Transitions: Tom Willey of T&D Willey Farm

Tom Willey onsite at his organic T&D Willey Farms, Madera, CA.

The last in our series honoring recently-retired, influential leaders in the CA sustainable agriculture movement features Tom Willey of T&D Willey Farms, long-time farmer, advocate and activist in the organic sector.

Farming for 40 years, Tom actually grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles and moved to the San Joaquin Valley after graduating from college with a “wild hair to become a farmer.”  Initially a conventional farmer, he noticed how non-ecological methods were degrading soil quality and productivity, and in the mid-1980’s, he and his wife Denesse transitioned their farm to organic.

Over the next several decades, they produced 35-40 different organic vegetable crops year-round, which were distributed far and wide to both wholesale and consumer buyers across the state.

Denesse and Tom Willey

In 2017, Tom announced that he and Denesse “will be hanging up our spurs,” transitioning their operations to The Food Commons Fresno (TFC).  TFC now continues farming the land and delivers CSA boxes and wholesale.

Well-known for his practical, inspirational speaking engagements at agricultural events, Tom also hosts a monthly radio show about food and agriculture issues on the first Friday of each month at 5pm PT on Fresno’s KFCF 88.1 FM: Down on the Farm.

Since retirement, Tom is actively involved with soil quality research and farm mentorship – and having fun traveling with family.

Please enjoy our conversation with Tom covering:

  • Industry Reflections
  • Opportunities & Advice for Smaller-Scale/Newer Farms
  • Responsible Relationships Between Older & Younger Farmers
  • Soil Management, Climate Change & AgTech
  • The Food Commons
  • Closing Remarks [to the next generation]

Below are the meaty Highlights as well as a Full Transcript of our conversation.


HIGHLIGHTS (full transcript at the bottom):

FarmsReach (FR): Since The Food Commons took over your farm, what have you been up to?

I’m a member of the Eco-Farm Conference Planning Committee, so I’ve been involved in the second Pre-conference focused on soil health and regenerative agriculture, which has been fun. Recently, I was appointed to a management committee of CCOF’s Inspection Services. And, I still do my monthly radio show.

I just returned from Europe for about a month visiting our daughter who lives in France, and doodling around other parts of Spain and Portugal.

I’m mostly focusing on having fun. A bunch of us are graduating to the geezer class, so we’re checking out, or will be checking out as time goes on.  It’s a big generational handoff.

INDUSTRY REFLECTIONS

FR: What are some of your reflections on the last few decades, as a renegade organic farmer who “made it,” and who has been a role model for other farmers?


I would probably say that the organic movement and marketplace have grown to a larger scale than I could have imagined.

Immense growth is dangerous. We have to safeguard the integrity of what organic is. We built it over 3 or 4 decades, and where organics is right now is tenuous, probably exemplified by the Amazon-Whole Foods deal.  The movement has had a lot of success, but we could wind up being victims of our own success if we’re not careful. “Organic” could devolve into a rather meaningless marketing shtick.

The National Organic Program (NOP) production standards are slowly moving in the direction of monoculture and input substitutions, which is definite back-peddling.

We need to figure out how high production agriculture can coexist with natural systems without destroying or degrading them to the point where they can’t support productive agriculture. It’s a big challenge.

Major food corporations and businesses have had a lot of influence on the USDA for many years, influencing the NOP to weaken the standards, or not enforce them as rigorously.  The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an advisory board to help evolve the standards over time, is much weaker than it ever has been.

This allows more product to come on the market, which allows big retailers like Walmart, Costco and Kroger to tell people they can have organic and have it cheap.

Farming with responsible soil care and management is not a cheap production system. You can’t support those efforts with really low prices. This issue is threatening the survival of high-integrity producers. Organic dairy standards are the most diluted now in comparison to vegetables and fruit [standards].

Interestingly, the [negative] publicity that the Washington Post article gave to the [organics] integrity issue actually didn’t have much of an effect on consumer buying decisions at all.

If things keep going the way they have been, “organic” dairy might not be that much better than conventional in the future.

FR: With the prevalent acreage in America not organic, and most large organic farms mono-cropping, what do you think they could feasibly do in the near-term to farm more ecologically?

There are several feasible things they could do, but they’d probably need greater incentives. In some cases, public policy is actually working against bio-rational farming systems. It creates the persistence of monoculture and the dependence on a handful of commodity crops like corn, soybeans, and wheat; it doesn’t encourage agro-ecological thinking.

