“I like 14 hour days “ – Jeff Nicklas
I’ll meet you past the cemetery, down the road, past the river, where the road curves west, drive a little, then where it curves east, look for me at the little green house!” The directions to farmer Jeff Nicklas’ orchard and future homestead sound quaint, like a trip to grandma’s house, but he’s not exactly the country farmer you may expect. Jeff Nicklas’ main business is as far from farming as one can imagine …as far as an organic pluot (a cross between a plum and an apricot) is from Sony’s PlayStation 3, but that’s Jeff; a surprising mix of farmer, businessman, dreamer, collector of junk/antiques/recyclables and avid outdoorsman. His silver hair neatly placed in a ponytail at the nape of his neck, he’s somehow organic, and at the same time, well schooled, confident, and savvy.
Jeff majored in engineering at Fresno State University but became enamored with finance during an Econ 1A class he was taking. “The professor said to me, ‘Stop looking out the window and come work for me!’” He jumped at the opportunity and began a varied career in financial services. Jeff once owned and ran a business that made loans on real estate, autos, and even some airplanes. (By the way, he has piloted in the past, but isn’t sure if he’d like to get back to it, but as he speaks, a spark lights in his eyes. “There’s nothing like the small plane experience. You can see everything!”) Jeff’s career also went on to industrial lending, which he did for a number of years.
His day job? “Oh, which one do you want to talk about?” Jeff laughs. He runs Red Owl, a supplier and marketing outfit for the growing and dynamic gaming industry. Next, he talked to me about his ‘spotless water.’ He has another business washing over 20,000 vehicles per month; mostly dealerships, using deionized ‘spotless’ water, which leaves a black car not only clean, but also… still black!
Situated just outside of Kingsburg, Jeff’s ranch is a patch of dreams: a section of land next to his Pluot orchard with a lush river view prepared for a home site, used brick, neatly stacked, 2 large piles of railroad ties waiting to be incorporated into landscaping, antique gadgets and farm equipment, barns and storage bins, all of which are part of his grand plan to build and live on the Kings River. “In the summer, this is the perfect spot to watch the ‘floaters’ drift down the river in their inner tubes.”
Jeff has two sons and a 2 year old grandchild, who, when Jeff’s plans for the river ranch become reality, will have a play area that any child would envy, including a merry-go-round that Jeff will construct from an old wheel drum. It’s easy to picture Jeff, the young and energetic grandpa, ready to spend an afternoon ‘playing’ on the farm!
As we walk approaching the river, a large hawk flaps out of an enormous oak and silently soars overhead. “In this area, we have owls, kit fox, and a family of seven coyotes,” explains Jeff. As chemical use become history, wildlife returns.
Jeff points out a tree he had to remove because of nematodes, which are hosts for bacterial cankers. (Nematodes are small worm-like parasites, mostly microscopic, that can cause damage to crops.) “Did you know that there is a chemical in shrimp shells that will kill nematodes?” A natural teacher, Jeff is helping to explain a bit of farming biology to me. “When they die the bacteria die with them!” Leave it to an organic farmer to know facts of nature!
Jeff’s parents embodied the love of both business and farming. Jeff’s father sold auto parts during World War II; a fairly lucrative business at the time since companies like GM were busy producing military vehicles. Someone needed to maintain America’s existing cars, and his father made a thriving business of it. “Dad had a big territory: 11 western states, so he drove a lot of miles, but on the upside, he did bring home a new car every year from Detroit!”
Then, at age 50, his dad gave away the business and bought land in the northern part of the Central Valley near a town called Ripon. “Dad loved the area around Manteca…he then became a ‘gentlemen farmer’ of walnuts while my mother gardened organically; she was totally committed to it.” As we walk to a point overlooking the river, Jeff continues. “Mom gave me a kindred feeling for organic farming…she was doing her own organic gardening in the 1930’s when it was almost unheard of…Mom was one of the first! She didn’t believe in ‘treating’ food items for an increased shelf life; she simply saw no valid reason for introducing chemicals into things that keep us alive!” Jeff stops to reminisce. “She used to make ‘clabber’ out of milk.” He pauses to find out if I’m following. “Are you familiar with clabber?” I admitted it was a new term. (A popular dish of the Old South, clabber is unpasteurized milk that has soured and thickened naturally. Icy-cold clabbered milk was enjoyed as a drink.) “Well, years ago, before yogurt was found on our grocery shelves, you could make it by starting with unpasteurized milk and let it set a while. The lactobacillus would grow and thicken and form a sort of yogurt. You can’t do that with grocery store milk; there isn’t a thing alive in it to grow in the first place!” Jeff laughs at the thought.
He tells about his father’s beginnings. “Dad, who was born in Pennsylvania, was shoveling coal at age 16, came out to California. He immediately realized that just because you were born somewhere doesn’t mean you have to stay there!” Jeff’s father fell in love with California and never looked back. Due to the fact that he spent many a year digging snow, he never saw a need to go near the cold stuff again. A smile appears as Jeff declares, “Because of that fact, I was deprived of snow as a youth!”
Jeff grew up in the Bay Area; first in Concord, “It was a little village at that time!” His father moved the family to Orinda, which was home for years. “I felt guilty about my own sons growing up in ‘the flat” of the valley, when I had the advantage of living in a boy’s paradise. I had more fun as a kid with my 22 rifle, running and hiding up in the hills and gullies and oak trees. Back then a boy could be hidden away in a matter of minutes!” laughs Jeff, at the memory.
Back in 2000, Jeff bought the acreage he is now standing upon, and within 4 years he had a certified organic Pluot orchard. With several other thriving businesses, and a house to build, why bother with farming 4 acres of organic Pluots? Jeff looks as though the answer is obvious. “I like 14 hour days! I mean, you gotta do something and this here is, a new experience; it’s giving me an education in a field far from the gaming industry!” With Jeff, one gets a sense that his ‘education’ and natural curiosity will result in the pioneering of many an uncharted path; what better way to spend a 14 hour day?