The origins of a pioneering organic farm and the future of farming

publication date: Jul 1, 2019
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By Tom Willey

I did not set out forty-some years ago to be a hippie, organic or alternative farmer of any sort. Deeply disillusioned after a few years of striving to reform society’s miscreants in California’s prison and parole system, I ached to produce something of unquestioned value for myself and my community – growing food seemed to fit that bill. Though it’s been a jolly good ride, the journey proved to be not as simple as it looked. Let me share a “thing or two about a thing or two” that I learned along the “way of the dirt farmer.”

Leaving urban California behind, I struck out for the San Joaquin Valley in 1974, lured by the boast that its five million irrigated acres constitute the most productive agricultural real estate on this planet. I’ve never been disappointed in that boast.

I had no intention of becoming involved in any “organic farming revolution” when I enrolled in agriculture courses at Fresno State University, assisted farm advisors at the local UC Cooperative Extension office and cut my first farming teeth on a sprawling 10,000-acre conventional farm in Merced County. I had no reason to question chemically intensive methods I’d been taught in Fresno State’s classrooms or at the several farms on which I was subsequently employed, gaining valuable experience and working up the nerve to strike out on my own.

Under watchful eyes of conventional farmers, who were not about to allow some fool to ruin their life’s investment, I learned how to avoid about ten fatal mistakes that would doom a greenhorn cultivator’s dream in short order. I knew the capital-intensive Westside was not for me. So backed by my young wife Denesse’s newly minted nursing degree, in 1980 I rented (for $25 an acre) a small, 20-acre plot on Fresno’s urbanizing eastside where plenty of land sat idle in anticipation of the next building boom.

I set about planting zucchini, green beans, and cherry tomatoes for Sunnyside Packing Co., a Selma organization that assembled and marketed the production of dozens of contracted farmers. Though I avoided burning up Denesse’s salary, reserved for family expenses, profits were slim-to-nonexistent. We had managed to rent that farm, purchase a 1957 Ford 900 high-clearance vegetable tractor and put a down payment on a modest home with $10,000 in savings that I had religiously squirreled away from my farm foreman salaries.

Those gigs taught me to produce endless truckloads of canning tomatoes on thousands of acres, reliant on equipment yards the size of my newly rented farm, full of tractors and farm implements of every description. I was now tasked with taming twenty weedy, sandy acres with nothing more than a 35 HP tractor and 4 ½ foot disc. Thank God for neighbors and the sense to have located in a district populated by farmers and farm service providers, rather than on some isolated mountaintop.

My continuing education in gardening arts now advanced by the generosity of two neighborhood mentoring masters, Leon Poe, a transplanted Arkansan descended from slaves and George Yagi, a Japanese American who spent the war years with his family in a relocation camp. These two maintained well-trafficked country vegetable stands across the road from each other and shared equipment and their vast knowledge of market gardening with this starry-eyed greenhorn who all but worshiped the ground they walked on.

Anothermentorwas sweet potato grower Tom Fausone whose unguarded nature evolved into a relationship foundational to my farming success. An inveterate economizer, Tom coached me on farm equipment auction subtleties by which I acquired implements of husbandry for pennies on the dollar. Modestly educated Leon Poe’s “keep the ball rolling” model of farm economics taught me how the proceeds from a cheap and fast-growing turnip crop could bankroll a more costly, lucrative tomato patch that yields fruit the summer long.

His was a 12-month production scheme, taking advantage of the San Joaquin Valley’s relatively mild climate which enables seeding and harvesting some vegetable every day of the year. Poe’s brilliance allowed us to blow off USDA financing, which required farmers to shoulder a frightening amount of indebtedness, and shift to just a small “seed” loan from Dad by our second year. A big breakthrough came when“Governor Moonbeam,” as a younger Jerry Brown was known in those days, bankrolled a resurrection of farmers markets up and down the state, which set us off in a different marketing direction.

We carved out a two-acre market garden from our commodity cropped twenty, struck a partnership with Dad, freshly retired from the City of Los Angeles bureaucracy and launched ourselves as produce retailers in as many as a half-dozen Southern California open air venues. Though our marketing prowess exceeded my production skills for several years, farmers markets gave us a much-needed leg up on profitability.

In 1984, as Denesse became obviously burdened by the stress of acute hospital work, I invited her to join the farming business, praying we could make ends meet. She did so and we have never looked back. The “greatest sales person on the planet” is certain her work providing fresh organic produce has been of greater benefit to the health of our community than were any of her varied nursing endeavors.