If we could move our public policy in the right direction and incentivize the right practices, like just starting with cover-cropping, then those would be steps in the right direction. But, we’ve got an industrial system that’s got a strangle-hold on agriculture and the industrial food that’s in most supermarkets.

Accomplishing good things costs time, money and effort, and that’s why cheap food isn’t good and good food isn’t cheap. That’s an effort that we have to keep working at.  And, the marriage of Whole Foods and Amazon is probably going to take us back in the other direction, which is unfortunate and sad.

FR: Can you speak more about the merger of Amazon and Whole Foods, and their apparent cutting prices and moving away from local sourcing? Or other big-box stores?

Amazon gives people infinite choice, and that’s great, so the little guy will have just as much opportunity as the big guy to get in the catalog, But, I don’t think it’s going to sort out that way.

Could Whole Foods get Amazon to move more in the “artisanal” or “small producer” direction?  I’m pretty skeptical.

If you look at what Whole Foods has been doing for the last few years actually, you’ll see they’ve been dumbing down their whole buying programs, and they offer a lot fewer items in their produce departments.

They’re trying to duke it out with Walmart and Costco, and the way they’re going about that, I don’t think is very congruent with what their mission statement is.

FR: An increasing number of articles talk about the “unpromising” opportunity of starting to farm or farming as a career (e.g., the aging farming population, steep learning curve and expensive farmland). What are we to do?

Success in agriculture is very difficult, just like success in any small business enterprise is risky.  It’s not impossible, and we definitely need people to do it. Otherwise, we’re going to be in a pretty serious pickle in the very near future.

You can certainly have a product that’s in demand, but you have to find out who your constituency is.  When we started in 1980, times weren’t good either. It was called the Reagan Recession at the time, which was a deep recession. There was a lot of dysfunction in the economy, but dysfunction also creates opportunity. So, when things aren’t being done very well, it means you have a lot of opportunity to do something well and gain attention for it. I think we’re at another point like that.

OPPORTUNITIES & ADVICE FOR SMALLER-SCALE/NEWER FARMS

FR: Now that large farms grow organically (albeit monocrops), what are the opportunities for smaller farms that don’t have economies of scale to compete – especially when most consumers don’t know the difference?

Exactly. The lack of economies of scale for small farms is going to be a disadvantage because the big marketing and producing entities are really focusing on low unit cost of production and being able to supply the marketplace with low-cost organic products. All of this threatens the integrity of what we’re doing on the land.

I think that smaller diversified farmers are going to have to dig deeper into local food systems and convince people in their communities to support the kind of farming they do. The kind of opportunities that we had in the wholesale business probably won’t continue for modest-size farms [in the future]. I think the organic wholesale market business is probably going to be taken over by the big boys.

FR: What would your advice be for smaller, newer farms?
 Would you say you’re optimistic and have faith that things will work out?

I’m optimistic, but I’m not pollyannish. Hopefully people get some experience under their belts working alongside or under experienced farmers until they have a handle on the basics.

I highly recommend being someone else’s employee for a while until you absorb quite a bit of knowledge before you have your own operation. That’s what I did.  Go find a farmer you admire and work for them.

I also think new farmers need to scatter out farther geographically and serve communities that are underserved – not bunch up in the same places like Sonoma County, Santa Cruz or Nevada City. You’ll find a much more receptive audience in places that don’t have a lot of organics available to them already.

FR: Of course the issue and opportunity is being able to afford to lease or buy the land in whichever area they choose.

There are MANY parts of the country where land is a lot more affordable than here in the Gucci zones of California.  Even in our San Joaquin Valley, where very few small farmers want to come because it’s not very attractive, the land is unaffordable presently.  It may be more affordable in a few years when the bubble might burst, but at the moment, I wouldn’t suggest anyone buy land here either.

Tom at the Esalen Garden in Big Sur. Credit: NY Times

RESPONSIBLE RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN OLDER & YOUNGER FARMERS

FR: You’ve said 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.” What are you doing in this capacity?

I think back on my career and recall the people who were supportive and helpful for me: How much more they knew than I did and how much it meant for them to share that knowledge. I don’t know if I’d ever have been successful without those kind of people.

Everyone needs a mentor. Everyone needs someone who knows more than they do. And you need physical and neighborhood networks.

[As a mentor,] you pretty much have to go to their farm. Go at least once and spend some time there, and then you can be helpful over the phone.  You’ve got to set your eyes on the place and see what they’re up to in order to be effective.

