Thoughts on Farming

Who woulda thunk it? After a successful career in the music business as a singer and songwriter, and touring with my band for close to 30 years, Allene and I decided to cash it all in and move to a remote island in Panama to become farmers. It might seem like I’m being facetious here but it’s the truth. Few people know this about me, but I’ve been a farmer my whole life. And I’m still being drawn to it.

The small community of Almeda, Texas where I grew up, was about 20 miles south of Houston, and 45 miles from the Gulf Coast. The flat coastal plain that surrounded the town consisted mainly of rich, dark loam that was excellent for growing just about anything. For that reason, although there were a few small businesses in Almeda at that time, the economy of the area was pretty much based on agriculture. There were three Japanese families in Almeda: the Onishis, the Nagais and the Andos. They were all vegetable farmers and grew the most beautiful produce you could imagine. There were other farmers who grew soybeans, peanuts or corn and there were also a couple of dairies in the area that were owned and run by the Keyworth family. But my family and some of our friends and relatives were all rice farmers. It turned out that the climate, soil conditions and the proximity of a couple of rivers nearby which could divert water for irrigation, made this area known as the Texas Rice Belt.

Some of my earliest memories are about the rice fields, which my father Mack, his brother Uncle Jack, and my grandfather Jake, whom I called PawPaw, farmed. Otis and Andrew were a couple of black field hands who worked for us and sometimes they’d bring their sons with them. While the men worked, we kids would run wild in the surrounding countryside, sometimes swimming in the irrigation canal or shooting at birds and rabbits with our slingshots, although I’m pretty sure we never actually hit anything. Fond memories of a time that no longer exists. It never registered to me that they were black and I was white. We were just kids having fun.

Uncle Jack and my dad became rice farmers because that’s what their dad did and I guess it was just in their blood. But after a few successful years, disaster struck. Right when everyone’s rice crops were just about ready to harvest that year, a hurricane brewed up in the Bay of Campeche, near Yucatan. On the Texas Gulf Coast, that’s a rice farmer’s, or any other kind of farmer’s, worst nightmare. PawPaw, Uncle Jack and my dad shared equipment and started harvesting the rice as fast as they could, working sunup to sundown. PawPaw and Uncle Jack had gotten both of their crops in when they ran out of time and the hurricane struck, wiping out my dad’s entire crop. Getting your crop in was everything. It was your money for the whole year.

That did it for my dad. He said he would never farm rice again, borrowed money on the G.I. Bill and enrolled in mechanic school. When he finished, he opened his new business, the Almeda Garage. That went well for a few years until we discovered diving and shortly thereafter, surfing. My dad sold the Almeda Garage and started a new business called Blaker’s Water Sports, selling diving and fishing gear and later manufacturing custom surfboards.

Although my dad had stopped growing rice a few years before, we were still very much involved with farming. On the property where we lived in Almeda, we always had a vegetable garden and even had a little success growing oranges, limes and bananas before a hard freeze finally wiped them out. We had a pig pen way out in the back away from the house, and an area that was fenced where we raised a few calves. We had a pigeon coop, a chicken coop, beehives, and pear and mulberry trees. Looking back on it now, all that seems really remarkable. But it wasn’t to us. It was just the way a lot of people lived back then.

In the late 1960s, surfing had pretty much taken over our lives and our family decided to sell everything in Texas and move to Hawaii. We bought a piece of land about 1800 feet up the slopes of Mount Haleakala on Maui. The property had rich, volcanic soil and an old avocado orchard on it. It was badly overgrown so we had to clear out all the underbrush and excavate the house site. We did it all by hand so it was seriously hard work. And then the real work began. We couldn’t afford a builder so we built our own house. And it was a big house: two-story A-frame, with a two-bedroom, two-bathroom extension on the first floor. My mom and dad are still living there, fifty years later.

After finishing the house, we got the avocado orchard in good shape. We built a pig pen in the back corner of the property and bought a couple of pigs. Then we fenced another area in back for a calf. We planted a garden, put in some lime trees and cherimoyas, bought a couple of beehives from a local beekeeper and got some geese, turkeys and chickens. We were back in business. Just like old times.

