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When all the pieces fit

Crop of lentils in Wibaux Co., MT. Summer 2007.
USDA-NRCS

Life is like a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes pieces that look wrong are the very ones that ultimately complete the picture. Just keep trying until it all fits together.

Mark Blakemore began life as a farmer. His childhood, however, was anything but a scene of rural tranquility. In fact, ongoing friction from family issues compelled him to leave home at age 12.

As a resourceful child, Blakemore knew no one would hire him at that tender age yet he needed a way to earn a living wage. So the southeastern Colorado youngster purchased ground to farm for as little as 75 cents per acre — cheaper than in the homesteading era.

He admitted that even in the late 1960s a minor couldn’t legally buy land. So his grandfather, Shelby Blakemore, did so in his stead, passing it and his own lifetime of farming wisdom on to young Mark.

Blakemore diligently toiled his way to adulthood and ultimately became a father. He eventually stopped farming, trying several other careers.

Eventually he and son Andrew Blakemore owned a LaSalle, Colo., trucking company that hauled organic products to the east coast. Things went smoothly until two of their drivers (one in 2016 and the other in 2017) literally ran the business out of business.

Blakemore vividly recalled the calamitous pair of incidents. It turned out both drivers had been using the drug Oxycontin at the time of each accident, which thankfully didn’t involve any fatalities.

The first driver, with the opioid in his system, ran his semi off the road and crashed. He sued the Blakemores even though the driver himself was solely at fault.

Unfortunately, Blakemore’s attorney had quit just three days prior to the case’s court date. The judge wouldn’t allow additional time to secure a new lawyer, so Blakemore represented himself. Worse, the judge refused to admit evidence about a highway patrol officer following the driver and clocking him doing 74 mph in a 50 mph zone just before the wreck.

The second driver lost control at an Evans, Colo., intersection, ramming the three cars ahead that had stopped for a red light.

Each trucker had passed drug tests and background checks at the time of hiring. The first man had only worked two weeks when his accident happened, the second for about 1½ years.

“The lawyers took everything,” Blakemore lamented.

The first lawsuit, as well as settlements with the three auto drivers, exceeded policy liability limits. Even after selling off everything possible, there remained a $365,000 debt. Blakemore felt a moral obligation to pay it off. His grandfather Shelby had always said a man’s word is the most valuable asset he has.

“Most people don’t feel that way in today’s society,” said Blakemore. “But we’ll all have to answer someday for how we live.”

So he himself began over-the-road hauling as an owner-operator. Although trips to the East Coast moving organic eggs, butter and other products were lengthy and rigorous, Blakemore intended to continue the journeys even after paying off the “debt”.

Then his health deteriorated to the point that he was concerned he’d injure someone else on the road. Cancer had spread throughout his entire body, including several brain tumors. He said he continues to beat the odds through ongoing use of Ozone Therapy and hands-on healing.

Following diagnosis of the disease in 1993, Blakemore’s then-physician first prescribed radiation therapy. Shockingly, the tumor actually thrived while on that treatment, growing to three times its original size. Next the doctor suggested chemotherapy.

“When I asked him about my chances with chemo, he gave me just a 2-3 percent chance of survival. I told him that, as a business person, I’d never go along with something that offered such poor odds,” Blakemore recalled. “So I went my own way.”

That was more than a quarter century ago. When stress from the business loss and subsequent intense driving schedule several years ago caused horrible side effects from residual cancers, he knew it was time to park his big rig.

PICKING UP THE Pieces

While hauling organics, Blakemore had learned a tremendous amount about food and its effects on the body. He decided he wanted to raise produce organically, especially for its superior health benefits.

Plus, he noted, farmers don’t individually control much about the crop prices they get. Keeping costs down is about all one can do. He found organic seed is generally cheaper to purchase.

In memory of his beloved grandfather, Blakemore dubbed his current venture “Shelby Farms.” For the past couple years now, he’s coupled lifelong ag skills with some fresh ideas about ancient methods.

This season, Blakemore’s primary — and experimental — crop is lentils. An uneventful April planting precipitated expectations for a hearty harvest in mid-July. He believes the 150-acre field he leases in Platteville is the first in Weld County to grow lentils, whether organic like his or from traditional seed.

He’d reached out to Colorado State University prior to trying the crop to determine the species’ likely profitability. CSU wasn’t aware of anyone anywhere in Colorado cultivating them, nor had Blakemore previously tried raising the legume, but he went ahead regardless. He suspected the crop would fare just fine.

He figured he’d need 100 pounds of seed per acre to produce an overall 15,000 pound harvest. Because lentils are grown primarily in Canada, Blakemore sourced organic seed from a northern Montana supplier.

He then contacted another Montana company, Timeless Seeds in Conrad, about a contract. (The company handles more than 60 kinds of beans, chickpeas, legumes, etc.) It was a go.

A HEALTHY BLEND

Blakemore cooks up an organic brew to strengthen plant roots. He initially discovered a company that uses pro-biotics. Wonderful results, he commented, but too dear for his budget. To lower overall costs, he now uses that product as a base for other ingredients such as molasses, sea minerals and water.

Employing six 500-gallon tanks, Blakemore blends his batches. Brewing time is 8-14 hours, depending on temperature and batch size. Too much heat risks the concoction killing itself off.

All is going quite well thus far this season, unlike 2019’s double-whammy when his pinto bean crop was savaged by a grasshopper invasion and clobbered by a bout of humongous hail. He’s put in more spotted beans this year, as well as the newbie legume.

Most of Colorado’s spring moisture occurs in April-May. That’s when lentils do most of their growing, Blakemore said. So he’ll plant for 2021 in mid-March (lentils can withstand up to five hard freezes without a problem) to get an earlier jump on the season and beat out competing weeds.

“That’s a good thing with organic crops, he proclaimed. As is his finely tuned organic “tea.” Natural yet beneficial.

Between his Platteville dryland lentils and the additional 30-irrigated acres of pinto beans south of Lasalle, 64-year-old Blakemore (who works more than 100 hours/week) is thankful for all the help he can find.

Not surprisingly, he declared special gratitude for his office manager, Kelby Lance. The 20-something-year-old woman who’s legitimately dedicated to Shelby Farm’s bottom line has even refused her salary when the going gets tough (such as during the 2019 grasshopper/hail barrage). Plus, her honesty is without question, added Blakemore.

He further praised Lance, “She’s the best assistant I’ve ever had, and especially talented as a bookkeeper.”

One more puzzle piece perfectly locked into place at Shelby Farms.

Contact Shelby Farms at shelbyfarmsorganic@gmail.com or call Kelby Lance, Office Manager at 720-854-8452. ❖

— Metzger is a freelance writer from Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached at ponytime47@gmail.com.


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