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You bloom where you're planted: The cultivation of Josh Allen, Part 1

You bloom where you're planted: The cultivation of Josh Allen, Part 1

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The Buffalo Bills drafted their next great hope at quarterback with the seventh overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft. This is the first of a five-part series, "You bloom where you're planted: The cultivation of Josh Allen." Read Part 2 here. 

FIREBAUGH, Calif. – Joel Allen slowly rolled his brown GMC Sierra pickup past a field of beardless wheat. The night before, swather machines began reaping the lush, green grass into windrows, the long lines of a desperately needed, lucrative harvest.

"This looks beautiful right here," Joel murmured, never breaking his gaze out the passenger window.

A month ago, his 2,000-acre Allen Ranch was on the block. Three neighbors recently had surrendered. He couldn't stand any more drought, maybe another infestation, certainly more of California's unyielding water politics that made growing cotton, wheat and cantaloupes in the dusty San Joaquin River Valley a dangerous gamble.

"It only takes one bad year," Joel said, "and I've had three in a row."

Allen Ranch had a suitor, but the offer was lopsided. Joel was loath to accept payments over the next five years. He required liquidity as much as his crops thirsted for irrigation. He had too much debt after three years of getting the fertilizer stomped out of him.

Joel is tan, quick to laugh and carries a worldly confidence without betraying his country charm. He's smooth, was a decorated swimmer in his day, speaks fluent Spanish, sings Neil Diamond at karaoke and still knows his big number from playing the male lead in "Annie Get Your Gun" at Firebaugh High.

But optimism be damned about this farming gig. He said he couldn't help but ponder: "Why do I keep doing this? There's got to be a better way to make a living."

He has farmed here 30 years. His father and grandfather were farmers. His father-in-law is in his 58th year of farming in Firebaugh, a town with a population of 7,619, according to the signs stabbed into the sagebrush alongside Route 33 at the corporation limits.

Joel's brother, Todd, farms another 1,200 acres on adjacent land.

"Sometimes you work so hard, and it's so hot, you just want to sit there and cry," Todd said. "You kill yourself out here."

Joel and LaVonne Allen have two sons in their early 20s. While their two daughters have no interest in agriculture, the boys were superstar Future Farmers of America students. Yet they wonder if the family business can sustain a fourth Allen generation.

"I would love for my sons to get into this business," Joel said, "but the stress is agonizing. I frowned on my boys getting into this because I don't want them enduring sleepless nights and constant worry."

One of his boys never had interest in farming anyway, even though he earned a Future Farmers of America degree that one half of 1 percent of the membership receives. Manual labor wasn't his aversion. Nor was the monotony of turning over crops, nor the 100-degree days, nor the crop-killing insects and weeds, nor the water crisis.

Absence of control is what revolted Josh Allen.

"Seeing everything he's been through, having no water, being in a drought, going to rallies," said Josh, sitting by his father in the Allen Ranch office two weeks ago, "it probably added onto my commitment to football without even realizing it.

"It's something I don't want to deal with. I hate to see him deal with the things that he does, but he's extremely smart about his moves and tactical in providing for his family.

"Now it's my turn to do that in my own way."

On April 26, right around the time Joel contemplated that unappealing offer to buy the ranch, the Buffalo Bills made Josh Allen the seventh overall selection of the NFL Draft.

Unlike his kinfolk, Josh is in the alpha-control business. He's an NFL quarterback with a lightning bolt for a right arm. He's expected not only to dictate Buffalo's offense, but also to become the face of the franchise.

Josh Allen will have his own lined, green field to tend each week, his windrows found in the win column.

"I just love how fluid football has to be," Josh said, "how much time and energy it takes to practice and then taking it to the field and executing in a game situation.

"In my opinion, there's nothing better than practicing a play all week and then going on the field and thinking, 'This is going to be a touchdown.' Then frickin' throw a rope...

"There's nothing better. It's like nothing I've ever felt, and that never changes."

Staying true to his hometown

You can examine his University of Wyoming stats and video clips, but you won't truly know Josh Allen until you learn how he was raised and the odds he has overcome to reach the NFL.

The Buffalo News this month interviewed 22 family members, Firebaugh elders, school administrators and staffers, his earliest coaches and former teammates to retrace the rookie quarterback's journey from a mom-and-pop farmstead to college football to an NFL contract that will make him an instant millionaire about 15 times over.

Dig around the Allen family soil and a credo repeatedly crops up: "You bloom where you're planted."

When it was mentioned to Josh, he sighed.

"My dad has sayings for days," Josh said. " 'You bloom where you're planted' ties into farming, but it also sums up the ideals and morals that we have as a family by staying in Firebaugh."

Joel Allen admittedly borrowed "you bloom where you're planted" from one of televangelist Joel Osteen's popular sermons.

"You can stand out or blend in," Joel Allen said.

Firebaugh minted Josh Allen. Yet staying true to his hometown almost cost him, too.