I’ve been doing some mentoring up on Soil Born Farms, another farm up in the Gold Country, and with about 15 different ex-farmworker farmers down in my area for Coke Farm, who does their marketing.

FR: While aging farmers do want to find a successor, it can be such an emotional transition. Do you think the issue of trust is a significant obstacle to farmers retiring?

Taking over another person’s operation is a very delicate and tricky business.  Even if that person is in your own family or your own child, it’s still very difficult to make those kinds of transitions.

In our case, all three of our children are doing other things.  They were not interested in taking over the business, so we rolled the dice with The Food Commons, which is a very, very big idea. The Food Commons is very different than the traditional means of generational transfer of a farming operation.

FR: Do you see the nonprofit organizations and UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) providing additional support to farmers like they used to? 

UCCE simply doesn’t have the resources anymore. But, there are other types of organizations now, like ALBA, CLBL, CAFF.  There are a lot of people who are fooling around with it, but how effective it all is in aggregate, I’m not really sure.

I would like to see the UCCE offer more resources for small farmers, but it’s just not the reality at the present moment.

Plus, now we have the internet.  You can do a lot of research and get a lot of info on your own. But, there are still a lot of people out here who really need hands-on support.  

Tom is helping coordinate the 2019 Eco-Farm Pre-conference on Soil Management

SOIL MANAGEMENT, CLIMATE CHANGE & AGTECH

FR: In so many different articles, you talk about the soil and the future of no-till…as well as all that needs to be done. Is this your “new” calling? 

One of my passions is to push forward with that agenda. As an Eco-Farm Planning Committee member, I’m trying to add more into the program — like getting more carbon into soils, boosting photosynthetic activity, cover cropping, the elimination and minimization of tillage, crop rotations, animal influences – all of this big package.

One of the most difficult aspects, and yet the potentially most rewarding, is to eliminate tillage, or to minimize. I can’t say I was very successful in doing that in my farming practice, but I know that that’s where we need to go.

There’s kind of a renaissance going on about the value of soil.  It’s pretty heartening.  You could put a lot of the aberrant carbon from our atmosphere into soils, and then keep it there for longer periods of time. And, by doing so, make the soils more productive. All that is exciting and encouraging. It’s gaining momentum.

FR: Who is leading the charge in CA for the “soil movement?”  

Jeff Mitchell, UC Soil Researcher

Jeff Mitchell, at University of California, focuses all of his work and efforts on this issue. He’s the “pied piper” in CA for efforts in the university setting, but there are others.

Jeff is also working on a longer-term research project that’s developing new “low soil disturbance techniques,” evaluating results over a 20-year span. They’ve had success with tomato, wheat, cotton, sorghum, garbanzo beans, broccoli and corn so far.

There has been a lot of innovative work at different scales, so – as he says – progress is going to happen.

We know where we want to go, but don’t know exactly how to get there yet. The goal is to take soil management and food quality to the next level, and that definitely involves minimizing or eliminating tillage, which organic farmers actually have a tendency to do more of because it’s about our only method of controlling weeds.

We’ve learned more recently that that kind of disturbance is pretty detrimental to the complexity of soil life that we depend on for cycling nutrients. So, we’re trying to figure out how to deal with that! It’s not an easy nut to crack.

Additional notes from Jeff Mitchell:

“Beneficial cover crops are definitely under-utilized and under-appreciated in CA. Our state is pretty behind as far as reducing disturbance of soil, due to existing systems of production that have been refined over the past 90 years. These systems rely heavily on intensive tillage for high production and yield.

“Obstacles for CA in particular [to adopt less soil-disruptive methods] include:

  • Psychological and financial risk to change systems.
  • Existing production systems dependent on CA’s historical abundant water supply and irrigation, which of course is now changing.
  • Inaccessibility of appropriate equipment in CA for CA conditions.

“Nonetheless, there are exciting challenges and opportunities for the future. Water and fertilizer scheduling and management, combined evaluations, and new monitoring instrumentation will all be important.”

FR: With so many burgeoning AgTech companies trying to help farmers be more productive, what do you think about the biotech sector addressing the same issues of optimizing soil health (among other things)?

There’s a lot of influence of technology right now, and some of that is quite useful, like Big Data. And the ability to read genomes, and the soil micro-biome.

There are always people trying to sell farmers things, sometimes “snake oil,” for a nickel, and you’ve got to be careful where you spend your nickel, because the nickels are very hard-earned.

