Father and son show off their catch, Keith and Jim Gardiner
by Kelly Ryan, Communications Director, Sequoia Riverlands Trust
It was a ranch he could not forget.
Did not forget.
For 30 years it gnawed at him.
“I drove by it every day, watched and waited and dreamed of getting back that land we loved as a family.”
That’s how Keith Gardiner describes his love, his obsession, with a piece of farmland in Kern County.
His father Jim began farming that land near Bakersfield in the 1950’s following WW II. “He developed that land for twenty years from sage brush,” says Keith.
But in 1969, that land owned by Kern County Land Company was sold to Tenneco West and his father was outbid. The new owners were able to void his lease. He lost the land.
“My dad got a registered letter in late October. It said on Nov. 1 you will no longer have a lease. When he opened the letter he realized in 2 days he would no longer have that ranch….then what? It changed him. It crushed his heart.”
Keith had grown up on that land, learned to farm that land. As a 16 year old, the loss of that land and his father’s heartache had a huge impact on him.
“We used to sit on an irrigation pipe on that land when I was a kid, where we’d eat watermelon hearts.”
Keith Gardiner would never forget that pivotal point in his life and it shaped his future. “It meant a lot to me to try and get that ranch back.”
After he began a career in farming he kept tabs on that land waiting for the right opportunity.
“I tried to work myself into a position to get the land back. It was a leap of faith. I did not know what the outcome would be.”
When the demand in the almond market increased, Keith’s opportunity to buy the land came to fruition.
It had been 30 years, but on his birthday on June 7, 2002, Keith was able to give his father Jim a present. He brought his Dad to the land that he had farmed and lost and told him the land was back in the family.
“We sat on that same irrigation pipe where we’d eaten those watermelon hearts and I told him I had bought the ranch back. We both just broke down. We both started to cry, he was so happy. He had put his whole heart and soul into that land.”
After that experience, it was important for Keith Gardiner to keep that land in the family and pass it along to his three sons who are also in the agricultural business.
“There are lots of outside influences on family farms, farming has become an expensive game.”
Keith and business partner Holly King joined Sequoia Riverlands Trust to add an agricultural conservation easement to the land, allowing it to stay in farming permanently.
“It’s the best ground, the best farmland in the world and I want to keep it that way. There was no better way to use this land and we wanted to farm it through the next generation. The easement helped us do that. It helped us pay down debt and we used it as a tax strategy”, says Gardiner.
At first he says he was skeptical about the whole concept of agricultural easements. He wasn’t interested in working with a land trust either. “I was thinking about my property rights and I thought SRT was going to be in my business where they shouldn’t be.”
But partner Holly King began to talk to him about land conservation and how the organization could be a partner not a foe.
“Through Holly, I began to learn more about SRT and what it did. She kept explaining the easement process to me and said these people know what they’re doing. It became a chance for us to keep the land in farming and we worked well together with SRT. “We’re glad we did it, this was the ideal property for an easement.”
After 30 years the land still has its hold on the Gardiner family. “Today at age 90 my Dad still goes over to look at the property nearly every day”, says Keith. And like his father, he understands that special connection to the land.
“Every night I take my dogs out on the land, my wife Jennifer often goes with me and we just go in and out of the orchards, see the trees, let the dogs run, basically just tootle around and I still have that same feeling of how fortunate we are. I’ve often wondered, why me? Why was I so fortunate to have the opportunity to be born in an area of such rich farmland, it makes you think of land stewardship and how important that really is. It’s a good feeling we’re keeping this as Ag ground. We have loved the dirt for two generations going on three, we still love that land today.”