Part One: Bitter Harvest
By Skip Connett
Photography by
Skip Connett 

If Joe Reider were ever desperate for work, his want ad would read: Seasoned Amish farmer seeks to pass on 50 years of knowledge to organic farmers. Highly skilled. No salary necessary. Just room and board for me and my dog, Monty.

But Joe would never be desperate for work, because free advice from a kindly, experienced farmer is an irresistible commodity. And in 2005, when Joe appeared on the Austin organic farming scene, he was eager to share.


The next year, our family moved to Central Texas from Georgia to start a small organic community supported agriculture (CSA) farm. We had known it wouldn’t be easy, and that the pressures of climate and soil were legendary, especially among organic farmers. Our plan was to keep our freelance jobs while working full time to establish the farm we’d decided to call Green Gate. Ambitious, yes, but we were motivated. And we were inspired by our new friends, kindred spirits who’d been successful at organic farming.

When one of those friends introduced me to Joe, he was managing Montesino Farm, part of an idyllic Hill Country ranch owned by a prominent Austin family. Those who worked there said he was a miracle-worker; that he’d transformed 15 scrubby acres into one of the finest certified organic farms in the region.

And he seemed to expect little in return.

“I’m getting too old for this business,” he’d say. “I’m ready to pass on what I know before I die.”

Joe began calling me weekly to check on my progress. When I confessed to setbacks—my first year had been baptized by the hottest weather on record—he’d inject just the right note of optimism.

At 50 I was relatively old to start a new farm. But now I had a mentor. He wore dusty boots, a straw hat and red suspenders, and his big, thick hands seemed a testament to a life spent tilling the soil. At six-foot-one-inches and 250 pounds, he was a large, imposing man—but unpretentious, too, with missing front teeth framed by an Amish-style beard.

By Thanksgiving 2006, Joe had left Montesino to help start an organic farm in Seguin for My Father’s Farm, a Christian mission for orphans. Its founder, Pedro Schambon, lacked farm experience but had ambitious goals, and Joe liked big challenges.
And, indeed, in less than four months, he had built a greenhouse, installed irrigation and laid out plans for a 75-member CSA, set to start in March. Plentiful spring rains arrived just as Joe and his crew finished planting an awe-inspiring eight acres of vegetables.

“He is our angel,” Pedro told his supporters.


***


At Green Gate Farms, we were also starting a new CSA. Will, our first intern, looked to me for answers, and I looked to Joe. What stops rampant fungus? I’d ask him. How late can we plant broccoli? How much do we charge per share?

If Joe didn’t know, he found someone who did. He had sources all over the country for the best seeds, cheapest drip tape and good used machinery. Between my mentor and the bookshelf, I found the confidence to plow ahead.

Ten miles away from us, Joe was also helping Sharon and Jack Crow develop their organic chicken and vegetable farm in Manor. We both felt lucky. “It’s just like having [organic farming guru] Eliot Coleman in our own backyard,” we’d tell each other.

And in mid-March, that’s exactly where Joe came to rest—in my own backyard. He showed up with two duffle bags slung over his shoulder and his border collie, Monty, panting at his side. Pale, disheveled and short of breath, Joe was obviously not well. He told us he’d had to leave My Father’s Farm because his colon cancer had returned. He needed medical treatment and a place to live. Neither Sharon nor I had the heart to turn him away. After all, he’d done so much for us.

So it was decided—Sharon and I would take care of him. Both our farms would benefit, and we hoped Joe’s health would improve.

“We could talk farming until the cows come home—and then some,” I wrote in my journal a week after he arrived. “Two opposites have come together—my pent-up hunger to learn and Joe’s desperate need to leave behind a legacy.”

In the first month, we built a 16-by-40 foot greenhouse for under $600, planted 250 pounds of potatoes, and cleared an acre of mesquite. Joe managed all this and more in spite of his ill health and the personal crises that seemed to crop up every week.

The VA doctors he referred to as “cutters” wanted to perform exploratory surgery. In May, he broke down in tears after learning a former boss had been robbed and killed. June brought political unrest in Estonia, and that canceled a farm management job he’d spent months arranging for a coworker in San Marcos.

By this time, we weren’t surprised to hear he had connections as far away as Eastern Europe. The engaging stories he told of his peripatetic life were full of jobs and journeys, mistakes made and knowledge gained. One day, I’d be flying with him over the Mekong Delta during his Army days as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. The next day, I’d be planting 40,000 acres of potatoes in Ukraine. And then there was the beloved 400-acre Oregon farm he’d had to sell to pay for his first bout of cancer treatments. He had recovered from the cancer, but not the fact that his spoiled children had demanded their share of the proceeds.

“I’ll never forgive them,” he said, as if there were nothing sadder than the petty meanness of two people arguing over one pile of money. Even Pedro at My Father’s Farm had stooped to this—apparently he was spreading rumors that Joe had stolen $60,000, leaving the church misson all but broke.

Joe said it was preposterous, that it was Pedro who’d spent the money, that there were IRS problems, that he’d even used My Father’s Farm as a facade for selling Colombian orphans!

Either man’s far-fetched accusations were hard to believe. And when Robert Murphy, a Guadalupe County investigator, appeared at Green Gate one day in early July, he came only to ask Joe about his work at My Father’s Farm, not to accuse him of wrongdoing. Murphy even took me aside to assure me Joe was not in trouble.

Despite these mounting problems, Joe seemed happy at Green Gate. “I haven’t had this much joy in a long, long time,” he told us one evening after dinner.

He made it sound like he never wanted to leave.

