My friend and fellow farmer JR Smith passed away last Saturday. JR and his wife Claudia own Blossom Hill Farm here in Auburn - before JR's illness, they grew the most amazing melons, along with organic eggs, vegetable starts, ginger, and a variety of other crops. In many ways, it's fitting that JR passed on a Saturday - he was an institution at the Saturday farmers' market in Auburn. I'm humbled that Claudia has asked me to speak at his memorial service this Friday.
I think JR's smile and sense of humor are what I'll remember most. JR smiled like he truly meant it - and like he might know something that you didn't (which I found was always true!). Mostly, I'll remember that JR was a good farmer and a good friend.
I'd known JR for several years before we took our first crop to the Auburn Farmers' Market, where JR and Claudia were the site managers. I showed up with popcorn and pumpkins - and the most amazing display, which included dry cornstalks, straw bales, and a pumpkin-headed scarecrow driving a pedal John Deere tractor. JR came over as I was setting up and complimented me on our display - and made sure I knew I'd need to clean up every scrap of straw and cornstalk left in the parking lot. "Geez," I thought, "this guy's quite a stickler."
As my first farmers' market day wrapped up, JR came back to my stall and proceeded to spend at least 45 minutes helping me clean up. For me, that sums up JR - he always made sure that everyone played by the rules - and he always helped us do just that. JR helped us all understand what it meant to be part of a farming community - fair play and pitching in.
Claudia and I played a harmless (and ultimately, fun) joke on JR several years ago. We raise grass-fed lamb, and JR (like many folks I know) knew that he didn't care for lamb. Claudia and I traded a melon for some lamb stew meat - and she made stew for dinner. JR told her that it was the best beef stew he'd ever tasted! We finally told him that it was lamb - and several weeks ago, Claudia texted me to say that JR had asked for lamb stew. That evening, she sent me a photo of JR enjoying his dinner. What an honor for a sheepherder!
One of the benefits - and obligations - of being a rancher is the fact that I only have to wear a tie at weddings and memorial services. I will proudly wear a tie next Friday - and I know that JR will be chuckling as he watches me struggle to remember how to tie it! Adrienne Young sings a wonderful song entitled, "Plow to the End of the Row" - it's about perserverence and the hard work involved in bringing in a crop. I picture JR at the end of a bed of melons, twisted around in the tractor seat, looking back at us. He's smiling that knowing smile of his....