house, quickly opened the door.
“Oh, my word, get yourselves in here right now, Jim and Cassandra,” Midge shouted so that she could be heard above the rain beating on the balcony’s metal roof. She was a short, somewhat frail-looking woman with pale blue eyes and equally pale red hair, clipped into what had once been a pageboy cut that had now gone to seed. She wore a simple cotton dress printed with a pattern of tiny blue and white flowers. On this damp, chilly day she also wore a bulky blue sweater, the fuzz of which was standing out just now like the fur of a frightened cat. On her left hip, she balanced her toddler, Joseph. “Just look at all that rain, Joseph!” she went on, pointing outside, as I collapsed the umbrella, shook it vigorously on the porch, and placed it against the outside edge of the storm door’s jamb before entering the house. Jim held the aluminum storm door open for me.
Little Joseph stared at us in mild curiosity with big brown eyes, like a calf’s, that slowly blinked while he silently sucked on his left thumb, his right hand all the while grasping first at his mother’s hair and then at her fuzzy sweater. Their other children, Susan and Robert Jr., were no doubt in school.
“Robert is here in the living room,” Midge said, “waiting for you, Jim.” As she shook my hand, I felt a mild electrostatic shock and saw her sweater wilt. She pointed the way to the living room with her free hand while she hoisted baby Joseph higher up on her hip with the other. Jim and I followed Midge into the living room through a door just to the left of a wooden staircase. There was Robert, a smallish man in a grey wool sweater, poking furiously at the coal fire, trying to coax more heat from it, in a room that was already in my estimation stiflingly hot. But in Locust Hill when visitors come to call, cold rooms are to be avoided at all cost since they suggest that the host lacked the means to provide even simple comforts while a hot house betokened economic sufficiency, even where it may not exist.
“Hello, Jim. Well, here’s your wife too.” Robert acknowledged me with mild surprise. “Hi, Cassandra. Glad you folks could come by. For such close neighbors, we sure don’t get together as much as we should, now do we?”
“I’m afraid you’re right about that, Robert,” Jim replied. “I guess we’re all so busy keeping up our farms that we don’t take the time for each other as we should.”
“But this is a good day for a visit—can’t do much farm work in this rain,” Robert said in a rather melancholy voice. “Midge, can you get us some coffee, Jim and me? Maybe you two girls would like to take yours in the kitchen while we talk a bit,” he added in a voice that was half question and half command.
“Coffee’s already perkin’, Hon,” she said. “I’ll bring it in as soon as it’s ready. How do you like your coffee, Jim?”
“Just a splash of cream, Midge, if you please,” Jim said and then added quickly, “and no sugar.”
I looked quizzically at Jim, who gave his shoulders a nearly imperceptible shrug, knowingly winked at me, and then allowed his eyes to shift toward Robert. When I looked at Robert, his eyes—normally a soft, sleepy brown as I remembered them, almost like those of a drowsy cow, eyes that his child had inherited—were now dark, hard, and wide with apprehension. He seemed to be using them to plead with me just to go. I already knew what we were about to offer the Nestlerodes, but I had expected to be part of the discussion. Jim’s cues and Robert’s eyes, however, seemed to say, “Better to leave than stay, Cassandra.” So I followed Midge out of the room without saying anything.
At the stairwell she turned to me and said, “While we’re waiting on the coffee to perk, would you like to see the rest of the house? Besides, I need to put Little Joe down for his nap upstairs.”
“Sure,” I said and followed Midge up the stairs, all the while keeping my ears alert for any words that might escape the living room.
The creaking stairs lead up to an equally creaky landing and then more creaking stairs that brought us back toward the front side of the house. Facing us at the top of the staircase was a set of double doors that opened onto the balcony. The doors were secured with a length of rope knotting together their handles. To keep the children from the dangerous balcony, I thought. I felt a cold draft as we passed by the doors. A strong west wind was now driving the rain against them. Midge showed me the children’s rooms, their tiny bathroom, and the master bedroom—their walls papered throughout with patterns long since outdated. In fact, any wallpaper at all was out of date at that time. The walls in the older boy’s bedroom were dotted here and there with dents, from boyish roughhousing I guessed, exposing bits of drywall dust. Unlike the downstairs living room, these rooms were quite cold, heated only by the updrafts from downstairs.