About three years after moving to Maui, I got a wild hair that would eventually change the whole course of my life. I was given my first guitar when I was 5 or 6 years old and took many lessons so I always had a guitar around all through growing up. I started writing my own songs when I was 14 or 15 and by the time we moved to Maui I was pretty serious about music. A surfer named Jim McLemore, who worked at our surf shop years ago in Texas, came over to visit us in Hawaii and ended up staying. In fact, he’s now my brother-in-law, married to my sister Annie. Jim brought his guitar with him and we played music together every day and then auditioned at local venues trying to land a paying gig. We actually got a couple.

At the same time, I heard about some musician friends from Texas who had moved to Southern California, started a band and were beginning to have some success there. I contacted them and they told me to come while the time was right. They said where they lived there was a vibrant music scene with lots of clubs and music venues, and they lived right on the Pacific coastline. What more could I want? I packed my bags, surfboard and guitar and flew to California.

Shortly after arriving in Encinitas, in North San Diego County, I met a beautiful girl named Allene Mershon, who had recently moved there from Texas. A surfer and high school buddy of mine from Texas, Rick Law, introduced me to her at the Neighbor Saver, a local convenience store where she worked afternoons and evenings after working as a teacher’s aide all day. It was pretty much love at first sight. Or maybe it was because she was born in New Orleans and cooked me some great spicy creole and Cajun foods. Maybe the sunrise walks on the sand, watching the waves. Whatever it was, we somehow had been looking for each other for years, found each other, and two weeks later we rented a house a block from the beach and moved in together.

After learning she came from a family that liked to garden, the first thing we did was dig up nearly the whole back yard and plant a huge vegetable garden. The second thing we did was start a band. We’d found a group of guys who were like-minded musically so we started rehearsing and soon landed our first gigs, with me being the rhythm guitarist and front man, and Allene on bass. For the next three years our music career progressed and we moved several times in the area but every time, we got a backyard garden going right away, planting lots of vegetables and always hot peppers, as we both love to cook with lots of spice.

In the mid-1970s, we got wind of a new scene that was gathering momentum in Texas, led by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and others, and we knew that’s where we needed to be. We finished out the gigs we had on the books, packed our things and the whole band moved to Texas. We settled in the Houston area where Allene and I, and our lead guitar player Donnis Hammond, all grew up and each of us still had lots of friends and family there. We figured if we could land the first gig, we could pack the place just by letting everyone know. And that’s exactly what happened.

Another Texan, Mike Lawrence, lived in Encinitas for a while before moving back to Texas a few years earlier and became the manager of the popular music venue Steamboat Springs in the Galleria area of Houston. Somehow we talked him into booking us for a three-night, Thursday-through-Saturday, run. He refused to give us a guarantee but said he would set a cover charge and we could have everything we made at the door. Well, he ended up regretting that decision. We all got on the horn, called everyone we knew and packed that place shoulder-to-shoulder all three nights. We ended up making more money from those three nights than we could make in a whole month of playing weekends in California. Our notoriety spread from that weekend and soon our calendar was filled with gigs for the next three months.

Allene and I had gotten legally married the year before in California and when we first arrived in Houston her dad and mom, Allen and Charlene, put us up at their home in the Westbury area. I soon learned where Allene acquired her culinary skills as Charlene put some meals on the table that were out of this world. And her backyard garden was incredible. She grew corn, black-eyed peas, potatoes, tomatoes and peppers of every size and variety, along with beautiful flowers and her specialty: elephant ears. Just for those reasons alone, I would have loved to stay at their place forever, but we knew we had to find our own place.

Allen, whom everyone called Doc because he was a pediatrician, suggested we go take a look at a place he and a friend had gone in on together as an investment property. He said it was a 140-acre wooded parcel on Oyster Creek way out south of Houston between Arcola and Rosharon. He said it had a two-bedroom house on it and we could rent it for $300 a month. He also said it was probably too far away from everything so we probably wouldn’t be interested but we could check it out if we wanted.

I told him immediately that we’d take it, and he looked a little surprised. I said, “Doc, that’s my old stomping grounds. I grew up in that area and roamed all over that country when my dad, uncle and grandfather farmed rice. In fact, I’ve frog-gigged many nights on Oyster Creek with my dad and fished on it many times with my uncle and granddad.”

