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Losing the Race of a Lifetime: The Crowd Is Catching Up to Farmer Grimes

June 12, 1986|GERALD FARIS

During all those decades that Elmer Wilson Grimes taught school, there was something else he would rather have been doing.

"My father had the last farm in the District of Columbia," Grimes recalled. "His father had supplied food to the Union Army during the Civil War. I'm steeped in food production, and all the time I was teaching I was thinking about getting back on the farm, the way a horse likes to get back to the pasture."

After more than 30 years in the classroom, he got his chance in 1973 atop the Palos Verdes Peninsula, which even then was still fairly rural. One place in particular caught his eye--the rolling acres where ham radio pioneer Don C. Wallace had put up a forest of antenna poles to talk to the world from Rancho Palos Verdes.

"The place was so full of weeds you could hardly get through," Grimes said. "It was in oats and barley and there were adjoining farms. They were all beautiful, and I couldn't wait to get out of the classroom and onto the farm again."

He made a deal with Wallace--Grimes would keep the weeds off the place if he could plant a hay crop every year. So, shortly after he became a retired teacher, Grimes became an active farmer.

Since then, Grimes and his wife, Sararuth--cordial, sturdy people with independent, pioneer spirits--have farmed 10 to 20 acres of the Wallace Ranch every year. Each crop yields about 400 bales of hay, which just fills one big diesel truck.

But burgeoning construction is about to catch up with the couple. Wallace died last year at the age of 86 and his 24-acre ranch has been sold to a development group. Expensive homes are supposed to be built soon.

"This is probably our last crop," Grimes said on a recent morning, after driving his old John Deere tractor up a hill and out of the chilling fog. Nearby, all-around wrangler Ray Brown--who works as a rodeo cowboy, movie stunt man and hay broker--was loading the last of the bales he bought for a horse rancher in Corona.

The Grimeses say they are the last farmers at the top of the Peninsula, although a few others farm along the coast in Portuguese Bend.

"I met the Grimeses seven years ago and they're just a fine old couple," said Brown.

The Grimeses, who were engaged in Washington, D.C., were married in California in 1941 after she accepted a job teaching music and English at Pepperdine University, then located near downtown Los Angeles. Grimes was going to teach there, too, but World War II broke out and he was drafted. He joined the university faculty after the war, teaching premed , pre-nursing and public health courses, and later moved to the Los Angeles School District.

The couple raised animals on the side and as the city grew, they kept moving to stay out of it.

"We went all the way down to Dairy Valley (now Cerritos), where we had 10 acres and raised heifers for a dairyman," said Sararuth Grimes. "Every time the Santa Ana Freeway was extended, a fairy seemed to wave a magic wand and houses sprang up."

Later, they settled in Buena Park, where they had horses, chickens and pigs and raised their own beef. In 1956, they took a Sunday drive up to the Peninsula.

"We saw kids on horses and this looked like the place to be," Mrs. Grimes remembered. They found five acres in Rolling Hills Estates and bought it for $19,000. With $10,000 left over, they began building a house where they still live and raise Arabian horses.

From planting to harvesting, the Grimeses--he is 73, and she is 68--have farmed the Wallace Ranch themselves. Mrs. Grimes explained how it's done: "After the first fall rain brings up the weeds, you prepare the ground and get the seeds in, all before the next rain. In the spring, you mow it, rake it into rows, and bale and haul it."

The farm has always been a hobby, rather than a business, and Grimes said he has the annual losses--up to $3,000 a year--to prove it.

"It cost me money, but I like it better than golf," Grimes said. "The farm costs me about as much as golf clubs and a golf club membership would."

When he went into farming, Grimes bought some vintage equipment--including a tractor, plow and planter--and he made a storage shed out of a tumble-down barn that Wallace had built for his daughter's horses.

Generations of farming on the property have left it strewn with weathered and rusting equipment, some of it overgrown with weeds.

There is an old wagon dating from the time when garbanzo beans were grown on the land. A metal commercial trailer is all that is left of a repair shop.

Vandals also have had their way, taking down gates and, on one occasion, setting 200 bales of hay on fire.

Even though they've never hired a hand, the Grimses have shared their farm with small school children, letting them catch a glimpse of an agricultural past that city life has replaced. Mrs. Grimes said the idea sprang from the curiosity of their own four grandchildren. The Grimeses gave two sons and two daughters.

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