After Midge settled slumbering little Joseph into his crib and covered him with a tattered sheet and folded crocheted blanket, we descended the stairs to go to the kitchen. Only when we turned at the landing could I feel any substantial heat rising up the stairwell, and even that was diminished by the partially closed living room door.
As we descended the stairs, I thought I heard Robert’s voice, distorted by anguish, saying, “I just can’t . . .” But then I couldn’t make out the rest of what he was saying as his voice trailed off into what might even have been a muffled sob. I couldn’t really tell. Besides, Midge crossed quickly in front of me to close the living room door fully. Her face reddened as she then turned and stepped past me again to lead the way to the kitchen, which by now reeked with the odor of slightly burned coffee. I could see that Midge’s eyes were staring at the floor as she went, and her cheeks were tinged perhaps with despair or embarrassment or both.
In the kitchen she poured two cups of coffee, amended the one with two tablespoons of sugar and a lot of cream, the other with just a splash of cream, placed them on a white handle-less plastic tray, and carried them to the living room, where she knocked softly using the side of her elbow before entering. I watched her from the kitchen door before retreating to my chair at the kitchen table. When she re-entered the kitchen, she said, “I hope everything is going okay between Robert and Jim. It seems to be, from what I could tell.”
Unsure just what I should say or ask that wouldn’t upset Midge, I tried, “I’m sure Jim will be as helpful as he can, Midge. Neither of us wants to see your farm drop out of the Cooperative if it can be avoided.”
“I know that, Cassandra, and we both appreciate it, honestly we do, but Robert’s very uneasy talking about all of this. Not that it’s his fault; it really isn’t. But his father’s death left us in a bad fix. Robert won’t even tell me how bad it is, but he’s recently taken a job in town as a mechanic at one of the auto garages. Thankfully, he studied auto mechanics in high school. I don’t know how we’ll manage the farm work, though, but we really need the steady income. So, I’m glad . . . glad he’s finally talking about these problems with somebody who can help.” Her voice broke a bit before she could finish her last sentence. In a moment she composed herself, picked up the coffee pot, and asked me how I wanted my coffee.
“Oh, the same as Jim’s, just a bit of cream,” I replied as merrily as I could manage. Then accepting the cup from Midge, I sipped it; the unstirred cream was still swirling on its surface. The sip left a bitter, burnt aftertaste even before I could place the cup on the table. “I understand how you feel, Midge. One of the things Jim’s mom told me on my first visit to Locust Hill is that farm life is never easy. Now with all of the neighborhood groceries in town closing down, I can see what she meant.”
“Well, Lucie’s right, always is. She may be a quiet woman, but when she does speak, with that sweet Virginia accent of hers, it’s good sense that comes from her mouth, I can tell you that. I’ve always liked Lucie—since I was a little girl . . . always liked her.” Midge’s voice had a saddened, almost dream-like, tone to it now, as though she were speaking to me across some great distance and from a better place that she was now imagining.
“I hope something can be worked out, Midge,” I said, patting her hand, “something that allows you to stay here.”
At that point I heard the living room door open. Then Robert and Jim came into the kitchen, carrying their coffee cups. Robert also had a red bandana handkerchief in his hand and his eyes seemed a bit red and swollen. He placed his cup on the table next to Midge’s, gave her a quick consoling kiss on the top of the head, rapidly folded his handkerchief, and thrust it into his back trouser pocket. While Robert was tending to his handkerchief, Jim spoke up cheerily, “Thought we’d join you ladies.” He gave me one of sly smiles. “I guess we’re all just peasants at heart—always end up eating and drinking in the kitchen, most often while standing up.” We all laughed lightly, although Robert’s smile quickly deserted his face.
When we had finished the rest of the coffee and chatted some more about the weather, our children, their schools, hog prices, and crop prospects—Jim and I took our leave. At the door, saying their goodbyes to us, Midge looked relieved, though the fuzz of her sweater now fully extended again. Robert still appeared troubled. The rain by now had nearly stopped. A few rays of sunlight were even trying to break through the clouds off to our west across the Ohio River, so I just carried the umbrella back to our station wagon while clinging to Jim’s arm and tiptoeing around the puddles.



Back home at Ed and Evelyn’s in the more comfortable temperature of our own room, I asked Jim what had happened during his conference with Robert.
