One-Man Baling Band
Jon Bushnell finds solace and success in solitude.
By Jason Jenkins | Photos By Jason Jenkins
The clock on the dash of Jon Bushnell’s pickup reads just 9 a.m., yet it’s already time for a break. He’s been at it since before the sun filled the sky above California’s Central San Joaquin Valley, and it’s now time to join the usual crew at the “Coffee Shed.”
Bushnell’s destination isn’t a local diner or infamous roadside attraction. Instead, it’s a converted outbuilding on his family’s farm near Visalia. There, he gathers with his brothers-in-law and nephews for a daily dose of caffeine and conversation.
“We meet every day at 9, except for Sunday mornings, when we go to church,” says Bushnell, who lives just outside nearby Kingsburg. “We talk about different things, like everyday operations and politics.
“Local salesmen know that’s when to stop by, too. But if they want to sell anything, they need to make sure they bring their box of doughnuts,” he adds with a wink and a wry smile.
While Bushnell may join the daily business-and-bull session, he spends most of his days in solitude viewing the world from the seat of a swather or tractor. He manages a one-man custom hay operation, supplying alfalfa hay and corn and wheat silage to his family’s dairies.
“I have six brothers-in-law, and they all have dairies, and then I have nephews, and a few of them now have dairies, too,” Bushnell says. “It’s about 10 or 12 dairies in all. Anything that I can produce, they’ll [use as] feed with no problem.”
Bushnell has lived in the Central Valley for about 45 years. His father and uncles operated a custom harvesting business in Wasco, about an hour south of where he currently resides. In addition to baling hay, young Jon grew up helping to harvest sugar beets and combine crops, such as rice, safflower and milo.
He remained a part of his father’s business until after high school when, while attending a church retreat, he met Ena Leyendekker, whose family was from Visalia. Ena’s father, Frank, emigrated from the Netherlands after World War II and settled in the Central Valley, establishing the family’s initial dairy. Then, in 1974, he successfully imported three Friesian horses, flying two pregnant mares and one stallion in a specially designed crate from his homeland to California. While the breed was originally imported to North America in the 17th century, it had been lost to crossbreeding. Leyendekker’s stable of purebred Friesians represented the breed’s reintroduction on the continent, and today, their hitches are well-known, appearing in numerous public events, including annually at the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.
“Ena and I got married in ’83, and the next year I moved up here and became my own boss,” Bushnell says. “I’ve been on my own now for 35 years. I do the cutting, the raking and the baling. I take care of irrigating the fields. Then, in between, I’ll haul cattle for my brothers-in-law, taking calves from our calf ranch to the individual dairies.”
Currently, Bushnell manages about 1,000 acres of irrigated alfalfa that he cuts as many as eight times a year. He also grows about 400 acres of irrigated wheat and corn.
“Our alfalfa stands usually last about four to five years, then we rotate into wheat over the winter and double-crop with corn,” he explains. “We chop the wheat and corn green for silage, and it goes to the dairies along with the hay.”
Going It Alone
For many years, Bushnell relied on hired hands to help him complete various tasks in his operation, including baling alfalfa. But as labor laws changed and dependable workers seemed harder to find, he decided he was better off going it alone.
“There were times you’d get out to a field and only half the workers would show up,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. “That’s when I decided just to do it myself, and it’s a lot more peaceful. Now, if I don’t show up, it’s my own fault. I can blame everything on me now.”
Bushnell’s typical day begins at 5 a.m. He’ll first check his irrigated fields of alfalfa and wheat, adjusting the water as needed. Next, he’ll take care of routine maintenance and service on his equipment, ensuring that everything is ready for the day’s tasks.
“Then, it just depends on the day and the time of year,” he says. “I’ll either rake hay I cut three days before and get it ready to bale that evening, or I’ll hop on the swather and do some cutting. If I’m caught up with all of that, then I’ll get the cattle truck, and haul cows and calves for my brothers-in-law.”
Being a one-man operation does present its own challenges. Last year, he slipped and fell, breaking his shoulder. Surgery was required, and Bushnell found himself out of commission.
“After a week, though, I was back in the tractor, my arm in a sling,” he says. “My nephews ran the swathers for me, but I still could run the baler using the joystick.”
Such dedication is why Bushnell has found success making his own way during the past three-plus decades. His path has brought rewards beyond financial success. Take, for example, an evening this past May.
As Bushnell begins to bale a field of alfalfa, the Sierra Nevada mountains offer a majestic backdrop, their snow-capped peaks catching the last rays of the setting sun, as the clouds above turn from white to shades of orange, pink and purple. Dust hangs like a low, dense fog in the air just ahead of his tractor’s headlights, shrouding the field in an aura of mystery. “Just being out there, night or day, I love seeing agriculture,” he says. “It’s relaxing, you know? I love what I do.”