I couldn’t believe our good fortune. The place would be perfect. The band could rehearse there and we wouldn’t disturb anyone. We could hunt and fish and had plenty of land to have as big of a garden as we wanted. Our good friend and fellow musician Steve Watson named it the “Arcola Nightlife and Wildlife Refuge” and we thought it was a perfect fit.

That place was a little piece of heaven for us for five years and then as the band’s popularity grew and our gigs expanded outward, we decided that, yes, it WAS a little too far from everything. We were getting bookings in Corpus Christi, Laredo, Lubbock, San Antonio, El Paso, Austin, Houston, Beaumont, Dallas/Ft. Worth area and even gigs in Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico. We knew it would be easier and more convenient on the band members if we were more centrally located.

So in 1981, we moved to the old German-settlement town of New Braunfels in central Texas and rented a home in a quiet neighborhood. It had a big back yard and a large greenhouse with a heating system. Once again I couldn’t believe our good fortune. The winters can be cold in the Hill Country with a lot of freezes and snow occasionally. With the greenhouse, we could grow plants all year long.

The property also had some large pecan trees in the back yard. In the fall we would gather the pecans, shell them and freeze the nuts in plastic bags to use later. Most years we had so many pecans, we would bag up the surplus and take them to Pape’s Pecans in Seguin and sell them. One other thing I remember about that place was that in the spring every year, when we would turn the soil to start a new garden, we always uncovered a few Indian arrowheads. I think it was probably an old campsite as there was a small creek nearby.

Over the next few years, the band stayed booked up and my songwriting career took off. George Strait was the first major artist to record some of my songs and that opened the gate to several other country stars of that time to also record some tunes of mine. During that period, they were recorded by Tim McGraw, Mark Chesnutt, Clay Walker, LeAnn Rimes, and then later, Barbra Streisand and Johnny Mathis in the Pop field. With royalty income now coming in, we were able to buy a large ranch-style home on 7 acres of beautiful Hill Country land outside of New Braunfels. Gardening ended up being difficult on that property because it was rocky, but we didn’t let that stop us. The back part of the property was wooded, with mostly oak trees, but the front part was cleared. So I went to a nursery and bought several mature pecan trees and peach trees and planted them across the front.

We had a big wooden deck behind the house and unknown to me at the time, Allene came up with a great idea. She took our pickup to Bussey’s Flea Market on IH-10 one Sunday, and bought a lot of giant Mexican-made clay pots. Stopping at Lowe’s on the way home, she filled the rest of the pickup’s bed with what looked like a ton of bags of potting soil. When she got home, she told me to come see what she got at the flea market. Gazing at the back of our truck, I got her idea immediately. She said it though: “We’re going to have a great garden on our deck!”

And we did. We grew bell peppers, tomatoes, basil and other herbs, green onions and, of course, jalapenos and other peppers. Year after year.

In 1998, Allene and I took a surfing vacation to Costa Rica and Panama and fell so in love with the Bocas del Toro archipelago in Panama that we ended up making a down payment on a small piece of land on Isla Colon. On returning home, at one point we looked at each other and asked, “What did we just do?” We borrowed some money to pay off the note and decided to just hold on to the property and see what would happen. In a few years, something did happen.

In 2001, Allene had to have major surgery … a total hip replacement. It was a wake-up call about our aging, and caused us to rethink everything and to rearrange our priorities in life. After a lot of gut-wrenching soul-searching, we decided to quit touring with the band, sell everything we owned and move down to our property in Panama where we would … we would do … what? That question was enough for us at the time so we left the answer open and moved on.

And this is where we are, more than 17 years later. Our property is on the North Shore of Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro archipelago on the Caribbean side of Panama. We are pretty much isolated ‒ an hour’s drive from the town of Bocas, which is only about 18 miles away, through jungle roads and a poorly kept paved road.

This northern area of the island is all jungle, with the foliage being typical tropical rainforest. Carving out our niche out here was difficult, to say the least, but having done it before with my family in Hawaii, I was somewhat prepared. We cleared the land, cut a driveway and then built our house. Our veranda looks out to a beautiful surf break right out front and it only gets crowded when Allene comes out, or another surfer is visiting.

