Myron Brandon has been leveling land for 59 of his 78 years and hopes to keep plowing for many seasons to come.
His bond with the soil began as a youth and has grown only deeper over the years.
The longtime Mercedian loves his work and happily toils 10 hours a day, six days a week, during his busy season. He has no idea how many acres of rocky, uneven soil he has conquered in all those years, but reckons his personal milestones wouldn't constitute a record.
"I like to be outside. I love what I do," Brandon said. "I can't imagine doing something I don't like. It gives me a lot of pleasure, to take a field that's unproductive and turn it around. It's never been monotonous; I keep my mind occupied, looking for obstacles like rocks or pipelines in the field."
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Brandon said he's going to go on as long as his health lets him. Most of his customers are his friends, and he works with 21 to 25 farming operations each year.
"I'd hate to quit just when I'm getting the hang of it," he laughed.
Brandon's father owned a ranch and he was pressed into service as a boy. As a 10-year-old, he recalls his first job paid 35 cents an hour. Driving a mule with a sled, he picked up boxes of apricots in the field during World War II. He also baled hay, knocked almonds, worked cotton and barley fields.
What's the charm of such a job?
Today, Brandon says he's his own boss, and he can sit there and let the tractor do all the work. He has owned the same Caterpillar D8H diesel grader since the 1960s and has logged 75,000 hours on the faithful machine. It has been through four engines and is working on its fifth power plant.
Brandon's wife of 57 years, Shirley, confirms that her husband loves his job. She's his bookkeeper, but stays out of the fields while Brandon works. "I'm a city girl," she chuckles. "I don't get out there. I'm happy when he's working. When he is not working, he's not happy."
Brandon has never been hurt on the job and praises the people he has worked for over the years. Land leveling has changed considerably since he started, with laser and GPS equipment enhancing the human eyeball. Land levelers can be credited with changing knobby, rolling hills and arid land into fertile farmland.
When Brandon started, he estimated 35 to 40 percent of the land was virgin and had not been tilled. Now there is less than 5 percent of untilled land.
"It was a giant step forward for the San Joaquin Valley, making it productive," Brandon said. "We can grow anything. Other than irrigation, land leveling is the most important part of agriculture these days."
Brandon, born and raised in Le Grand, graduated from Le Grand High School in 1947. His dad, chairman of the high school district's board of trustees, handed him his diploma.
Brandon, who loved baseball, signed with the St. Louis Cardinals and played two seasons with the club's farm system. He said he didn't do very well, but it was still a memorable experience.
On Feb. 8, 1951, Brandon was drafted into the Army. He spent 21 months in the service during the Korean war and was ordered to a combat engineering unit building roads -- operating a familiar bulldozer. He recalls getting shot at a lot and ultimately received a Bronze Star.
After the war, he returned for a year of farming until the familiar land-leveling occupation once again beckoned. He went to work for Robert Hughes of L.B. Hughes and Son, a progressive operation with the biggest and finest of equipment.
He stayed with Hughes for 12 years, moving two million yards of dirt during construction of the California Aqueduct as well as San Luis Dam. He recently helped grade the new alignment for Highway 99 at Campus Parkway just south of Merced.
In 1968, Brandon says his wife talked him into buying one of Hughes' tractors and going out on his own. He recalled the Caterpillar cost $27,500, and he still uses it today. The old-fashioned rig continues to do all he asks of it.
Brandon's cousin, Elizabeth Miller, of Plainsburg, described him as a dedicated worker committed to his job. She said his doctor tried to persuade him to retire, but Brandon wasn't having any part of it.
It's fun making the 36-ton Caterpillar do what he wants it to do. The 270-horsepower Cat burns 13 gallons of diesel fuel an hour. When he started, diesel was 14.5 cents a gallon; now it's $4.
"I couldn't guess how much land I've worked," Brandon said. "It's probably about 300 acres a year. When I'm out of here, I hope the world's a little more on the level because of me."
Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.