He had tried getting things to grow here before -- potatoes, tomatoes, rock concerts, a motocross track.
But the weather was either too dry or too wet or his dreams were dashed by zoning laws or the bad press he got the night he allowed hundreds of teens to dance at a late-night rave.
“I think a lot of times the city would look at me and see how I appear and judge me that way. That was a lot of my trouble. But I am the way I am.”
So Ron Talbert -- tall, tattooed and unapologetic -- mostly stuck to making art and raising horses on this land: 22 acres of woods, weeds and water he inherited from a slumlord millionaire, a patch of wild surrounded by the city, next to the well-groomed turf of the Midget football fields.
Virgil Falloon had grown things all over the world -- an airstrip in Sudan, housing in Kenya, a legal career in a half-dozen cities.
The Lincoln native was a pioneer in community-supported agriculture, quitting his Washington job in the late 1980s to buy a small farm in West Virginia. He put healthy food on the table of hundreds of people, supplying organic vegetables and fruit to his D.C.-area customers, including the Washington Post’s food critic.
But Falloon -- compact, clean-cut and soft-spoken -- was forced back to law for two more decades after a nor’easter left him nearly penniless.
He eventually returned to Lincoln, retired from law two years ago, rolled up his sleeves and stuck his hands back into the soil.
“I’d never given up on that passion. I think it’s what I love doing. I sold my Volvo and bought a pickup and started putting in gardens for myself and other people.”
As winter was ending and with a growing season about to start, he was losing sleep thinking about all the hungry people in Lincoln and how he’d like to help feed them.
And Talbert was thinking about all this land he shares with turkeys and foxes and fish -- and how much food it could produce. If it were in the right hands.
“Sometimes my ideas are greater than my abilities. I called a friend and said, ‘I need some help.’”
That friend called Falloon.
“I think I got lucky. My friend introduced me to the right person.”
And that led to the two men standing here, pointing out plans and plots only they can see.
Here the bees, there the greenhouse, the raised beds, the apple trees, the chicken shed, the compost pile, the hoop houses.
Talbert looked down at his new friend and tenant, a sea of weeds before them.
“We’re going to turn it into a vegetable garden, right Virgil?”
When Lincoln was young -- still in its 20s -- one of its fathers had a plan for the land just south of South Street and west of First Street, platting it as the Eureka Addition in 1887 and naming never-built streets after Civil War generals.
Grant Street, Sherman Street, Sheridan Street.
For decades, the wild Salt Creek curved around its eastern edge, but by the 1950s the creek had been choked, tamed and rerouted through a manmade channel to the west.
The land sat empty as Lincoln grew up around it: a baseball diamond and football fields to the east, industrial parks to the north and west. In the 1990s, when the city stretched four lanes of Van Dorn Street west of Ninth Street, workers dug deep into the parcel for fill, opening a several-acre lake, Talbert said.
At about the same time, Talbert saw a For Rent sign. He called the owner, Otis Glebe.
They settled on $195 a month.
Glebe was said to own hundreds of acres and dozens of rundown rentals. He ran twice for the Senate and once for Lincoln’s City Council. He lived like a pauper in an abandoned south Omaha meatpacking plant until the day the city tore it down.
He ate at a soup kitchen daily.
He was worth nearly $5 million.
“He was almost a folklore-type guy,” Talbert said. “Otis was an amazing guy. I never knew anybody who said a good thing about Otis ever, even after he died, but he sure never did me wrong.”
When Glebe died in 2002, he left $3.7 million to start a medical research foundation.
He left the piece of south Lincoln land to Talbert.
So onto this land came Talbert, as unkempt and unruly as the acres he inherited.
“I look one way, but my morals don’t match my appearance.”
He grew up in Holdrege was adopted by a family and “kind of raised by the church ladies.”
He’s a sculptor -- rock, wood, metal -- his folk art decorating the land but dominating the homes he owns near Eighth and Hill streets. He sold a supersized stagecoach and covered wagon to the Archway Monument near Kearney.
He used this land for Scout outings, birthdays, raising horses and spending time with his son, Cole, now a soldier.
His first big plan, an outdoor concert venue in the trees, failed after the cops busted a dance party -- and busted him for disturbing the peace. The land is slowly swallowing the stage he built.
He opened, then closed, the Broken Spoke Trading Post. Nearly a decade ago, he almost sold the land for use as a motocross track, but the Planning Commission killed that idea.
Lately, from an old RV he parked near the lake, he watches wildlife. The blue heron. The coyotes, deer, muskrats and woodchucks. When the pond dried a couple of years ago and killed off the fish, he watched 40 buzzards clean up the mess.