Properties such as ours are called “fincas,” which translates as “farms.” Our place is definitely a farm. We have lots of coconut trees on the beach and we planted a lot more around the property, including the variety of small, drinking nuts called pipas. Palm trees in the tropics to me are kind of like guitars and surfboards: You can never have too many.

The coconut is so versatile. We use the water, the milk and the meat in many things. Coconut water is like nature’s own Gatorade. It’s full of nutrients, as is the meat. When I come in from surfing I like to grab a pipa off a tree close to the house and chop off the top with my machete and drink the refreshing water. They stay cool in the shade of the palm fronds and there’s nothing like it after a vigorous surf session.  Hmm … except maybe an ice-cold beer. I also like to put a pipa in the fridge now and then and when it’s cold, chop off the top and pour a shot of Panamanian rum inside. Add a straw and it makes a nice Sunday afternoon cocktail. Allene likes to scoop out the coconut meat, grind it in the blender with hot water and after squeezing all the moisture out, roasts the fluff in the oven. Among other recipes, she uses the dried coconut flakes to coat shrimp or fish and bake in the oven. If you are ever ship-wrecked on a deserted island and it has coconut trees, you could live a long time. You might get awfully tired of them if you weren’t rescued in a few years but you would survive.

The second thing we planted most on the property was bananas. We have seven or eight varieties of bananas, including plantains. I never realized how many uses there were for bananas. Of course we like our ripened ones sliced on our cereal in the morning but the green ones can be used in soups and curries. It’s similar by texture to potato but with a slight banana taste. Banana pancakes for breakfast? Nothing better. And sliced ripe plantains, sautéed in butter, then flambéed with a little rum, served with a piece of our homemade chocolate is pretty much our go-to dessert after dinner.
Which brings up the third thing we planted on our property. Cacao. The beans from the cacao fruit are what chocolate is made of. We met Dave and Linda Cerutti right after we arrived here. They owned and operated the Green Acres Chocolate Farm in Buena Esperanza on the mainland of Bocas del Toro and sold chocolate commercially. They were kind enough to gift us some pods from their farm so we could use the beans to grow our own trees. Their trees have been known to produce some of the highest quality beans in this area so we were excited to start our own trees from their beans.

Cacao pods

Cacao pods

My sister Annie and her daughter Elaine came to visit us shortly after we finished building our house. One day we all took a boat over to Green Acres and Dave showed us the whole process of making chocolate, start to finish. Afterwards they gave us some samples of their various chocolates and Annie bought a lot to take back to Maui.

It took a few years for our trees to mature and produce fruit but now we are in full production. The process is similar to how coffee is produced. First the beans are fermented, then dried in the sun for a few days, roasted in the oven and the husks removed. At that point we just put them in bags and put them in the freezer until we’re ready to make some chocolate. Or we might even make some right then.

It’s a lot of fun but also a lot of work. We keep it on a small scale, making just enough to always have chocolate on hand and give some away, but we don’t sell it. The squirrels, white-faced monkeys and birds eat most of our fruit anyway but it works out fine. They leave us just enough.

Yuca, otoe, pineapples and bananas

Yuca, otoe, pineapples and bananas

As time has passed, we’ve planted pineapples, papayas, limes, avocados, mangoes, breadfruit, bay laurels, and various local root crops such as yuca, otoe and dasheen. We saved a flat, sunny area behind our house to make two good-sized vegetable gardens, with a couple of raised beds for growing herbs. The vegetables that we mainly grow are ones that we love to eat but can’t find here in the stores or the fruit and vegetable stands. We grow okra, black-eyed peas, turnip greens, mustard greens, collards, spinach, arugula, radishes and I finally found a variety of lettuce that grows well in the tropics, Thai green lettuce. Now we can have all the fresh lettuce we want. And of course, we always have lots of varieties of hot peppers. The herbs we keep on hand in the herb garden are ginger, turmeric, dill, chives, flat-leaf parsley, oregano, mint, the local variety of cilantro which is called culantro, and plenty of basil.

