Recently, a good friend and fellow farmer called me on a Sunday afternoon with some sad news. A mutual friend – another fruit farmer from Loomis – had been killed in a tractor accident that afternoon. Eric Hansen, whose family has farmed at Pine Hill Orchard for four generations, was just 57. In mid-March, more than 200 of us gathered at the orchard to remember Eric and his legacy of good farming and community service.
From a community perspective, Eric was a fixture at our local farmers markets – indeed; he was one of the original members of the Foothill Farmers Market Association in Placer County. For many years, I had the pleasure of having a stall next to his at the Saturday market in Auburn – we’d send customers to each other on a regular basis. When markets were slow, we’d play jokes on one another to pass the time. If one of us needed a break, the other would cover both stalls. And Eric grew some of the best fruit I’ve ever tasted – peaches and plums in the summer, Asian pears in the fall, citrus in the winter. As a farmer, he shared his life’s work, and his curiosity about new fruit varieties, with his neighbors and with the wider community.
I don’t remember how we mutually discovered that our sheep would eat his cull fruit – but at some point, Eric started saving damaged or spoiled fruit for me to feed to our ewes. My wife, Sami, remembers the first time he sent red-flesh plums home to the sheep. She went out to check on them and was horrified to see that one of the ewes seemed to be bleeding from the mouth. She looked at the rest of the sheep and discovered that they were all “bleeding” – and then she found the plum pits in the pasture! I told Eric about it the next time I saw him, which tickled him to no end. And he made sure he sent red-flesh plums home every summer Saturday after that!
Eric’s memorial was a testament to his community involvement and to the respect with which his fellow farmers and ranchers regarded him. And for those of us who are agricultural producers, his passing reminds us of the dangers inherent in our daily work. The work of farming and ranching – at any scale – is physical. Our work involves long hours in all kinds of conditions. And it can be dangerous. As one of my fellow farmers said as we greeted one another at Eric’s memorial, “We owe it to Eric to remember to work carefully.”
For me, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from Eric is that we shouldn’t wait for a tragedy like this to come together as a community. My farmer and rancher friends – and the customers who trust us to produce their food – make ranching here rewarding well beyond any financial relationship. Relationships are important in farming – they must be nurtured and cultivated like our soil and our crops. At least for me, Eric’s memory means that I won’t take these relationships for granted.