Denesse and I quickly learned that highfalutin University of California degrees were worth exactamente nadawhen swinging hoes in a vegetable patch; the marketplace valued our farm labor at the same $3.35 per hour we’d pay any bloke tramping rural roads in Ronnie Reagan’s 1981 economy. So, we hired such folks, mostly Michoacáners, who streamed across a semipermeable international border in that era by their own wits or for a mere $200 or so paid to local hometown coyotes.

With no intention of growing other people’s food for less than a middle class income, we aggregated small margins of value that could be realized on the production of each minimum wage earner in our employ. Soon thereafter, I began reading about “organic” agriculture, just as my unease was mounting over the need to apply more chemical fertility and pest control inputs to my farm each year, attempting to match the previous season’s crop performance. Something was amiss, the resiliency of our farm system was backpedaling.

After several years of experimentation T & D Willey Farms achieved Certified Organic status in 1987, but knowledge was shallow, quality inputs were scarce and competent technical advice hard to come by; the University and larger farming community laughed at or belittled us. Growing high-quality produce utilizing organic methods in those days was quite difficult but selling it to an appreciative public was much easier than it is today, now that “industry” status has been conferred upon our upstart good food movement.

Though we gave up farmers marketing in 1998 for wholesale and CSA, colleagues report that the proliferation of outdoor venues in California’s major urban centers necessitates attending three markets to achieve the gross sales a farmer could do in a single market two decades back. Over those first 15-years on three successive leased properties we managed to save $100,000, which became the down payment on our present Madera farm, a purchase necessitated by a local school district’s relentless expansion onto our rented acres. By that time, I’d acquired enough experience to properly judge a piece of ground’s productive potential and the adequacy of its water resources.

The need to preserve Certified Organic status required some compromise, leading to our 1995 purchase of an 80-acre parcel of very high-quality soil 30 miles north, albeit in a district with a less generous water supply than Fresno’s. The price: $3,500 per acre. A diminishing retail presence in Los Angeles farmers’ markets continued while, adopting a business guru maxim “there’s always room at the top,” we gradually carved out a high-quality niche for our T&D Willey label in the burgeoning markets for wholesale organic produce.

My father proudly sold his son and daughter-in-law’s vegetables to familiar Southern California customers, who had become marketplace friends, into his 80thyear when he began to get lazy. This precipitated our retirement from the farmers market business, on which we had become less dependent by 1998. 

Henceforth, we focused on some 25 vegetable crops, among those for which T&D Willey Farms has been most noted are (15 ac.) snap beans and peas (until the expense of hand-harvest became overwhelming), (25 ac.) double-cropped potatoes (retirement money), (7 ac.) table and Roma tomatoes, (4 ac.) eggplant, (10 ac.) Nantes carrots, (5 ac.) crookneck squash, (3 ac.) Savoy spinach and more recently (2 ac.) Mediterranean cucumbers.

Leon Poe’s year-round production scheme that we evolved over decades provided multiple values: constant marketplace presence, the ability to attract and retain highly skilled, motivated and loyal employees, 52-week cash flow, quick bounce back from adversity, and never getting any rest. The millennium’s dawn found many a moderate-scale organic wholesale farm’s margins squeezed by a rapidly consolidating marketplace. Like others, we sought refuge in the CSA business where more faithful customers might not drop you over a nickel from one day to the next.

We contemplated distributing in familiar Southern California where membership could rapidly expand but settled on serving our own region. Within an hour’s drive of the farm, most inhabitants had little if any access to organic fruits and vegetables. Building membership to 800 families over a half-dozen years was one huge promotional task in the “other California” where a CSA acronym was virtually unrecognized.

This dozen-year project, serving as personal farmers to hundreds of local families, turned out to be the most rewarding, most profitable and ultimately the most exhausting experience of our entire careers. Weekly boxes (of which we delivered 51 each year) thrive on diversity and novelty. So we launched into new crop experimentation, expanding our repertoire to near-fifty over several years. Most gratifying was broadening our customers’ appreciation of vegetables they’d never before eaten and introducing the concept of seasonality to diets. That took a lot of hand holding.

We invested immense effort into a much-praised weekly newsletter in which Denesse adapted recipes to the exact contents and quantities of each box’s vegetable treasure, while I spent the best part of one day each week researching and writing a 400-word Farther Afieldcolumn on some salient topic from the food and agriculture world. Though T&D Willey Farms’ CSA consistently netted some $100,000 annually, conducted as a business separate from our farm, we sold it in 2015 to Fresno Food Commons who continue its operation in the local region. We needed the rest.

