A thousand times yes
Six years ago we clutched an address scribbled on paper and peered through the windshield as the car bumped and rocked down a badly broken driveway. Downed limbs blocked the road at the final stretch, and we stepped warily over rusted cans, couch cushions, detritus and erosion. We walked onto a property that was abused for years, land that once fed families was now covered in scrawny mesquite trees, their thorny limbs waved like flags across terrain that meant something to someone once. But that no one remembered anymore. Through the forest of mesquite were rows of cedar that grew like pestilence, sucking the life from native elms and oak. The land was tough to discern from the tangle of growth, but it was there, and it was compelling. Hills undulated towards the eastern horizon and through the trash and tangle a distant view of mature oak forest was visible. A hawk swooped, something rustled just to the left and a flash of fur raced through underbrush. This place still had a heart beating softly beneath the brambles and trash. So we bought it. The rest is history.
Except it’s not, not really. Like everything, there’s lots of pieces of the story we edit or delete. Some of it isn’t relevant and some of it too frustrating to share. So maybe it’s for those reasons we hesitated going into what we saw that first day, that big forest on the crest of a hill that comprised our entire distant view from every point on the farm. The untouched ranch land that loomed large and mysterious and empty from the day we first bought the farm. Although we think our little property is lovely, it was the view from the farm that we loved so much. From the beginning we wondered whose it was, why it was untouched, and imagined the horrible things that it could become if in the wrong hands (subdivision?! The horror). We bought our farm six years ago, and it was six years ago that we first spread the plat map across our living room floor, found the cryptic name of an LLC attached to the ranch in our view, tried to research ownership through the tax office, through anything Google might tell us. We got nowhere, so we gave up. Two years later a neighbor stopped by the land on a weekend we spent in the old Avion trailer we’d hauled to the farm. He sidled up to our place and pointed out at the hilly ranch just behind our property, the one we ogled since the beginning. “Y’all know that place just went up for sale, don’t you? 105 acres, never been touched. Not sure what they want for it.” I jumped into the car immediately and took the road that leads to the entrance of the ranch. And sure enough, a fresh new For Sale sign was planted at the gate with contact information. My fingers fumbled with the phone as I dialed quickly and spoke with the realtor (who was also the owner). I learned two things: there was no chance they would sell off less than 105 acres, and the price was nearly three times beyond the realm of feasibility. The place would, likely, sell to a developer. That was their hope, at least. My hands shook as I hung up. Our greatest fears probably would be realized and the beautiful, untouched land – the entirety of our view on the farm – would become suburban sprawl.
Two more years passed, and we built the house. We moved to the farm. We got really serious about getting serious. Our plans started to grow, and our property lines became a constraint. The emptiness of the ranch echoed, the obvious fertility of the soil, its agricultural utility turned feral. One afternoon I drove back to the gate. The for sale sign still stood but it was fading. I called the number again. It was still for sale, the price had dropped, but it remained out of reach. We engaged in some weak negotiation with the seller and some weak negotiation with ourselves. There was no way a purchase was feasible. So we gave up again.
And then last year I decided the farm would be a business, my work, my whole life. The plans we started to make did not fit within the confines of our 15 acre farm, and we paced our back property line that bordered the empty ranch. Trees had fallen in places, pushing the fence to the ground. These properties all used to be part of the same big sprawling slice of land, and I wanted to cut that fence and turn it into farm land once again. So I picked up the phone one more time. Five years had passed and the seller, folks who originally were not anxious to sell, were now ready to get out of the ranch. They had bought it in the recession at a fire sale price, thinking it could turn into a developer’s dream, but the economic recovery took too long, and they wanted out of their investment. Although it was impossible, under any circumstance, for us to purchase the whole property, their price had dropped considerably. If we found other buyers, we could make this work. Maybe, maybe, maybe. For eight months we told anyone and everyone about this forest gem sleeping just 17 miles east of Austin. We spent many Saturdays showing the land ourselves (the sellers live out of town), walking through the woods, touting its merits and opportunity. At night we sat on our porch and engaged in those sweaty-palmed “what if” conversations that only fools and dreamers allow themselves to have. It would never happen – but what if it might happen? And then, last fall, we found two other buyers and settled on a price everyone could swallow.
After six years of phone calls, negotiations, bad loans and good loans, countless conversations and property tours: yesterday we signed the papers and added 50 acres of the ranch to our farm. I do not believe it, still, even after Jeremy ceremoniously snipped the fence between our farm and the new land, drove the tractor through and started clearing a swath of land. Even after the 2 hours of closing documents, signing the deed, seeing our names written across the new land survey. Even now as I watch the sunrise at the crest of a forested hill I’ve been looking at for years that I feared would be crossed with roads, dotted with gas stations and rooftops. So long as we have it, that hill will remain forested. The only paths we clear will be to encourage native grasses, open space for rotational grazing of our cattle and goats.
It is a responsibility and blessing to be stewards of land that seems to have been waiting for us deep in the heart of Texas, 45 miles from where we grew up, never suspecting the right angle turn our lives would take. But we waited, we kept calling, and we have stretched ourselves far (too far?) to make this work. Last week I had dinner with some friends, and the conversation turned to the idea of luck. All of us part of the food and farming professions, all of us smitten with our lots in life, one friend said, “It’s just pure dumb luck that I landed where I am.” I used to feel that way too, and although that’s always part of the equation, the other part is about knowing when to say yes, even if no is the easier answer. We just keep saying yes when we can say it and when we know we mean it. This new land is terrifying in its cost and size and density, enormous in its opportunity. So yes, we will try, a thousand times – yes.