“Well, he began by explaining to me how bad their situation is—mostly information everyone in Locust Hill has already guessed. What I didn’t know, however, was just how bad Jake Nestlerode’s drinking had become after his wife died. That alone put quite a strain on Robert and Midge, probably on their children as well. You know old Jake continued to live with them since neither he nor they could afford to move anywhere else. And since he kept all the money matters to himself, Robert was shocked to discover just how terrible things were financially when the estate was finally settled—including a second mortgage he knew nothing about. And payments on that mortgage are the pressing problem.”
“But Robert seems to be keeping the money matters from Midge in his turn. Must run in the family,” I offered.
“He probably doesn’t want to frighten her because now he’s so afraid himself of losing everything. He broke down when he told me that part. Literally, I mean, broke down and cried. I think he knew he might. That’s why he didn’t want you and Midge in the room. Men don’t like to show any kind of weakness, ever, but especially not in front of women.”
“Yes, I know, and most especially when one of the women is the man’s wife. Besides, I already suspected as much from his looks both before and after your discussion with him. Oh, and from your signals, too. Thanks for those. I don’t think you’ve winked at me since high school! Even then, you mostly skipped over that part and went straight to kissing and touching!”
“You’re welcome,” Jim said, winking again and stroking my arms as I stood in front of him. Then he resumed. “Anyway, Robert has now taken a job in town as an auto mechanic, something he studied in high school.”
“Yes, Midge told me that too.”
“But he probably didn’t tell her that the salary he’s getting there won’t allow them to pay off his father’s debts. Also, he won’t be able to generate much farm income and can’t afford to hire help.”
“Well, we know that story ourselves,” I said a bit impatiently. “So, what happened next? You offered to take over the loan payments for him, as we discussed? Is that what you did?”
“I did indeed. Exactly as we discussed. I said to him: Lease your farmland to us in exchange for our paying the loan schedule to its completion over the next three years; continue to live in the farmhouse, raise hogs, and take the profit from them, but the farmland itself must be managed by us and worked with use of your existing farm equipment, as necessary. Further, we’ll decide what and how much to grow and when to grow it. I nearly had that part memorized. Then I encouraged him to discuss our proposal with Midge. I suppose they’re doing that right now.”



After agonizing over our proposal for the better part of a week, the Nestlerodes finally agreed to it. Without further delay, we had a lawyer convert the oral agreement into a written contract. With this single agreement we had more than doubled the amount of arable land available to us.
Next, we contacted Roland Weisman again, and this time we were able to obtain, on a trial basis, a one-year contract to supply produce for Kloss stores with the opportunity for a contract renewal the next growing season if all went well. For us, the Nestlerode debt repayment schedule was not especially onerous; we had our savings as back up if necessary. Besides, with the addition of the Kloss contract, we would have more than enough income to cover the Nestlerode debt, whereas Robert was hindered by his father’s profligate spending and a farm income that had become erratic at best due to poor management practices. The hogs, for example, had been allowed to use far too much of the acreage for foraging, rendering it unfit for planting. With the hogs confined to a smaller area and more restricted diets, more of the acreage could be used for revenue generating crops. Through our agreement, Robert saved his family from the threat of foreclosure and could afford to feed his hogs properly, while we had the use of land from a second farm without having to purchase it.
After consulting with our attorney again, we decided to do one other thing—we created Russell Farms, Inc. This became the legal entity we used for dealing with our customers and Robert—later changing it to the Russell Farm Alliance when more farming partners joined us. The Nestlerode farm and our own farm sold produce to Russell Farms at cost, which the corporation then sold to our customers at a profit (usually), which was then distributed proportionally to us and to the Nestlerodes and later to our other partners in the Alliance. Our homestead farm was thus protected from legal action should the business fail since it was not part of the corporation’s direct assets. In fact, to begin with, Russell Farms had cash but no material assets since it was merely a name on the Nestlerode lease agreement and the Kloss contract.
Next, we worked with a local artist to create a logo for Russell Farms that would make our business memorable and appealing to our customers. After casting about for ideas, we finally decided on an artist’s color sketch of the collies, Lad and Lady, seated attentively in front of an idealized red barn (certainly not the condition of our own hundred-year-old barn) with the title RUSSELL FARMS below the picture and everything inside the bold red line outline of a barn.
After settling the Nestlerode contract, we immediately drew up plans to improve the output of the farm’s operations. Robert could no longer allow his hogs to browse, root, and wallow in the fields. Instead, he would have to keep them penned and purchase their feed. When he complained about that, we additionally agreed to pay his Co-op membership, but for one year only, which allowed him to purchase the hog feed at a discount. The more controlled diets also had the effect of producing more pork and producing it faster.