The CSA, at its peak, never purchased more than 15% of our 75 acres of production. Meticulously tended by fifty full-time, year-round staff, the farm has averaged $40,000 dollars in gross sales per acre for many years, ringing up a total of $3,000,000 in annual revenues rather consistently. However, a big gross does not a net make. Net income has varied from a low of $60,000 to $300,000 in a rare bell-ringer year.

Back in the late 1980s, when Denesse and I were worrisomely feted as “successful farmers”, our stated “mission from God” was to demonstrate that a couple could earn a decent middle class living, entirely from farming; arguing that growing people’s food is a sacred responsibility, the reward for which should be commensurate with any profession, doctor, lawyer, pastor or professor.

We’ve been blessed in having accomplished that goal and serving as some example to aspiring farmers. What does the future hold for practicing farmers, a generation or even two younger than we? Forty years ago, an ever-expanding community of growers dedicated to biological farming and uniquely willing to share successes and failures with each other, gradually bootstrapped the fastest-growing segment of today’s American food marketplace.

Biologically intensive agriculture has reached a critical mass, poised to capture the innovation momentum from a toxic chemical industry that has been dominant since the WWII era. The results we’ve witnessed on our several T&D Willey farms over the last 30 years of steadily improving soil and crop quality, a declining need for acute response to pest or disease outbreaks and increasing yields have been most gratifying.

The profound lesson one must learn as a successful biological or organic farmer is that we’re not out there battling nature to produce a crop. Rather, we are stewarding or finessing a natural process, encouraging biological allies who in turn restrain potential enemies. Abandoning monoculture for a polyculture approach is an immense advantage in this effort as a farm begins to mimic the complexity of natural ecologies.

Monocultures are brittle, polycultures are much more resilient and buffered against complete failure both biologically and economically. However, had my children chosen to follow in our footsteps, an honor they have respectfully declined, it would be difficult to predict success for our farming model over another generation. High-diversity farms, like T&D Willey’s, growing as many as 50 to 100 crops on a modest acreage, that have characterized California’s organic movement for four decades, are in jeopardy.

The immense variety, in mimicry of natural ecosystems, that awards biological stability on our farms, allowing us to eschew chemicals, also condemns us to labor inefficiency. Our multi-cropped farm is hopelessly labor intensive, until recently hosting just-short-of 60 full-time, year-round employees on our 75 acres. Factoring in seasonal summer help, that calculates to one person per acre. Although said acres are quite productive, each yielding $40,000 in annual vegetable sales, $30,000 of that goestopaywages,benefitsandpayrolltaxesforitscaretaker-employee.

Worker compensation approached an extraordinary 75% of T&D Willey Farms’ revenue several years back when minimum wage was $8.00 per hr., not today’s $10.00. In several more years we’ll be legally mandated to pay $15.00. We are certainly not the most efficient labor managers in organic farmdom, aspiring as we do to superlative quality standards, but I’ve not found any farm like ours that spends less than 50% of revenues on labor.

An aside: Several years-ago I did some back-of-the-envelope ciphering on Google’s employment practices. Every working stiff drools over Google’s legendary compensation package that averages some $141,000 per full-time employee. Don’t forget free meals at 16 on-campus cafes, gym plus personal trainers, full medical coverage with convenient on-site doctor, complimentary birthday massages, nap rooms and for running errands, gratis use of Google’s handy Prius fleet. Fat pay checks and free lunches ate up barely 12 % of the “great and powerful” tech-giant’s $38 billion 2011 revenues. Fresno County’s supposedly tight-fisted conventional farmers paid 22% of their total farm gate sales to labor that same year. 

Since selling our CSA, we have scuttled a dozen low-margin crops from our production plan as wages rise, in attempt to remain profitable as vegetable wholesalers. Trending towards monoculture beyond a certain threshold will threaten biological stability. This can be mitigated to some degree by incorporating hedgerows, cover crops and insectary strips. Focus on fewer high-margin cash crops can be risky though, as neighbors who understand their costs will follow suit, potentially flooding markets with a handful of “profitable” commodities.

There is no substitute for enterprise accounting and our system tracks every employee’s activities by the quarter hour; the crop they’re working in and the specific job performed. Just guessing which crops make or lose you money is blindfolded farming, a dangerous game indeed. Organic farmers who hang with diversity stand a better chance of surviving into a high-wage future as retailers and semi-wholesalers, delivering directly to stores, and by doing so, capturing at least half a normal distributor’s markup.

