Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

and that has made all the difference…

Robert Frost

We can live in a place for years and never realize its hidden treasures. Robert Frost eloquently describes what it’s like when we choose the less traveled road … it makes all the difference.

Shortly after moving to the Valley in 1983, I learned about the aloe vera plant and its medicinal purposes. I also learned the climate in the Valley created a nearly perfect environment for aloe to grow and flourish. But I had never visited an aloe farm until Audrey Sigrist invited me to Aloe King in Mercedes.

Country roads led me to 1947 Mile 6N, home of Aloe King. Brilliant green aloe vera plants formed the perfect frame for the Aloe King billboard resting in the field. Little did I know I had arrived at a place that is so much more than an aloe vera farm.

I met Audrey’s son, John Sigrist, the owner of Aloe King. He began with a history of the farm. John’s parents, James “J.R.” and Audrey Sigrist, had moved to the Rio Grande Valley from Missouri in 1973 to run Rio Valley Estates, a mobile home park in Weslaco. John, the youngest of the couple’s four sons, moved here in 1975 to help.

In the fall of that year, John began to ask himself, “What’s next?” He turned to a Valley treasure, aloe vera. He started by purchasing some aloe plants from Bill Manghum. John began growing his own aloe vera in Mission. In 1976, Forever Living Products (the “bull elephant of aloe vera,” according to John), bought Bill Manghum’s fields.

In 1976, Audrey became a sales consultant for LadyLove Skin Care (now TARRAH), a cosmetic line with an aloe vera and Vitamin E base. The following year, John began selling his plants to LadyLove. Shortly thereafter, LadyLove purchased three acres in Mercedes from Bill Prothro, who started his aloe farm in the early 1970s on land left to him and his siblings by their dad, Luther Prothro. John signed on as their farm manager and developer.

During the next six years, John increased the farm’s size to 45 acres, and in 1983, he purchased it from LadyLove after the Valley’s devastating freeze. He named his enterprise, Southern Fields Aloe Inc. In 1992, he incorporated Prince of Aloe, the retail/mail order/tour branch of the business. Five years later, he developed the trademark Aloe King. That year, he also acquired Texas Aloe Corporation, the manufacturing division.

John firmly believes in the medicinal and cosmetic benefits of fresh aloe. “Fresh is always the best,” he said. John explained that the plant is considered vital because of its leaves. The plant’s primary leaves are sold to produce markets. Secondary leaves are processed to make aloe vera juice.

John has helped establish aloe vera farms all over the world, including Hawaii, Mexico, China, Belize, Uganda and Okinawa. His products are shipped across the United States and to Portugal, Europe, Canada and Italy.

“Through our channeling,” John said, “new aloe farming operations have been established around the world. Texas aloe vera is the best when it comes to commercial grade. Bill Manghum and others got this industry started.”

Processing aloe vera gel and juice is a much more complicated process than people might think.

“According to the Food and Drug Administration, all consumer-ready products (juice and gel) must be pasteurized,” John said. “We have a full-time chemist who has been in the aloe industry for years. She measures the vitality of every single batch, and tests the pH-balance and malic acid content and performs microbial tests. She’s an integral part of our company.”

Aloe King’s website (www.aloeking.com) provides a wealth of information about aloe vera. “Vera” means “true,” and the site explains that of over 200 species of aloe, this plant offers the best medicinal properties. Aloe vera belongs to the lily family, and though the untrained eye might mistakenly identify it as cactus, aloe vera is actually a perennial succulent.