Next, we put Javier in charge of the daily operations of our farm, which he already knew very well, so that Jim could concentrate on improving the Nestlerode farm. Logistically, this was no problem since the two farms were so close. In short order we had a bountiful crop of green beans from the Nestlerode fields, followed shortly by longer maturing crops. Then we hired several part-time farmhands to help with the work for the balance of the summer and the harvest season. Before planting, Jim had thoroughly fertilized the Nestlerode fields with composted manure and other organic fertilizers and planted additional crops that required lots of space and maturation time—mostly, watermelons, cantaloupes, butternut squash, pumpkins, and even some kale, turnips, and potatoes so that the land would produce an income both summer and fall. The extra land also allowed us to rotate crops much more extensively, a point that Jim was especially keen on. And crop rotation, in turn, allowed us to use less fertilizer while minimizing the worst dangers of crop and soil diseases. Insect pests were also foiled. By the time the insects rediscovered their favorite target crops, the harvest was in, and their target crops appeared in a different field the next season, either further south or north along Ridge Road. It was part of my job now to keep track of what was planted where, which I did, season by season, on graph paper sketches of the fields of both farms. As a result of all this, our operations costs gradually dropped while yields and crop quality improved.



Based on the Nestlerode farm success, we concluded that we had hit upon a new strategy, one that could produce success for us faster than saving cash to purchase farmland. But I had one nagging reservation. One night as we prepared for bed, I fended off Jim’s embrace long enough to ask, “Do you really think we are doing the right thing by the Nestlerodes? I mean in effect aren’t we taking advantage of other people’s troubles to force them into giving us a favorable lease?”
“Yes, honey, we are. But look at what the Nestlerodes are getting—relief from debt that no one else was willing to give them so that they can reorganize their lives, as well as the ability to stay on their own property, in their own home, and keep farming at least a portion of their own land—by keeping the hogs, I mean. Actually, we’re saving their farm, working their farm for them, and so have a right to be compensated for that.” Then, moving behind me with his arms about my waist and his hands on my abdomen, he kissed me warmly on the neck and added, “Besides, Midge serves terrible coffee.”
“I suppose you’re right,” I said, leaning my head back on his shoulder. “For sure you’re right about Midge’s coffee,” I added sweetly and then turned about for more of his kisses before adding, “And as far as your argument goes, I suppose you’re right about that too. But the Nestlerodes have lost the right to use their land as they wish, haven’t they? And they no longer keep all the profits the land produces, except for the hogs and an almost token amount from our contract with them.” I had my arms about his neck now as I stared up at his face, while his arms were still about my waist, or close to it.
“True, but that’s only for the duration of the lease,” he replied. We now moved to our conjoined twin beds and lay beside each other under a sheet and flannel blanket with only the bed lamp still lighted. Jim propped himself up on one elbow on his side of the divide and reached over to place his hand was on my stomach as he continued to talk, now in a low, delicious half-whisper. I placed both of my hands on his so that I could better feel the heat of his hand through my nightgown. It spread a radiant tingle all over me. Then—
“Go on,” I said. “What else?”
He continued with both his voice and his left hand, which was rotating in wider and wider circles on my abdomen: “Before we offered to help them, Cassie, that farm was doomed. Don’t you see? Old Jake Nestlerode was like a lot of farmers—very conservative, set in his ways. He wouldn’t change for anything. Thinking tomorrow would be like yesterday. The farm gradually went downhill, even if you don’t consider the effects of his drinking problem.” Jim was whispering low now, as though the Nestlerodes might overhear us, but also punctuating his arguments by pausing to kiss me some more on the mouth and neck and elsewhere as we lay side by side, for he was now more on my bed than his.
“As his farm margins shrank . . . he had a harder and harder time making ends meet, . . . took out loans he couldn’t repay, . . . and eventually turned to drinking to forget his problems rather than facing up to them to find solutions. As a result, . . . both he and his land became exhausted. That happens a lot, you know. . . . M-m-m-m. At the next step, the bank would have taken the farm and sold it to developers, you can bet on that . . . Oooh, Cassandra, you are such a pretty woman! Developers who would have levelled everything . . . , divided it into lots, . . . put up a sign naming the place after the very things that they had just destroyed—like calling it “Locust Grove,” or something like that, in honor of the hundreds of locust trees they had just bulldozed and burned, or worse, . . . buried to decay underground, . . . causing subsidence later on . . . Oh-h-h-h, Cassie! . . . for an unsuspecting homeowner. Anyway, once houses are built on a farm, that land is never going to become farmland again, you know that. Never! Ooooh, Cassandra, you are just wonderful!”