We make our own compost and everything is grown totally organic. We always have way more than we can eat so we started a little business selling our surplus produce every Monday to stores, restaurants and a few individual customers. That way, nothing goes to waste and the profit helps to cover our wine bill. That business has been put on hold due to the pandemic and quarantines but we’ll be ready when things resume.

Vegetable garden with various greens, basil, black-eyed peas and okra

Our niece Jacy Hefner came to visit us for a month in 2007 … and never left. She still keeps the other half of her airline ticket as a souvenir. Jacy was a finicky eater as a child and when her parents, John and Lynn Hefner, would bring her down to spend time with us in New Braunfels, they would warn her, “Be careful what Uncle Clay and Aunt Allene try to feed you. You know the Blakers … they’ll eat anything.” And we would. It might be snails, frog legs, conch meat, octopus, squid, or crawfish but we’d always make her try a little bit of whatever it was. Sometimes she would like it but most times, not. She mainly was a macaroni-and-cheese and canned green beans girl. But after hanging out with us over the years, her horizons broadened.

By the time she arrived here, she was open-minded about cuisine and fell right into the culture of Panama. After about a week of watching us working in the garden she came up to me and asked, “Uncle Clay, can you teach me how to garden? I want to be a farmer.”

“No problem,” I said. “Let’s go to town tomorrow and get you some rubber boots and work gloves.”

We did, and she proceeded to immerse herself into how we turned the soil, made compost, mixed the compost with the soil, arranged the rows, and so on. She took to it like a natural. After staying a few weeks with us, she felt it was time to go find her own way. She found a job at a restaurant in town and moved in to a place with a couple of the girls she worked with. Since that first job as a waitress, Jacy has made a good life for herself, marrying a Panamanian local, having two beautiful sons, Dylan and Diego, now aged 10 and 9, and is now a co-owner of one of the most successful real estate companies in Bocas del Toro. Many of you have probably seen her on the Caribbean Life TV show on the Home and Garden network.

And guess what else? She has dug up a good portion of her backyard at her house in town and grows herbs and vegetables. It definitely is in her blood. Last week I took her some basil starters in cups to plant in her herb garden and she picked me several nice cucumbers to return the favor. It was a sweet deal any way you look at it.

Jacy’s boys were just like she was as a kid, preferring macaroni and cheese and canned green beans over fresh vegetables. But from Jacy’s and our influence over the years, the boys eat pretty much anything now. What’s really cool is that whenever they have dinner with us now, the first thing they do is reach for the hot sauce bottle. These boys are going to be all right after all. And now they love helping Farmer Jacy in the garden. It’s in their blood.

Allene and I have received a lot of pleasure and joy from gardening over the 47 years we’ve been together. I don’t mean just from getting to eat all the good stuff we grow. There’s something therapeutic about working with your hands in the dirt and, later, so gratifying watching things grow from your efforts. It’s hard to explain but to us it’s some kind of spiritual connection to the earth, and nature, and to each other. And the activity helps keep you young and fit.

My 90-year-old mom and 92-year-old dad are perfect examples of that, as they still work hard every day on their property and avocado farm in Maui. Thinking of my dad and how he started out farming rice gave me an idea a while back.

On the back side of our property there are two areas that are low-lying and stay kind of swampy a good part of the year. I’ve never really figured out how to utilize those areas for growing anything. Then one day it hit me. That section might be perfect for growing rice.

I’ve thought about it a lot since then and have researched it some on the internet. It’s gotten to the point of thinking about it so much that it’s almost become an obsession. They grow a lot of rice here in Panama. In fact, there’s a Panamanian family that we know who have a small rice farm on the west side of our island. And writing this story about farming has inspired me even more. I’ve decided I have to do this. Tomorrow I will get on the phone and call Toby and Lola Braxton, the two beautiful sisters who own a big truck and run a delivery service from the city of David, where they live, to Bocas once a week. They provide a valuable service to those of us who live here in the archipelago and they also were born in Texas so we’re kindred spirits. I’ll ask them to go to the Melo garden supply store and buy me a 100-pound sack of rice seed and send it over on their truck next week.

I know for sure my dad is going to get a big laugh out of reading this part of the story about me starting to farm rice. But I also know that deep down he’ll feel very proud.

After all, I am his son, and it’s in my blood.