The land is zoned industrial, and he could ask hundreds of thousands if he wanted to sell, he said.
“I see more value in nature than I do the whole development thing. I don’t care how much money you have; you can’t order up a bunch of geese to fly in.”
For years, Virgil Falloon didn’t let his roots grow deep. After graduating from Lincoln Southeast in 1971, he was off to Georgetown, with lengthy visits to Kenya, where he taught and helped build teacher housing, and Sudan, where he helped build an airstrip.
Back to Nebraska for his law degree, to Israel as a legal researcher, to Washington to direct a nonprofit trying to find peaceful solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then a couple of years as a corporate crime reporter.
He made his biggest leap in 1989.
He maxed out three credit cards, paying his part of the down payment on a farm in West Virginia, the Sleepy Creek Seed Co.
“I was tired of the concrete, of the insensitive people who didn’t care about service or helping others,” he told a reporter in 1991. “I was sick of the tennis balls people tried to pass off as tomatoes. … I wanted to produce something more important than the ton of paper coming out of my office.”
His first customers paid $125 a year for a weekly supply of organic vegetables. The next year, he was charging $200 and enlisting other farmers. He offered customers 60 types of vegetables -- 10 types of lettuce -- and fruit.
It was the fruit that spoiled it.
He’d spent $20,000 in membership money to lease and prepare a neglected cherry orchard in Maryland. All of the trees blossomed. He was banking on a bumper crop.
He was happy. Hopeful. He was feeding people. “Farming is so therapeutic. Everything seems right when you’re gardening and farming.”
Then a late-spring storm rolled in, dumping four days of ice and snow on his future and killing most of his blossoms.
He couldn’t recover.
He had to move to Cincinnati to help with breast implant litigation.
He spent the next 20 years specializing in product liability, suing companies for making faulty defibrillators, bad blood, dangerous drugs. Stressful work. He could invest years in a case with no promise of a paycheck.
He gave it up in 2011 to care for his father -- and to start planting gardens for others.
“I am so much happier. I feel like I kind of found the passion, found the heart, again.”
And then Talbert found him.
The two met, walked the land and got to know each other.
They couldn’t have been more far apart.
Falloon: “The Odd Couple. Me and Ron.”
Talbert: “Virgil is highly educated, I don’t have any education. He’s short, I’m tall, he’s clean-shaven, I’m hairy. When you go to Virgil’s place for a meeting, he gives out little pieces of cheese from seven countries, and I’m thinking: Just cut me off a man-sized piece.”
But they could both see potential in the land. So Falloon, the lawyer, drew up a 27-point lease, allowing Falloon, the gardener, use of Talbert’s land rent-free for the next seven years.
“What better situation? I have land, I have all the water I need and plenty of sunshine. That’s a recipe for success.”
The timing was right. Falloon hadn’t been sleeping well, thinking of the thousands of people in Lincoln who didn’t know where their next meal would come from.
“I’d like to grow for Lincoln. I’d like to grow for the people who are having a hard time.”
His plans for the garden will take several years, but he wanted something in the ground right away. So he and Talbert built a 200-foot hugelkultur bed -- a trench filled with rotting wood, mounded over with dirt -- and planted potatoes, tomatoes and eggplants.
The gardener figures he has eight to 10 acres to work with. He’s mapped it out in his head.
“It’s not going to be a field with nice, 100-foot rows. It’s going to be around the lake in different spots where we can do things with it.”
Much of the land is overrun with dock weed; he wanted to bring in pigs to root it all out but feared that would break a city livestock law. He’d like to build hoop houses to extend the growing season. He wants to start composting. He wants worms and bees and chickens and fruit trees.
Simply, they plan to eat some of the food, sell some of it, give the rest to shelters and soup kitchens.
Beyond that, it’s more ambitious --, and complicated. Falloon envisions a nonprofit that would pay gardeners to grow the food it would give away. And it would try to sell fresh vegetables to grocery stores and restaurants.
He dreams of a “sustainable long-term agricultural park for the city of Lincoln.”
He knows he’ll need help. And money. Maybe $20,000 to $30,000 to start strong. He could use a skid loader to begin moving more ground.
“I don’t have a great deal of resources. I know it’s going to take a lot of people.”
For now, it’s the two of them, the gardener and the landowner, coaxing something new out of this land.
“It’s time to give back,” Falloon said. “It’s time to give.”
Reach Peter Salter at 402-473-7254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.