As Jim’s argument rose to its logical conclusion, so did the passion of his kisses. “Then the woods are gone,” he gasped, “the fields are gone, the wildlife is gone. Nothing is the same! And that’s just what would have happened to the Nestlerode farm. In fact, they were only weeks away from losing it all, as Robert very well knows. That’s why, sweetheart, . . . he finally agreed to our proposal.” By now I was a bit breathless too but quickly recovered enough to say—
“But, Jim, the lease is only for three years, as you yourself just said.” I whispered this into the ear he had turned to me while I held him tight against me. “After it expires what do you think will happen?” Then—
Jim pushed me onto my back and raised himself above me on both arms. Now he was fully on my bed and nearly on top of me. Staring down at me he replied with a smile, “Then, my sweet wife, we make Robert another offer.” He kissed my nose with a soft wet smack. “We say to him: Become part of Russell Farms, Inc. Farm your own land again, but coordinate what’s grown on your farm with ours and utilize our methods. Then take a share of the Russell Farms profits at the end of the year proportional to what we sold from your land. Share our risks; share our rewards.” Jim followed that declaration with a long deep kiss. Then—
“And you think Robert will agree to that?” I asked, when I could breathe again.
“Yes, I do.” Suddenly I was snared in another of my husband’s fervent embraces, this one noticeably more impatient and much more emphatic than before. Still, pushing back on his chest with both hands, I had one more question to ask—
“But why wouldn’t he just want to manage his farm by himself and take all of his own profits? Answer me that, Farm Boy.” I demanded as I tugged on his chest hair.
“Ouch! Cassandra Clark, you are a mischievous girl!” he exclaimed.
“Hush!” I whispered, putting my hand over his lips. “You’ll wake the babies. Now go on. Tell me why.”
He did; with his voice and his hands and his kisses, he went on to why. “He’ll agree because both his costs and his risks will be greater on his own, that’s why.” With that, he took my hands in his, probably to protect his chest hair, and pressed my hands to the mattress on either side of my head. “Together, in a partnership, their farm and ours can share equipment and materials. Have less wasted fertilizer. Have no need to buy any additional tractors or tools. Have better opportunities for crop rotation, and so on. But most of all, we, pretty girl—you and I,” Jim poked his nose against mine and then with a quick tug, untied the ribbon holding closed the top of my nightgown, scooped out my breasts, kissed them, and buried his face between them. Then—
Raising his head again, he resumed his argument. “We already have the contract with Kloss stores, and a partnership with us will give Robert access to a marketplace he can’t reach on his own. Besides, by now Robert has become quite nervous about taking risks. He’ll welcome a partnership.” Jim reached up and switched off the bed lamp as he added, “I know he will.” Then he turned to me in the dark, pulled me against him, began kissing my breasts again before he murmured, “Now, pretty Cassandra, will you?”
“Will I what?”
“Welcome this partnership,” he replied with a faint moan, pressing his face against my breasts.
I accepted Jim’s offer that night without further delay. Three years later Robert accepted too.



Our revised plan was now to have three or four coordinated farms and rotate the crops among them so that we could better maintain soil fertility and produce a greater variety of crops. In short, we would treat the multiple farms as one extended farm, just as we were already starting to do with the addition of the Nestlerode land. That way we would no longer be constrained by the acreage devoted to growing silage for Uncle Ed’s dairy cows, and we could respond quicker to changes in market conditions by being able to have some fallow ground that could be planted on short notice if necessary. It wasn’t long before Russell Farms added a second and third farm in the area in similar fashion and for much the same reasons that we had added the Nestlerode’s—that is, by partnerships prompted by hardships. And when we made these additions, we found that all of the advantages of the original partnership were not only transferred to the new ones, but magnified as well, for by now the Kloss Stores was growing itself rapidly and buying everything we could harvest.