Many people are looking ways to make profit from scientific discoveries. They might find one organism, bacteria or fungi that does something amazing in the soil under certain conditions, and they want put it in a bottle sell it to you.

I’m not arguing for being a luddite. I’m arguing to incorporate the best science and the art of cultivation. The best science is probably imparting more knowledge than it’s giving you products to purchase.

We have to make our farming practices less disruptive to the generous process that already happens in nature.

The sad thing is that since we don’t have enough support for public research like we did 50-100 years ago. Private money is simply invested capital that needs to make more money. So they’re always trying to monetize scientific discoveries as quickly as possible. That doesn’t always pull us in the right direction for society and agriculture as a whole. That’s a big strain in our culture and economy right now.

In a time when we’re being challenged by climate change, it’s going to take a lot of collaboration – a lot of cooperation – and less focus on making a fast buck.

The natural approach is the “quiet revolution.” The other one is the “noisy revolution.”  Hopefully the quiet one is picking up steam as well – and going somewhere.

FR: Speaking of climate change, how do you think CA farms will have to adjust their operations aside from being more efficient with water?

That’s why the advances in biological soil management are so important. Soils that are biologically healthy allow the infiltration of rainfall versus having it run off. The best soil management practices build up the level of soil carbon, which is sponge-like material that absorbs and holds more water.

Another big factor in these changes in climate is to have a lot of diversity in the cropping system so that you can see which crops are responding positively or negatively to the changes, and you can adjust. It’s an ongoing experiment in diversity.

All that diversity creates a lot of biological stability, but it’s a challenge for using labor in an efficient manner, so your unit costs of production in highly diverse farms are a lot higher [than monocultures].

FR: Do you feel like the biology-based “quiet revolution” is reaching a point where a major breakthrough is on the horizon?

Yeah, I do. It’s very exciting work.

I think it must be a team effort between a lot of farmers and the research community because there are big barriers to overcome, especially in very diverse, complex vegetable farming systems. It’s a lot easier to do no-till on row crops, grains and pasture systems than the highly diverse vegetable production model, which is fairly common to organic agriculture in California over the last 30 years or so.  It’s challenging.

FR: What do you wish you had done differently on your farm?

We were super tillage-dependent. We were using a lot of compost and crop rotation for our nutrient cycle system, and we weren’t really growing cover crops.

Highly diverse cover crops and minimizing or eliminating tillage are probably the two key features we have to more deeply incorporate into organic production systems, if we want to get better performance out of our soil.  Growing cover crops is less difficult than eliminating tillage.

It’s not just single or two-species cover crops like vetch and oats, but the kind of super-stimulation [from a] complex polyculture of a dozen or fifteen different species at the same time.

FR: What’s the extra effort for a farmer to learn how to grow the perfect cover crop mix?

That in itself is a challenge. The right mix in one climate, environment or bio-region is going to be different than another. And, to get all those species to express themselves successfully in that mix is a trick. When we see people try to do it, there are a lot of challenges the first couple years.

There are a few people who are doing it successfully, like Gabe Brown [of Brown’s Ranch]. He’s been working on it close to 20 years, so he’s found a lot of success by trial-and-error and learning from mistakes. Everything is location-specific!

FR: Is there one thing that you wish newer organic farmers, who aren’t familiar with the soil knowledge you’re referring to, could start doing or implement now?

Probably using good quality compost and cover cropping. Those are fundamental practices that we still should get people to use.

The Food Commons

FR: How have you been since the transition of Food Commons? What’s the status these days?

They’ve been farming pretty intensively on a third to a half of our former farm’s acres, slowly building its customer base, delivering wholesale and CSA boxes in the local area here. They’ve also recently launched a Direct Public Offering (DPO) to allow the public to invest in their current operations and future plans.

Transitioning our farm to The Food Commons was definitely preferable to having our land turn into conventional almond orchards – that’s for sure. We are very encouraged and pleased, and proud to be associated with them.
 

FR: Last question: You’re a role model and mentor for many farmers of all ages and types…  If you could impart just one last word of wisdom, lesson from the school of hard knocks or promise for the future, what would you want to tell them?

Don’t let yourself be deflected from the course. Persist. Keep at it.

FR: That could be interpreted in any one of many ways….

My generation thought we were going to solve all the problems for you guys, and you guys were just going to live in paradise, but we didn’t quite get it done. We’ve left a few challenges for y’all young folks to grapple with, to probably find life more interesting than if we’d accomplished everything we thought we were going to.

We wouldn’t want you to be bored living in the Garden of Eden!