Only after fast-paced spring faded into summer did I begin to resent the contrast between Joe’s larger-than-life existence and my own, which seemed increasingly mundane. I’d make him breakfast every morning and listen politely to his newspaper commentary before heading out to weed or harvest or feed the animals. Joe, meanwhile, held court on our glider, chatting on his cell phone—mostly with the lawyer who was managing his assets back home, and his brother, Jack, who farmed 40,000 acres out West.

I couldn’t place the song he’d chosen for his ring tone, but his phone rang constantly and I came to hate it. Such is the price, I told myself, of having a mentor. Besides, Joe knew used tractor dealers in every state, and I’d always lusted for a vintage Farmall Cub just like the one my father sold—along with the rest of our family farm—40 years ago.

Perhaps my growing fatigue and irritability had nothing to do with Joe. The endless summer rains were fraying nerves all over the county, and soon would come the brutal Central Texas heat. Worse, I seemed to have become a target for bees. With each sting—I stopped counting after 10—the swelling and dizziness got worse.

Even so, we’d succeeded in creating a 35-member CSA, as well as selling our vegetables at three farmers markets and two fine restaurants. Heck, we were actually making a small profit. So what would make me feel so low, other than the built-up venom in my body? I knew I must avoid being stung again, at all costs.

By mid-summer, Joe was talking about where to go next—perhaps to Oregon for Thanksgiving, to heal his relationship with his kids and grandchildren. He also spoke of buying a small farm in Manor, where he could garden in his old age.

I encouraged him. Securing his own place would be good for him, and better for Green Gate, which had started to suffer, rather than thrive, under Joe’s direction. Just the other day he’d mistakenly tilled up the Sudan cover crop I had planted only days before. Then he pruned 300 tomatoes plants so severely that their naked green fruit scalded in the sun. This was the work of a master farmer?

My wife Erin didn’t think so. She was tired of Joe’s dominating presence, his sexist talk, and his damn Monty, who kept killing our chickens. We had started arguing more.

“He’s worse than his crazy dog,” she cried out one evening. “He herds over you day and night.”

While I could see her point, I still felt empathy for Joe. He was an old, sick man, with a deep pain inside him—maybe from his years in Vietnam. Having missed the draft myself by only a few months, I felt I had a patriotic duty to help a vet, especially in a time of war.

So I pleaded with Erin to give Joe one more month. The Cub tractor he promised to find for me was finally on its way, a dealer in Oklahoma having accepted his lowball offer. Our first CSA season was almost over, and now we could take a vacation. Better yet, Joe insisted on taking care of the house and farm while we were gone.

As we packed for two weeks in Maine, I finally shared with Erin a nagging fear I’d kept to myself: “I’m having doubts about Joe. I don’t think he is who he says he is.”

When Sharon called the next day, she said she’d been fighting back the same doubts. We compared notes. She had given Joe money to buy tractor equipment for her farm, too, and it was taking forever to arrive. Neither of us wanted to lose confidence in Joe, but we’d given him the benefit of the doubt for six months now. Enough of his lame excuses. After our vacation, I would tell my mentor to move on.

Once in Maine, free from Joe’s ceaseless demands for my attention, I felt like I’d escaped prison. Only toward the end of the trip did my cell phone ring. Joe just wanted me to know that the Cub had arrived, but with a cracked head, so he sent it back. Luckily, he’d found an Allis Chalmers G—the only tractor I coveted more than a Cub—and could get it at the bargain price of $900.

“That’s a steal!” I said, flushed once again with childlike excitement. “Let’s buy it when I get back.”

Joe picked us up at the airport as arranged, looking tired and distracted. He talked of taking the bus to visit his sister, Charity, in Connecticut. Or living at Sharon’s farm for a while. Or maybe going back to Oregon. He was, literally, all over the map. He dropped us off at the house and retired for the night.

A terrible stench greeted us as we entered the kitchen. The litter box was overflowing. The cats were nowhere to be found. Feces and urine fouled our rugs, bathtubs, even our beds. That night, we barely slept.

At dawn, I heard Joe drive off to his usual coffee rendezvous at the nearby Food Mart. While he was gone, we took stock. Our flock of 50 chickens was half-starved. Ducks and chicks were missing. The sheep had no water. Most of the seed starts and transplants in the greenhouse were dead, and rows of unattended beans, squash and corn lay shriveled and hidden in pigweed. Our fall season was ruined.

But Erin had more immediate concerns. “You better check our bank account,” she said. I’d given Joe a blank, signed check to spend on animal feed at Callahan’s store. I logged on to the bank’s website, only to discover he’d made the check out to a tire company—for $800 dollars! We didn’t need new tires and none could be found. Nothing made sense—only that whatever was happening wasn’t good.

bitterharvest_2.jpg


“Go check his bags,” Erin said. I knew what she was thinking. We’d given Joe the key to collect our mail. Yet I hesitated to step inside the shed where Joe had kept his things.

“He could come back any minute,” I told Erin, not needing to explain the trepidation I felt. Joe, a traumatized veteran, had recently shown signs of smoldering anger. Truly, we knew so little about him—could he be capable of violence?

“I’ll stand watch,” she said.

I slipped through the door and unzipped one of the bags on the bed. (All three, I noticed, were packed, as if Joe were planning to leave immediately.) Inside, I found our bank statements…credit card offers in our names…and a stack of pornography.

The stench from Joe’s dirty laundry filled my nose. I felt lightheaded. And, finally, furious.

It must have been then that the name of Joe’s ring tone came to me: Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” the theme song from the movie “The Sting.” It had been a long, hard summer, and I knew I’d been stung by more than bees.

“Damn it,” I yelled to Erin. “Joe’s a crook!”

How much more he had stolen would soon be revealed.

Editor’s note: Look for Part Two in our spring issue.