Ray Arouesty and his wife Erica didn’t expect to become farmers. But that’s what happened.
“I have to attribute my career as a farmer to a bad neighbor,” says the president of Arrow Insurance Service in Simi Valley, Calif., a firm that provides insurance for pool and spa service technicians.
For about 10 years, the couple had been living in Westlake Village, a planned community about 40 miles outside of Los Angeles. “It was the kind of place I thought I’d always be,” Arouesty says.
But then a new neighbor moved in and changed everything. On weekend nights, children could be heard splashing and screaming “Marco Polo” until midnight. Loud parties would run until 2:00 a.m. “The straw that broke the camel’s back was the flamenco dancer at 3 a.m. one Saturday night,” Arouesty says. “I told my wife, ‘We have to get out of here.’ The only way to divorce a neighbor is to move.”
When it came time to search for new places, the Arouestys’ real-estate agent took them to an expansive lemon ranch. The property didn’t appeal to the couple, but for Ray it brought up memories of attending graduate school at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. Though he hadn’t thought about it in years, he really appreciated the pace of life — the quiet, spaciousness and sense of community that comes with an agricultural area.
So the agent took them to a 20-acre avocado ranch a few miles away. “We went up this dirt road, and at the top of the hill was an old trailer — a double wide that must have been there since the 1940s,” Arouesty says. “While we were driving up the road, my wife started humming the song from the movie ‘Deliverance.’ But it had a great view and it had all these avocado trees.”
It was the answer to their noisy-neighbor problem. “My real-estate guy said, ‘You don’t get properties like this very often, where you don’t see any other homes — all you see is trees and the ocean in the distance.’”
Eventually Arouesty was able to persuade his wife to call the ranch home. It was a big lifestyle change. The pair moved into the trailer pending the design and construction of an actual house. They soon found out that the heater spewed animal fur when it was turned on, forcing them to rely on heat from a wood-burning stove. “Then we’re kind of fitness nuts, so we moved the treadmills in, but we didn’t have enough current to run them,” Arouesty says. “So we had a generator outside, and we ran the power cord in through the window to the treadmills.”
But a literal baptism by fire came about six weeks after they relocated. History was made when more than a dozen wild fires swept throughout much of Southern California in October, 2003. It seemed like the whole southern half of the state was in flames, from San Diego to Ventura County, where the Arouestys now lived.
Within hours, the couple went from thinking they were safe to staring in horror as their avocado trees burned.
Arouesty grabbed a hose and wet down as much as he could. “I didn’t even know where the water valves were,” he says. “We had just moved in.”
While slipping and sliding up and down the now muddy hills, he turned around and noticed somebody also trying to keep the flames at bay. It was the property’s prior owner. “He hands me a bottle of water and says, ‘Ray, is this what you had in mind when you told me you wanted to be a gentleman farmer?’” Arouesty says. “He was like an angel. He came back to save the ranch.”
In the end, the couple lost 500 trees out of 3,000. They managed to save the trailer, which would be demolished a few months later so they could build a house.
Though life on the ranch hasn’t been as dramatic as the first few weeks, it has been an adjustment.
Arouesty found a ranch hand who works the property while he is at his day job. In their off hours, Ray and Erica work the farm as well, so they have had to educate themselves on diagnosing and solving problems, handling bees and pests and making repairs.
They also must deal with the effects of weather. For example, the pair learned about the impact of wind just a few weeks after the fires, when 50- and 60-mile-per-hour gales blew about 10,000 pounds of avocados off the trees. “It was heartbreaking,” Ray says. “We spent days picking up this fruit, thinking we were going to sell it and not let it rot, only to find out that you can’t sell any fruit before a date set by the Department of Agriculture. We were about two weeks early, so all that fruit went to waste. My back still hurts thinking about it.
“Ironically the fruit that gets blown off the trees is called windfall, but it’s anything but. Windfall is something that’s generally regarded as a good thing. In avocado growing it’s waste.”
The Arouestys have become so used to the quiet that it can be a challenge to sleep in hotels, with their inevitable road noise. And they love the neighbors. “When I lived in Westlake Village, I didn’t even know my neighbors next door,” he says. “Now I know people in a 4-mile radius of where I live. I know them all by name.”
But the adjustments have been even more fundamental. “The ironic thing is my whole business is about reducing risk,” Arouesty says. “That’s why people buy insurance. Farming is the riskiest thing I’ve ever done in my life. There’s so much uncertainty.
“I guess this is the yang to my yin. It’s my alter-ego who wants to live on the edge.”