He could have gone to a larger high school with a superior football program an hour away in the Fresno area. The stage would have attracted recruiters. But he remained in Firebaugh because that's where he was sown.

His grandfather, A.E. "Buzz" Allen, donated the land the high school was built upon, so Firebaugh residents wouldn't have to attend Dos Palos High, 15 miles and another county away, anymore. Buzz Allen was the Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District's first president and served 12 years on the board.

Josh, passed over or flat-out rejected by teams since his Pop Warner days, did it the hard way, helping establish a Firebaugh football program that hadn't gained much acclaim before him.

He yearned to play for Fresno State, which snubbed him out of high school and junior college. He attended nearby Reedley College, where he began as the backup and elicited one legitimate Division I opportunity at Wyoming, where he again began as the backup.

Wherever he was welcomed to take root, he sure did eventually bloom.

"He's wired at a competitive level that's very, very rare," said Firebaugh High principal Anthony Catalan, once the school's Future Farmers of America supervisor and Josh's agriculture mechanics teacher. "He wants to be the best at everything he does. That doesn't matter if it's FFA or taking AP calculus when he doesn't have to just because he wants to be the best.

"I don't know if I'll ever see it again. I hope I do, but that's not something you learn. He has a drive like no other."

Josh's willpower was buoyed by a series of twists, breaks and quirks that led him from one tiny dot on the map to the next, not-quite-as-tiny dot on the map.

Now he's in Buffalo, the NFL's second-smallest market, a place he and his family say feels just right.

Life on the edge

Vaughn Von Allman has been negotiating with God for decades.

Josh's grandfather, "Papa Vaughn," they call him, has been farming since Eisenhower was president. The deep furrows in his ruddy cheeks and jowls denote decades toiling under the hot sun.

He's still at it, growing cotton, alfalfa and cantaloupes on his 3,000 acres. Von Allman has added young pistachio trees, a transition many Central Valley farmers, Joel Allen among them, would love to make if they had sufficient money to withstand five or six years without a crop.

Time is a precious commodity for Von Allman. He turned 79 this month and has conquered cancer twice. Part of his colon was removed in 2001. Thirteen years ago, a spot was discovered early on his pancreas.

He prayed persistently he would live to see Josh play in the NFL.

"It's like a dream come true," Von Allman said. "I have to pinch myself. Do I really have a grandson in the NFL?"

Farming is not in Josh's DNA like others in the family. Two of Josh's cousins will become Papa Vaughn's partners and eventually take over Von Allman Farms and maybe sweat out a living for their children.

Good Lord – and the federal government – willing. They control the water, after all.

As Josh realized as a tyke, playing defense in life wasn't appealing to him.

"You've got to have it in your blood," Von Allman said. "You've got to love what you do.

"There's very few young people interested in farming. It's hard for a farm of our size to compete with your corporations. Maybe we work a little harder. We probably don't go on vacation as often as others. But it's been a great ride for my wife and me."

Von Allman came close to giving up the farm business four years after he started. He and his father were dairy farmers before selling the cows to grow cotton.

In May 1963, he recollected, a hail storm wiped out the entirety of his crop. Cotton here needs to be planted in April for the best harvest and to allow proper time to double-crop the field for cantaloupe season. Von Allman buckled.

"My wife thought it was over," Von Allman said. "When I told her we lost all our cotton, she asked, 'What are you going to do?' I said, 'I'm going into town and get drunk this afternoon, and then tomorrow I'm going to plant it all over again.'"

In other seasons, damage may well come from a hard freeze, flooding, beetles, mites or morning glory run amuck. The past few years, drought and water restrictions have handcuffed Westlands Water District farmers like Joel Allen.

Such unpredictable hardships hammered any desire for agriculture out of Von Allman's daughter, LaVonne.

"One of the last things I said to my father when I went off to college," she recalled, "was I won't be living in Dos Palos or Firebaugh, and I wouldn't be marrying a farmer.

"That kind of bit me on the butt."

LaVonne and Joel, raised in neighboring towns, met 150 miles away at Cal Poly. But that wasn't enough to draw them back to farming.

LaVonne studied fashion design and merchandising; she was on the dance team. She worked at a Fresno employment agency. Joel majored in agribusiness, but his first job was with a water district.

Then Joel's parents were in a cataclysmic car accident. His father, never the same, was incapable of running the business. Joel was summoned back to Firebaugh.

Joel had helped as a kid, moving irrigation pipe, driving a tractor, the same types of jobs Josh did growing up for his old man. Thrust into Buzz's business, Joel had to learn how to manage systems, handle a crop from planting to the market, meet a budget, submit a payroll, maintain heavy equipment.

"Our first 15 years of farming were pretty lucrative," LaVonne said. "We were making good money.

"But the last 10 years, our struggles got pretty serious."

As Josh's love for football galvanized on the local Pop Warner and high school fields, his aversion to a farming career swelled with every setback he watched his parents face.