The company’s Web site also explains the myriad uses of aloe vera. Some people use its leaves to treat infections, cuts, arthritis and aching joints. Its pulp can be used to fight such things as ulcers, boils, acne, burns and poison ivy. The plant’s gel, when blended with milk and papaya, has been known to heal various ailments, including sluggish liver, ulcers and kidney infections. Health food stores often use the inside of the plant to make smoothies. Stories indicate that Cleopatra was known to use aloe vera for skincare and hair treatments, just as many people throughout the world do today. It is also used to make aftershave gels. Aloe King makes pure-pulp aloe vera jelly, and John’s parents have even created their own jelly recipes. Taking medicines and vitamins with aloe vera juice is said to provide a person with bio-activity three times longer than if taken with water, thus making them more effective. Drinking aloe vera juice also reduces acid reflux. Finally, aloin, a bitter compound made from aloe, is often used as a laxative.

“Growing aloe vera is what farming should be,” John said. “You take a plant and use it to its full extent.”

After providing me with a thorough education on aloe vera and showing me the Aloe King facilities, John allowed me to spend time with his parents. J.R. (Audrey jokingly says it sometimes means “Just Right” and other times “Just Rotten”) served in the Navy in the South Pacific during World War II, worked for the post office for 25 years and then became a teacher. Audrey served as a radio operator for the Coast Guard during the war, became a teacher and then a junior high principal in Savannah, Mo. It is said that “once a teacher, always a teacher,” and this held true for J.R. and Audrey. For 12 years, they volunteered at the Rio Grande Children’s Home and supported it financially. When the facility was sold, J.R. and Audrey moved to the farm to help John, just as he had done for them years earlier.

For the past nine or 10 years, John and his parents have conducted educational tours of the farm during the winter months. These tours allow J.R. and Audrey to continue teaching. They take visitors on a trolley ride across the farm. Busloads arrive with Go with Jo Tours. Other groups arrive in their cars. La Palapa, a restaurant on the site, serves lunch for the tour groups. During tourist season, Aloe King is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Although the restaurant is closed during the summer months, visitors are welcome to visit the farm but are encouraged to call first (565-5102) to be sure someone is available.

I learned that J.R. is a skilled maker of pictographs, a modified version of Potichomanie, which originated in the Mediterranean nearly 2,000 years ago. A card Audrey gave me explains it began as a poor man’s art using sticks, stones, cloth and other items in glass containers to resemble art found among the wealthy in Paris in the 1700s. Brought to the United States in the early 1800s, it flourished around McGregor, Iowa, until the 1880s. Skilled artisans continue to practice the art. Often called “sand art,” designs are produced by pushing sand in layers and packing it in place. J.R. uses over 60 colors of glacial sands, collected during his and Audrey’s travels to 37 states and three foreign countries.

My eyes were glued to J.R.’s hands as he poured the colored sands through the funnel into the small glass bottle. I felt honored that he used some of his treasured green sand. It is copper sand he and Audrey found in Bladon Springs, Ala. Using a bent coat hanger, J.R. pushed the sand down as he began to create the design, drawing the hanger to the center to pull it out so he wouldn’t disrupt the animal figures he created. Brown-, red-, green- and cream-colored sand soon became deer standing on colorful ground with a beautiful sky above them. I treasure this work of art created by the pictograph master’s hands.

My final treat was a tour of the farm, riding in a golf cart with J.R. A sense of peace overwhelmed me as I watched the black-bellied ducks swimming in the pond. An observation tower rests on the site, and J.R. told me, at night, observers can see the lights of Progreso while standing atop the tower.

Approximately two million aloe vera plants cover the 100-acre farm. The plants are harvested by hand, one leaf at a time. The plants normally grow one leaf every two weeks. A mature, well-maintained plant can produce 24-36 pounds per year. It can also provide as many as 24 baby (or “sucker” as they are called in the industry) plants annually.

Aloe King is also home to 20 to 30 different species of birds. Their greenhouse contains approximately 10,000 plants. J.R. laughed as he told me they had discovered that goats will eat the weeds without disturbing the aloe vera. The bitter taste of aloin prevents animals from eating aloe vera plants. I got to meet one of their adorable goats.

I hated for this visit to end. Beautiful land, beautiful people and a business focused on pride and the purity of its product. Aloe King is indeed a Valley treasure.