The morning air is frigid and the sun is barely spilling across the ground as Calvin Giles, Calvin’s friend, my husband and I pull on to Calvin’s plot of land in the North Fields. Calvin’s cattle hear the truck coming and make their way to greet us. It’s an early Saturday morning, and while most Heber Valley residents are still sleeping, Mr. Giles has been up for hours going through his morning routine — the same routine he’s had for nine decades.
Born in the Heber Valley in 1925, Calvin Giles — affectionately known within his family and the community as “Cal” — has always been a hard worker and a farmer. After the death of his father, Cal, who was only five years old at the time, took over the care of the family’s 13 head of Hereford cattle — a number that would eventually grow to 50. When I ask how a five-year-old boy could possibly manage caring for 13 head of cattle, Cal replies, “Nothing beats getting up and doing. You don’t learn how to farm by reading books, it’s all about firsthand experience no matter how old you might be.”
After serving three years in World War II, Cal came home and went right back to his life of cattle farming, taking incredible time and effort to breed and keep only the best lines. “These cows are beautiful. I’ve been working on them for over twenty years,” Cal said, his voice teeming with pride and a hint of affection. Cal is right; his girls are beautiful. I can see the time and effort he has dedicated over the years, ensuring his cattle are well taken care of and healthy. His herd has wintered well — they’ve packed on weight and thickened up their coats.
As we slowly drive down the feeding line, Cal begins to point out the cows individually and tells me about their personalities. One of the girls, the one with curly hair on top of her head, is “a bit flighty with strangers,” he says. Down the line is cow who looks a bit thin and bony. Cal shows me her calf and explains why the mother is a bit thinner than the other girls. The calf was born on July 25, over 90 days after calving should have finished for the season, which gave his mother less time to bulk up for the winter. Both the calf and his mother stayed together throughout the winter and the mother cow will wean the calf by spring. Cal should then be able to separate them. In fact, almost all of Cal’s calves are naturally weaned by their mothers before they go up for sale each fall.
Farming is not a career for Cal, it is his life. Accordingly, the lines between his “work” and his “personal life” are often blurred. As Cal talks about a time when he had no health insurance and needed to pay for his wife’s open-heart surgery by selling off 40 head of cattle and 38 of his dairy cows, I am humbled at the intricate ways this man’s cattle have been a way of life for him. “It almost broke me, paying for that surgery with my wife not being old enough to qualify for Social Security and Medicaid — but it didn’t, and we made do.”
We finish feeding and Cal hops out of the truck to herd a calf into another side of one of the pens. Cal moves with more precision and ease than I would have expected for a 92-year-old. He walks furtively up to the barn and presses himself tightly against the wood, not moving even the slightest inch as he waits. As the calf comes around the side of the pen, Cal raised his arms, startling the calf and causing it to run through the gate. Just like that, the job is done and Cal is back in his truck, not missing a beat. That’s how the entire morning has gone. Managing cattle is second to breathing for Cal.
As we talk, Cal expresses his concerns for the future of farming in the Heber Valley. “Not long after I die the North Fields will be full of houses and asphalt, and my sons will have nowhere to care for these cattle,” he says. “One day we will realize just how important our gardens and open land really are, but by then it’s going to be too late,” he laments, perhaps echoing concerns other valley residents may share.
As our time together comes to an end, Cal tells my husband and me that we are welcome to stay and take pictures of the cattle or anything else — but to “please just latch the gate” when we were done. Simple as that: no padlock, no expectation for us leave when he did, just good oldfashioned integrity and small-town trust. I was initially interested in interviewing and highlighting Cal because he personifies the nostalgic, simple lifestyle we have all come to cherish within our valley. However, the more we chatted, the better I understood on a deeper level how much of Heber Valley’s heritage is living through, and being honored by, people like Cal Giles. Speaking with Cal helped me better understand the importance of appreciating and honoring our roots as a community.
The Heber Valley’s heart and soul are embodied by the farmers, ranchers and open fields throughout our valley. And while the evidence of growth and change surrounds and sometimes overwhelms us, it’s important to take a moment and appreciate who we are and where we’ve been as a community, and to look forward together knowing there is a place for us all.