As of two years ago, the volume of Mexican fruits and vegetables imported into the US hadtripled since NAFTA’s passage in 1994, a phenomenon over which Denesse and produce buyers arm-wrestle each morning while she struggles to obtain fair prices for T&D Willey Farms’ organic vegetables. L.A. Times journalist Richard Marosi periodically updates readers on the aftermath of a violent farm labor strike that shook Baja California, Mexico’s San Quintin Valley. After “strawberry pickers clashed with policein a series of running battles that left government buildings torched, laborers bloodied and dozens of people arrested,” Marosi reports, “labor leaders and growers reached a historic agreement to raise wages and guarantee benefits for tens of thousands of farmworkers.”

Just what did such a “historic agreement” achieve? BerryMex, an affiliate of Driscoll’s, the world’s largest conventional and organic berry distributor, raised its minimum wage to $12 per day. This $12 wage, earned for an entire day’s work, is what we California farmers will soon pay field hands each hour, oh yes, plus tacking on time-and-a-half after eight hours.

Will well-meaning Californians who supported these legislative efforts to raise farm wages pat themselves on the back for solving the underpaid farm worker problem as they pile grocery carts with remarkably inexpensive Mexican organic produce at Walmart and Costco? Yes, if they remain ignorant of the facts; it is our job to educate them otherwise. (See Marosi’s Pulitzer prize-nominated four-part series “Produce of Mexico.”)

Hunting for any viable T&D Willey Farms successor over several years, I have uncovered widespread aversion amongst land-hungry millennials to production agriculture, defined as, growing a great deal of food for people beyond one’s own household and local community, product which navigates the marketplace’s anonymous, wholesale circuitry. Such apparent nearsightedness frustrated me to no end, until I began to appreciate the profound criticism of a failed American food system imbedded within it.

However, I know of precious few, if any, models that promise a middling income to families feeding themselves and neighbors from a small acreage. I remember one deeply principled neighbor, many years ago, who farmed a meticulous four acres of vegetables just down the road from us; refusing to exploit others, he insisted on making a living from the sweat of his own brow. He lasted a few years until the wife, weary of hand to mouth living, chased him into town to complete a degree and get a “real” job.

Meanwhile, empowered by an increasing number of hired hands, we were headed towards 50 acres of production on rented land and, after years, the opportunity to save a nickel or two.I fear for a legion of Jeffersonian youth pouring from halls as hallowed as Yale’s and Princeton’s, determined, as was my idealistic neighbor, to make an honest living on small plots of land.Lord knows how many now attempt it hereabouts and in other of California’s more idyllic regions like Santa Cruz and Sonoma Counties.

Jaclyn Moyer, described the dilemma succinctly in her well-crafted 2015 Salon piece.Throw in a child or two, unaffordable health insurance, college debt, empty retirement piggy banks, and most back-to-the landers necessarily rush for a metropolitan exit where they can cash in those university meal tickets. Most, but not all.

My friends, Peace Corps alumni Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser cultivate an intensive three-acres of vegetables at their Sebastopol Singing Frogs Farm. Paul, a degreed agroforester, established the remainder of their eight-acre property to ponds, native perennial hedgerows and pollinator habitat, features he claims eliminate the need for pest control measures. Their unique no-till system, unprecedented in organic vegetable farming, is key to Singing Frogs’ immense productivity, yielding annual gross sales of $100,000 per acre.

Virtually weed-free permanent beds, top-dressed with several inches of compost, can be cleared of one finished crop’s residue of a morning, then replanted to another from the greenhouse that same afternoon. Such rapid turnaround of garden beds enables the Kaisers to harvest five sequential market crops over twelve months in a climate with fewer than 228 frost-free days. A year’s total $300,000 gross revenue, garnered from four nearby warm season farmers’ markets (two year-round) and their 120-member CSA, provides four employees with $15 per hour wages and the Kaisers with a $60,000 net, none of whom, Paul swears, work more than 40 hours weekly.

Not owning or maintaining tractors and tillage equipment saves money; acquiring land in Sonoma County does not. Admitting significant family help with their not inexpensive land and modest home’s purchase, Paul and Elizabeth’s property tax bill equal’s the annual mortgage payment Denesse and I once stroked on our Madera farm. Singing Frogs’ never-tilled, generously composted soil has measured 10% organic matter content of late (at 12-inch depth), sequestering significant amounts of carbon while optimizing the soil microbiome’s nutrient cycling capacity.

