“Self-knowledge is best learned not by contemplation, but by action. Strive to do your duty and you will soon discover of what stuff you are made.” — Johann Goethe
But Kuhn soon was confronted with the reality that Jim had no right-hand man she upon whom she could depend to run the farming operations, and she was uncomfortable with Kevin continuing to put his business on hold to help her.
“That was where I had the most risk. There were huge capital requirements and exposure to market ups and downs,” she explains. “All of a sudden as a single mom with two kids and planning for the future, it was too hands-on for me.” With a broken heart, she decided to liquidate much of the farm operations, while holding on to the farm ground that the couple had purchased together.
“That was an extraordinarily painful process,” she admits. More than 200 employees were laid off, the equipment was sold in public auction, and land leases were let go that they had maintained for years.
“I was trying to protect people from the fallout of Jim’s death, but I realized that all I could do was protect my own family,” she explains. “I’ve had to let go of the guilt about choosing a different path.”
In 2006, the family moved to San Diego, and she continued to oversee the dairy and cheese factory with two-day trips every week, keeping her finger on the pulse of the operations. A trusted babysitter stayed with the children.
“Several times a day, I had to drive by the place where Jim lost his life,” she confides. “All of it was a constant barrage of sadness, all day, every day. Now I can touch the sadness when I come back for work, but I don’t have to live in it.”
Emotional moments also rise when she mentally sifts through her memories to find Jim’s offhand comments that revealed his thoughts and beliefs.
“If Jim were here, what would he say?” she ponders. This question often pops up when the kids are contemplating some potentially dangerous activity from which their non-athletic mom would shy away.
Their daughter is an adrenaline junkie just like her father, Kuhn says. Although she attends all of 12-year-old Vienna’s equestrian jumping competitions, she admits to covering her eyes to avoid watching the girl’s daring rides.
Jim was also adamant, she recalls, that Fritz would not be allowed to play organized football until he was 10. The day the boy was old enough, it seemed his father was right there giving his blessing because that was the way Jim wanted it.
“The kids and I talk about Daddy all the time. I’m glad they have this picture of him as a real man rather than a visionary legend.”
“It’s not as many memories as we’d like, but it’s still central to who they are,” Kuhn says.
Loving others is the most important work we have to do.
“One of the things I’m most grateful for is the relationships with other farmers and friends,” she says. Kevin and Kim Grizzle of Holtville were and remain her best friends and have continued to support her and the kids by sharing their love, time and farming expertise over the past five years.
Imperial Valley Cheese still produces high quality Swiss and Muenster cheeses, while all the milk produced at the 5,500-head dairy, as well as milk from another local dairy, is used for the process. The hay compressing and shipping business is now handled by her mother-in-law Madeline Kuhn.
Kuhn has remained an outspoken member of the Imperial Group, a consortium of local growers who are suing the Imperial Irrigation District over restructuring the water transfer and the issue of selling water to metropolitan areas.
“Operating from a position of fear is not a prime position,” she says of their decision to lobby for agricultural rights. “It is best to operate from the offense.”
Although she claims none of the business sense that was so abundant for Jim, Kuhn is now working on an effort to bring algae farming to the Imperial Valley, to grow the crop as an alternative to petroleum. The work seems to perfectly meld both her worlds of agriculture and public policy. And it’s something she can do for the Valley while still living in San Diego.
Still in the planning stages, she works closely with the University of California, San Diego and serves on the advisory board for the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology.
Her dream would be to build an algae farm in Imperial Valley that could use waste water and whey from the dairy and cheese factory. Oil from the algae would be sold for fuel, the nutritious byproducts would be fed to the dairy cows, and the water would be cleaned. The venture could put the county on the forefront of the nation’s renewable energy efforts while also boosting the economy with more jobs.
“There are all these synergies that seem to me to be the next step in food processing, in agricultural production and energy production. Algae seems to me to be the missing link.”
We had better capture today.
Now that Vienna and Fritz are older, she has cut her visits to the Valley to twice a month to check on the businesses. It frees her up to watch Fritz play football and Vienna’s volleyball and horse-jumping competitions. Like their father, the kids have dreams — Vienna takes voice lessons and contemplates becoming an ambassador while Fritz thinks he’d like to be an architect.
“Jim was all about agriculture, hard work and pushing the envelope,” she says. “But more than anything, he was about living life to the fullest each day.” It is something Kuhn has done her best to impart to their children.
Although she cannot stand the thought of their children leaving her, they are planning a trip to visit the same New Hampshire boarding school that Jim attended so that the kids can have options.
Healing produces strength.
“I’ve learned that I can do more than I ever would have thought,” she admits. “I’ve learned about human relationships. I’ve learned about faith and our internal resources. Actually, I feel really lucky, which is crazy. I feel really blessed … What I’ve gone through is nothing compared to the huge challenges that other people face on a daily basis.”