More than a farm — it’s family: South County’s Jardin del Rio remembers the life of father figure, Elder Guerra |

More than a farm — it’s family: South County’s Jardin del Rio remembers the life of father figure, Elder Guerra

With his kind ways and gentle heart, Elder Guerra brought more than his knowledge of growing things to the South County farm where he worked, Jardin del Rio (Garden of the River).

He taught farm owner Aubree Young different ways to water, how to space tomatoes and that growing purple beans next to green beans can trick pests.

“Elder taught me a ton. He taught me everyday,” said Young, who four years ago started the farm located off Rincon Way with a focus on artisanal varieties.

Guerra died Aug. 8 in an ATV accident, leaving behind farming friends devastated by the news.

“Everybody is just destroyed. He was a big deal,” said Young, who remembered his smile, his “kindest heart” and their last afternoon together, laughing and cleaning peaches.

Guerra worked at Young’s 225-acre family ranch for eight years alongside lead farmer William Vargas. Both hailing from Guatemala, Guerra was a close friend and a father figure to Vargas. Vargas grew up growing sugar cane, papaya, coffee and cocoa with his grandfather.

Elder was a great worker, Vargas said, adding, “detail oriented.”

“He was a really good friend,” Vargas said. “What I admired most, he was a really great dad.”

Elder’s wife and three children still live in Guatemala. His oldest son is studying to be an agricultural engineer, his daughter is studying business, his youngest son is 14.

“There’s not many good dads out there,” Vargas said.

Vargas lost his own father when he was young and was raised by his grandfather. Elder was like a father figure to him, and could always be called on, day or night, Vargas said.

“He always had my back,” he added. “That is one of those things I’m really going to miss about him, too.”

At 50, Guerra, knew the ethics of hard work. At Jardin del Rio he led a group of six young men who worked at the farm, football players from nearby Bear River High School. Guerra guided the boys kindly and left a “huge” impact on their lives, said Young. They learned to watch the sunrise and work in the dirt.

“Elder taught these boys the joy of working hard — he always got here so early. The teenage boys always tried to beat him to work. They never could,” said Young.

Guerra introduced Young to varieties she had never heard of before like, “tromboncino,” a soft-shelled pumpkin with a texture like artichoke hearts and cooked like zucchini. Growing the squash on a trellis next to lemon cucumbers helps shade the more tender variety in the hot summer sun.

“He would say, ‘try this, try that,’” said Young.

Guerra, Vargas and the “boys” made up the hard-working crew that grew tree-ripened fruit and exotic vegetables “too delicate for processes of traditional grocers” on three gardens and an orchard situated on 225 acres in the Southern reaches of Nevada County.

Together, they grew 80 different kinds of tomatoes (700 plants!), 60 varieties of peppers, 30 varieties of eggplants, well over 40 kinds of melons, three rotations of corn, including six types of decorative and 14 types of cucumbers along with peaches and other fruit.

Young has spent 30 of her 38 years in the Auburn area. With an economics degree from Davis, she left the world of corporate banking to become a teacher in Citrus Heights before settling into land development and the farming life.

The daughter of a farmer from Utah and a fisherman from Crescent City, California, Young always remembers having a big garden.

About four years ago, with Vargas’s nudging, the family decided to turn their water-hungry private golf driving range into a farm. While not certified organic, the farm is headed in that direction.

From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday, the farm sells produce cut that day and honey at nearby Sierra Knolls Tasting Room off of Highway 49. Young and her crew make a point of giving their customers first-rate service and an experience they won’t forget, from cutting samples to carrying groceries out to the car. Their clientele is mostly “repeat offenders” from the Lake of the Pines area. They are the only produce farm in their South County neighborhood.

“The first year, it was me sitting out here and hoping people would stop. It’s grown and grown and grown,” said Young, who now, nearly always sells out, week after week.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they can be found from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Jardin del Rio market on Combie Road. Some people weep when they stop by the farmstand and find unusual vegetables they haven’t seen since childhood.

“If you want something artisanal this is your place,” Young said.

During the height of harvest season, it’s a time of significant change for the farm. The week of Guerra’s death, Vargas and his wife welcomed their first child, a son, Jacob William Vargas. The “boys” are preparing to return to school. A farm in mourning attempts to regroup after a significant loss.

For the crew that ate lunch together everyday, things will be different.

“This isn’t just some farm. This is family,” Young said.

Contact freelance writer Laura Petersen at or 913-3067.

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