Field of dreams
Former rodeo rider Tyson Heusser realizes longheld dream of being a farmer
The “Ride 8” personalized plates on Tyson Heusser’s pickup truck are a clue to both his past and to his wiry tenacity.
Heusser—the 30-year-old farmer who is the brains and brawn behind Green Beginnings Farm near the foot of the Sutter Buttes in Gridley, and its newly minted CSA (community-supported agriculture) program—used to be a saddle-bronc rider back in his home state of Idaho, where he still owns an 11-acre alfalfa farm.
“I used to rodeo,” said Heusser, of the demanding sport in which a qualified ride is eight seconds long. “And it was just from sittin’ in the stands dreaming of being a cowboy, you know what I mean?”
Heusser realized his childhood dream of becoming a rodeo rider by putting his mind to it, and doing the necessary hard work.
“I went to rodeo school, rode six broncs in three days,” he recalled. “At the end of the day, you feel like you’ve been run over by a train. At the end of the season, you feel unstoppable. It’s amazing what the body gets used to.”
“It seems like I’m constantly reaching for dreams,” added the easy-to-like Heusser, as he walked the leafy rows of his 5 1/2-acre organic farm with his black Lab, Chance, on a recent sunny morning.
Heusser’s CSA farm is his latest childhood dream come true.
“My grandpa had a cattle ranch and a great, big garden. And I was his right-hand little man,” offered Heusser. “I think he was a big inspiration to me.”
Heusser applies the same focused hard-work ethic—and unmistakable passion—to farming as he did to bronc-riding.
“I’m the type of person who’s satisfied with a busy, busy schedule,” offered Heusser—who gets up at around 7 every morning, seven days a week, and works till dark. “I like five minutes to change clothes and get on to the next thing.”
Heusser said he had come up with a “farm plan” when he was studying agriculture at Idaho State University, prior to moving to Gridley.
“And this was my farm plan,” he said, motioning to the productive farmland—burgeoning with row upon row of robust vegetables (“50 different types”), and melon and gourd plants—surrounding him.
Heusser moved to Butte County a year and a half ago, encouraged by a local friend he met while attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he studied environmental horticulture and crop science in the early 2000s. He also ran a landscaping business—also called Green Beginnings—during his time in SLO.
He soon found 5 1/2 acres of rural-Gridley property to lease and set about turning it into an organic farm.
In preparation for the “mind-boggling” planting of his first massive round of crops this past January, Heusser used a nonpesticide, “torch method” of weed control, strapping a propane tank on his back and torching all the weeds in the field.
Heusser uses chicken manure and fish emulsion to fertilize his crops and, while his farm is not yet certified organic—a process that takes several years—it is “operating fully organic,” he said.
He employs well-known insect-repelling plants marigolds, alyssum and fennel, and uses calculated companion-planting, for pest control. For instance, Heusser has planted cilantro—a natural aphid repellant—next to his tomatoes.
Rounding out his committed sustainable-farming practices is Heusser’s crop-watering method. His farm—on a subtle downward slope—is watered via a “gravity system” (“no pumps, no fuels, no electricity”), whereby a 5,000-gallon watering truck is hooked up to a mainline connected to the drip tape that runs to each of the rows.
“You just open up the valve on the mainline,” Heusser said, “and it just waters the field—it’s gravity.”
Heusser gets 90 percent of his seeds—open-pollinated, non-GMO, heirloom seeds—from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. in Petaluma.
“I plant in succession, so there’s something to harvest every week,” he said. “I’m constantly planting seed.”
Heusser planted red-and-white-striped chioggia beets; Lebanese white bush marrow squash; Bidwell casaba melons (which grow to a whopping 16 pounds); fragrant, bright-red-and-yellow Armenian Tigger melons; picture-pretty Moon and Stars watermelons (featuring “a bunch of little speckles and a big one”); and purple-and-white Dragon’s Tongue beans (“a tie-dyed-lookin’ bean”), as well as varieties of corn, turnips, cauliflower, cabbage, cantaloupes, peas, beans, eggplant, salad greens, kale, squash, carrots, onions, tomatoes, leeks, dill and parsley. He’s also got cosmos, zinnias and sunflowers (he puts flowers in his CSA boxes, too).
Besides yellow, red and green bell peppers and banana, habañero and jalapeño peppers, Heusser also has planted Bhut Jolokia peppers—or “ghost chilis”—the hottest peppers in the world. From India, the Bhut Jolokia is 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce, and so hot that India’s Defense Research and Development Organisation announced a plan last year to use the peppers in hand grenades, for riot control and to flush terrorists from their hideouts.
“A good percentage of the seed we’ve planted is unusual,” Heusser acknowledged, “but we have a common variety for each unusual one, too.”
Heusser has plans for a variety of pumpkins to go into the ground shortly, for fall harvest.
“Last week’s [CSA] box had cherries [from a neighbor’s organic tree], turnips, kiwi, bok choy, swiss chard, beets, black radishes,” said Heusser, who is now providing produce for almost 20 CSA members, but hopes to double that.
At a cost of about $23 per week for a box of produce to feed four people, “even for a low-income family, it would be a good deal,” Heusser pointed out.
“Of all my adventures, it’s definitely the hardest,” he said of his CSA farming operation. “But it’s rewarding, and it’s a good feeling knowing you’re giving people good stuff. People are excited about receiving their boxes.”
“I always had this dreamed up to do on my Idaho property,” he added, “but there was never really a market for it. But I think there is here.”