Grand Junction farmer mentors next generation
AP Photo/The Daily Sentinel, Christopher Tomlinson
GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — The Craigslist ad offered a 1989 Case International tractor for sale. That was, coincidentally, the same year Zay Lopez was born.
Anyway, Lopez 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, 23 years old, still wet behind the ears, made an appointment with Bob Beasley to come out and look at the tractor. Lopez and his girlfriend drove to Beasley’s Grand Junction home, and in those following moments, after Lopez bought the tractor, seeds of possibility were planted.
“It’s funny how we clicked right away,” Lopez recalled on a recent morning, standing in tree shade with Beasley.
“He’s 23 years old, but he’s a serious young man,” Beasley added. “That was my initial impression: a focused man, just a good person.”
They stood companionably — Lopez leaning on a shovel handle, Beasley listening as Lopez explained his dream. The words, though, were almost supplemental, because the dream extended in rows across more than seven acres before them: Lopez 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,” Lopez said. “Farming is passed down from generation to generation.”
Within an hour of meeting each other, Beasley said to Lopez, “Why don’t you farm my land?”
Beasley, who turned 72 this year and last year retired from 44 years in the flooring business, hadn’t planned to farm his three-acre plot this summer. He’d had back surgery last year and was looking forward to relaxing.
So, here was this young man, eager to learn, willing to work hard, unafraid to take blind steps into the unknown, and Beasley had a lifetime of farming to teach. Beasley calls himself Lopez’s helper. Lopez says Beasley is his mentor and one of his best friends.
“I feel like I’ve known him my whole life,” Lopez said, though it’s been just months. Beasley 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.”
Lopez 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,” said 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.”
Lopez came to Mesa State for college because he thought Grand Junction seemed like a nice place.
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,” Lopez said. “It just fascinated me. It’s amazing to me how you can plant a seed and see it grow.”
Lopez worked at Z’s Orchards for three summers.
After graduating last year with a degree in sports management, Lopez worked a few jobs but always thought about farming. The small plot he planted in Palisade just wasn’t enough.
His parents gave him a loan. He bought the tractor. And then, in May, Beasley’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.
Everybody is rooting for Lopez’s success, Beasley 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.”