So, too, did his admiration for their commitment and perseverance.

Seven years ago, Allen Ranch's cotton crop was devastated by a lygus infestation. When the insect pierces a cotton bud, most of the bud sheds. Plants fall apart. They can be deformed, discolored or stunted.

"Seems like I've been playing catch-up ever since," Joel said.

Far more critical to Allen Ranch since then has been California's water shortage.

The Central Valley offers some of the world's most fertile conditions. America's only Mediterranean climate – mild, wet winters and arid summers – bolsters California's $50 billion agriculture industry. The brownish-gray panoche clay loam around Firebaugh and Dos Palos absorbs the moisture and produces more than 60 types of crops. Almonds, grapes and cantaloupes are paramount.

Water is a farmer's most vital resource, and the Westlands Water District essentially has gone dry. Environmental concerns, drought and, cynics would say, politics have restricted the flow.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation determines how much water each district will receive annually. Westlands water comes from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The allocation is based on reservoir levels, precipitation and snowpack in the Sierra Nevada.

A full water allocation for Westlands' 600,000 agricultural acres is 1.2 million acre feet (enough to cover an acre at a depth of one foot). The allocation for 2014 and 2015 was zero percent. In 2016, it was 5 percent.

"I think my son's seen me the last year and a half, I wasn't the same person," Joel Allen said, glancing at Josh back in the ranch office, "because when they take away your main resource, that makes it hard to do business."

Many stakeholders aren't sympathetic. Westlands' full agricultural allocation, for instance, is roughly twice the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's annual supply for residential use.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is an estuary, where salt water transitions to fresh water. The balance is delicate to wildlife and concerns commercial fishermen. Too much water pumped south to farms turns the water brackish downstream and negatively impacts salmon populations, which have collapsed.

Environmentalists have tried in vain to save the delta smelt from extinction. The 2-inch freshwater fish simultaneously has been championed as a bellwether of the Delta ecosystem and derided as a silly cause that punishes farmers.

All for nothing, perhaps. California Fish and Wildlife found two whole delta smelt while trawling from September to December. The delta smelt is on the brink of becoming the first fish to go extinct since Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Josh Allen has attended water-awareness rallies with his family and other Central Valley farmers disgusted by the restrictions.

Allen Ranch ceased growing tomatoes. The crop relies too heavily on water.

"The political arena here in California, it stinks," Joel said. "If I had my way, I would pick up and leave. But you just can't do that."

Looking ahead

Although the Allen children worked the ranch, they were insulated from it in some ways.

The homestead is surrounded by rows of trees and impeccably positioned bushes that create a sanctuary and block out the surrounding flatness. Turn up the Allens' driveway, and you'd have no idea you're in the middle of vast farmland.

There's a basketball court by the garage, a batting cage alongside the house, a putting green and a pool out back. This is where Josh kept his edges sharp, competing against his brother, his sisters and his buddies.

"LaVonne and I just wanted to create an environment for them," Joel said, "because we don't live next to a park or have schools nearby where they can go hit balls or play hoops.

"They didn't go without as far as resources to keep them entertained, and they took advantage of it."

But Joel couldn't simply take refuge here and pretend the rest of his world didn't exist. Real problems remain beyond the tree lines.

That's why his windrows of bearded wheat looked so heavenly. The Central Valley, crowded with dairies, started lining up for weeks ago for the precious feed. His two fields will bring in $300,000, a juicy-looking number. But he has six full-time employees and a stack of bills to pay.

He's still trying to recover from his three-year thumping.

In 2017, coming off the region's wettest hydrologic year on record, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation opened Westlands' spigots 100 percent. Climate analysts, though, warned farmers not to get too excited. Restrictions should remain the norm. This year's allocation plummeted to 40 percent.

To survive, Joel said he probably will have to install two deep agriculture wells at $750,000 a pop. Then he could supplement future restrictions with lower-quality water from 900 to 1,300 feet below.

Long-term viability, he asserted, depends on permanent crops instead of row crops. Pistachio trees are substantially more bankable than cotton, but they require more water and bring no revenue for at least five years amid ongoing costs for labor, fertilizer, equipment and taxes.

All told, April was a good month for the Allens, and not entirely because the Bills invested their future in Josh.

Joel rejected that offer to purchase Allen Ranch. He finally secured financing to keep him afloat, lack of water not withstanding.

"Now I'm in a much better frame of mind; I'll tell you that," Joel said.

Josh's little brother, Jason, has decided to study agriculture at Fresno State and get into the family business. Joel contends Jason was a better athlete than Josh, but back injuries snuffed his baseball pursuits at Saddleback College.

Within a couple of years, Joel now can venture, he'll start planting those pistachio trees for a fourth generation of Allen farming after all.

And with some nurturing and resolve, they'll bloom where they're planted.

Part Two, coming Monday: How the community helped Josh Allen thrive

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