Through these partnerships Russell Farms avoided large mortgages and cash outlays for purchasing farms outright in favor of short-term leases, which, more often than not, led to enduring partnerships. We also avoided taking on a lot of additional labor. Javier became our go-to manager for new acquisitions, whipping them into shape in just a single season, while Jim concentrated more and more on customer relations and overall management of the farm alliance. We used our savings for purchasing newer, more technically advanced equipment instead of additional land. Then we concentrated on developing the most efficient use of the equipment across all of the farms we now coordinated. For example, we adopted the practice of meeting with Javier, Robert, and the other partners each morning, sometimes at the Co-op meeting room but more often just by phone, to assign the equipment and the farmhands for the day to the various farms. We acquired a truck and trailer to move the equipment and a van to move the farm hands to the farm where they were most needed each day, often moving them several times during the course of a single day. We also required that the fields be inspected each morning so that any insect infestations, outbreaks of plant diseases, or other problems could be spotted and dealt with immediately. This simple daily discipline alone cost us nothing but a little time and effort to implement yet significantly improved margins on all of the farms and made us all better farmers.
Another great improvement in efficiency came through the use of cell phones and computers, which we were early to employ. With the cell phones we could keep track of each other as never before, despite the scattered farm locations, and thus respond much more quickly to changing conditions and so deploy our resources with greater speed and effectiveness.
And then came electronic spreadsheets, such a miracle! With these I was able to improve our data collection and financial analyses, and even display the information in trend charts that helped us make better decisions for each farm. And do it all in less time and less office space than before.
But even with the aid of accounting software, the huge amount of data that we were now collecting by farm had become too burdensome to for me alone. So, I persuaded Sandie to join me part-time in this work. While she preferred outdoor farm work, especially being able to show her own two children how to work in the fields and barns, she appreciated learning a new skill that brought her family some extra money.
Eventually we found that the greatest constraint on the success of Russell Farms was not land or information but simply labor. We needed two types of labor—a crew of ten to twelve full-timers now to carry out the year-round work of tilling, planting, and maintaining the farm buildings and equipment—and part-time labor for the harvesting periods. However, both kinds of labor were difficult to find and even more difficult to keep, despite the fact that we didn’t require any prior experience and the area was suffering increasingly from a lack of good jobs. Even so, people still spurned farm work.
Javier offered that he could help us bring laborers from Mexico, just as many large farm operations across the country were already doing, especially out West. But finding affordable housing for these workers, willing and hard-working though they were, quickly became its own problem. Certainly, there was no low-cost housing to speak of in Locust Hill, so the best we could do was some apartments scattered about the South Side. Then we assigned a van to one of these workers and along with it the responsibility of transporting himself and his coworkers to and from the farms each day. We also tried recruiting at the local high schools for summer workers but had only limited success. Temporary employment agencies supplied a few workers now and then but usually not of good quality or dependability.
While we never completely solved the labor problem, we had our best success later on, once Catherine and Markus established their clinic. We struck an agreement with them to provide healthcare, including prescription drugs, for our employees with Russell Farms paying 85% of the cost. Once it became known that we offered healthcare coverage for our full-time employees, we were able to hire better quality workers and keep them longer. Part-time help continued to be a problem, however, and everyone simply had to work exceptionally long hours during planting and harvest periods to get that time-constrained work successfully accomplished.



As our success and reputation grew, we had farmers in the county contacting us about joining the Russell Farm Alliance so that they too could gain access to the regional and national grocery contracts we had won. Besides, by the 1980s the local grocers’ cooperative was completely gone and most of the local grocers gone with it, leaving just the national and regional grocery chains as our only viable customers. Since we already had three partners, we only accepted two others. The first of these was Klaus Brenneman. The Brenneman property was a prime bottom land farm that dated from just after the Revolutionary War. Yet his children had, in effect, abandoned Mr. Brenneman, because, like Uncle Ed’s daughters, they had no interest at all in farming or continuing their family’s history in the area. Instead, they only wanted to sell the farmland for a quick profit. Klaus, who by now was eighty-three, and his wife Frieda, only three years younger, then turned to us for help. He was too old to farm the land by himself anymore and hadn’t been able to hire enough trustworthy farmhands to help him. Plus, he didn’t want to invest in new equipment, not at his age. But he also didn’t want to just sell and move away as so many others had done. He didn’t need help with any debts; he just wanted us to help keep his farm producing so that he and his wife could continue to live on it and see it every day. To put it simply, Klaus and Frieda wanted to be able to look out their window and still see crops growing on their land as they always had. There’s a priceless satisfaction in that.