After forty years’ practice of tillage agriculture, I am convinced the destructiveness of that disturbance is our greatest impediment to realizing the full potential of the soils we farm. Singing Frogs is taking a stab at doing things differently while earning a profit to boot. Hillview Farm has been experimenting with Kaisers’ model of late. Oklahoma native Emily Oakley and her husband-farming partner Mike Appel apprenticed on Yolo County’s Full Belly and Eatwell Farms but, when ready to establish their own spread, chose not to pile onto California’s beautiful, highly competitive and expensive places.

Taking The Land Institute Wes Jackson’s “going home” prescription to heart, Emily and Mike took up farming near her childhood Tulsa. Three years’ savings from farming rented ground and a family gift allowed them to purchase twenty fertile acres and a modest home for $100,000, (this ain’t California, folks) where they have cultivated their Three Springs Farm for a decade now. Rather amazingly, certified organic tillers Mike and Emily perform all their own farm labor, tending, harvesting and direct marketing six acres of vegetables through a script-redemption CSA and one Saturday farmers market between April and Labor Day.

Five months’ marketing to appreciative Tulsans, where high-quality organic produce is scarce, gathers in $100,000 gross for this resourceful pair. No mortgage, no employees (except for a volunteer since the first child was born), and thriftily acquired used equipment nets Emily and Mike $70,000.

When I brought up their scheme’s “fly in the ointment”, advancing age, business-wise Emily was at the ready. Carefully limiting living expenses to $40,000, the frugal couple have been tucking away $30,000 a year in savings. Tipping a hat to Denesse and my example, the 40-year-olds purchased their first rental home last year, an investment that brings in a clear $1,000 per month in extra income. Nearly ready to purchase their second, gradually increasing “passive” income from property investments will replace sweat income from farming as age necessarily slows them down.

Emily argues that the importance of business management, cost accounting and, of course, saving cannot be overemphasized to would-be young farmers. There is plenty of good food movement “missionary territory” across this country, communities like Fresno, Madera and Tulsa (how about the one you grew up in), that may not register as “cool” places, but being a bigger fish in a smaller fishbowl can offer significant advantages, as Oakley and Appel’s Three Springs Farm demonstrates.

Farming can be a very satisfying lifestyle and a wonderful environment in which to raise a family, but not if it drains personal (and maybe an extended family’s) financial, physical and emotional resources without delivering an adequate return on those investments. Stakes are high, when well-publicized statistics demonstrate that only 50% of American startup businesses survive through their first five years. Ours has been immensely blessed to have survived and thrived over 35 years.

T&D Willey Farms was birthed during the Reagan Recession, the deepest economic downturn since World War II, excepting the Great Recession. Then, Fresno county’s worst-producing raisin vineyards, that had been fetching $15,000 per acre from inexperienced investors, were dumped on the market for $3,000 within several years. You may, or may not, be familiar with the 1980s Farm Crisis, during which thousands of our nation’s farmers lost their land to foreclosure, to which many responded by taking their own lives.

The fact that ours, and other ultimately successful pioneering organic farms emerged from such trying economic circumstances proves a point. Deeply dysfunctional systems suggest a myriad of opportunities for creative, entrepreneurial problem solvers. What dysfunction agribusiness and Food Inc. cry: “We are producing enormous quantities of food for the cheapest prices in the history of humankind, no?” Indeed they are, but the industrial feeding experiment in which all Americans have been witting or unwitting subjects since the post-World War II era is driving our citizenry’s health and wellbeing into a ditch.

This nation now spends $3 trillion of an $18 trillion economy on so-called “health care”, a level of per capita expenditure Bloomberg’s Health-Care Efficiency Index ranks as the world’s highest while achieving “the worst outcome on a relative cost basis.” When medical authorities commonly attribute 60% of all disease to Americans’ poor diet and lifestyle, no solution to this immense crisis will ever be found that does not focus on growing healthier, more nutrient-dense foods on biologically active soils.

So, opportunity abounds – carpe diem! I have come to believe that the pioneering organic farmers of my generation, here on out, have a greater responsibility to mentor and pass along knowledge and experience to a new generation of cultivators than we do to continued production. Our young organic movement has taken some baby-steps on the path to evolve agriculture towards a more harmonious relationship with natural systems operating this planet.

I suspect Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns Germs and Steelauthor Jared Diamond may have been correct in his assessment that agriculture’s invention was “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”, but there is no going back to any prelapsarian, edenic state. Forging ahead with the agricultural experiment is our only option, we all own it, no black hats or white hats. Let’s get busy doing the job.



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