After inspecting the property, we agreed to help. The soil of the Brenneman farm was still fertile and loamy in most places. Unlike Jacob Nestlerode, Klaus had been a more than competent steward of his land. On our side, we now had a supplier contract with a second national grocer, Titan Grocery Stores, located in Columbus, and so immediately could put the land to profitable use for both the Brenneman and us. Before the Brennemans died, we bought the farm from them; it then became the only other property that we owned outright. The manager we hired for the property lived rent-free with his family in the Brennemans’ old home as part of his compensation. As for the Brenneman heirs, they inherited the money from the sale of the farm, certainly not as much as a real estate developer would have paid them, but they didn’t complain since they didn’t have to wait long to get their hands on the cash after both of their parent were gone.
The other “volunteer” property we accepted was an even greater coup. Sandie had eventually married Freddy Cunningham, who was still devoted to farming, his family being one of the Cooperative’s founders and a long-time rival of both the Lowerys and Russells. When Freddy finally inherited the farm, after his parents’ retirement to Florida, he and Sandie immediately asked to become partners in the Alliance with the same profit-sharing arrangement as the other partners. This arrangement gave Sandie and Freddy not only a wonderful old farmhouse to live in, but instant access to profitable contracts with two major grocery chains.
The last property we acquired was Uncle Ed’s. After Aunt Evelyn died, he retired and went to live with one of his daughters in Florida. He was eighty-six by that time. We, rather than Russell Farms, purchased the farm from him and thus reunited the two parcels of land that had previously been the original Russell farm. Now that we had two adjacent dairy farms—Uncle Ed’s and the Cunningham’s—we worked with Freddie and Sandie to join them into a single farm producing organic milk, for which there was now a growing market but few suppliers. We reduced the total number of cattle proportional to the organic market, transferred, at long last, the responsibility for producing organic silage to their farm, and built two large greenhouses next to Uncle Ed’s old barn. We used the greenhouses to extend the growing seasons for some of our most profitable crops. Jim was quite happy to have Sandie and Freddy take complete charge of the dairy operations since he was never as comfortable with livestock as he was with vegetables. Also, despite Uncle Ed’s unyielding claims to the contrary, the cows from both farms now seemed quite contented and very productive.
On the homestead farm we finally needed to rebuild the original barn. In doing so, we retained as much of the old barn as possible while converting it to the exclusive purpose of growing mushrooms and producing compost on a large scale for all of Russell Farms. What had been Sandie’s flocks were now housed in their own smaller but much more modern and specialized building next to the duck pond.



In all of this expansion, Jim adhered as much as possible to organic practices since he still believed that these methods would eventually triumph in the marketplace. First, we achieved organic certification for the homestead farm, then the Brenneman farm, and finally for the two dairy farms, but we didn’t force certification on any of our partners, nor did any of them pursue it on their own.
But even as our own family and business grew, the area’s economy continued to decline, sharply. By the 1980s most of the South Side plants were closed. The downtown area nearly empty of commerce with many buildings standing empty; some boarded up; others torn down or repurposed. Many streets that had been so familiar to us were now unrecognizable without their landmark buildings. In particular, at Christmas time we missed the beautiful decorations that had lighted the downtown streets and the cheery bells that had lifted our spirits since childhood. It was a sad period for all of us.
As part of this decline my father finally lost his job, just as he so long feared he would. He was only four years short of retirement when his plant closed, the production having been moved to Asia. When he could find nothing else, Jim and I offered him a job driving the equipment truck for Russell Farms. At first, he declined, his pride getting in the way, but then quickly reconsidered. He hauled equipment for us each day from farm to farm, collected manure and straw from various other farms around the area that had agreed to supply our composting operation, and delivered our produce to customer warehouses, especially in Charleston, Columbus, and Cincinnati—always staying in touch with us by the cell phone we provided. My mother felt this was demeaning work for him, disliked his being away so much, and consequently objected to his taking the job. But as the area’s economic decline worsened, she realized that the steady income from Russell Farms could bridge them to retirement, as it eventually did. Not only did she finally thank us for helping them, but at last she praised both Jim and me for our business acumen—and for her five grandchildren.
It seemed now that we had achieved the success we sought, even if not exactly by the means we had originally planned. Thanks to the Russell Farm Alliance, much of Locust Hill was still productive, profitable farmland. What could be wrong with that?

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This publication is part 10 of 13 in the series Locust Hill