Stay the course. Don’t give up.

Thank you, Tom, for taking the time to chat with us! 

We close with Tom’s words from his retirement announcement: “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. 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.”


FULL TRANSCRIPT:

FarmsReach (FR): Since The Food Commons took over your farm, what have you been up to?  Have you been relaxing, reading, traveling?

I’m still staying busy and getting involved with all kinds of projects, campaigns and issues.

I’m a member of the Eco-Farm Conference Planning Committee, so that’s taken a significant amount of my time and effort. I’ve also been involved in planning the second Eco-Farm Pre-conference focused on soil health and regenerative agriculture, which has been fun.  Recently, I was appointed to a management committee of CCOF’s Inspection Services. And, I still do my monthly radio show.

I just returned from Europe for about a month visiting our daughter who lives in France, and doodling around other parts of Spain and Portugal. Last summer we took off on an adventure to the Oregon Coast for a couple of weeks.

I’m mostly focusing on having fun.  A bunch of us are graduating to the geezer class, so we’re checking out or will be checking out as time goes on.  It’s a big generational handoff.

INDUSTRY REFLECTIONS

FR: In your blog post announcing your retirement, you talk about the sustainable agriculture movement and your vision about what needs to be done. What are some of your reflections on the last few decades, as a renegade organic farmer who “made it,” and who has been a role model for other farmers?


I would probably say that the organic movement and marketplace have grown to a larger scale than I could have imagined.  It has immense popularity now, and it’s gaining a lot of attention from the industrial and conventional food system. They want to be a part of it – or maybe own it!

Immense growth is dangerous. We have to safeguard the integrity of what organic is.  We built it over 3 or 4 decades, and I think that where organics is right now is tenuous, probably exemplified by the Amazon-Whole Foods deal.  The movement has had a lot of success, but we could wind up being victims of our own success if we’re not careful.  “Organic” could devolve into a rather meaningless marketing shtick.

The National Organic Program (NOP) production standards are slowly moving in the direction of monoculture and input substitutions, which is definite back-peddling.

We have to develop agro-ecological systems that express a greater mimicry of natural systems (nature!) in order to head toward the possibility of sustainable agriculture. We need to figure out how high production agriculture can coexist with natural systems without destroying or degrading them to the point where they can’t support productive agriculture. It’s a big challenge.

It’s a long process, and its accomplishment is pretty far away from us still. If we don’t figure it out, we might be sunk. I don’t know how much time we have to pull it off really. It’s a very immediate need.

Major food corporations and businesses have had a lot of influence on the USDA for many years. So now that they’re into organics, they’re influencing the NOP to weaken or water down the standards, or not enforce them as rigorously so it will be easier to comply with “organic production” – simple input substitution methods.  Big business has also weakened the influence of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which is an advisory board to help evolve the standards over time.  The NOSB’s influence is much weaker than it ever has been.

FR: You believe the challenge/opportunity is getting more involved in monitoring how that program evolves in time?

Right.  Organics now is really big business, and there’s a lot of money to be made there because the public responded so positively to supporting it. So, that’s become both a positive and a negative.

Organic standards are both weakened and less rigorously enforced. This allows more product to come on the market, which allows big retailers like Walmart, Costco and Kroger to tell people they can have organic and have it cheap.

Farming with responsible soil care and management is not a cheap production system. You can’t support those efforts with really low prices. This issue is threatening the survival of high-integrity producers.  Organic dairy standards are the most diluted now in comparison to vegetables and fruit [standards].

Interestingly, the publicity that the Washington Post article gave to the integrity issue caused the organic production community to expect that it would have a negative impact on the organic marketplace, but it actually didn’t have much of an effect on consumer buying decisions at all.

If things keep going the way they have been, “organic” dairy might not be that much better than conventional in the future.

FR: With the prevalent acreage in America not organic, and most large organic farms mono-cropping and monocultures, it seems like a reach to get them to mimic more natural systems.  What do you think they could feasibly adopt in the near-term to mimic nature?

There are several feasible things they could adopt, but they’d probably need greater incentives to do so. In some cases, our public policy is actually working against the adoption of bio-rational farming systems. It creates the persistence of monoculture and the dependence on a handful of commodity crops like corn, soybeans, and wheat; and it doesn’t encourage agro-ecological thinking.

If we could move our public policy in the right direction and incentivize the right practices, like just starting with cover-cropping, then those would be steps in the right direction. But, we’ve got an industrial system that’s got a strangle-hold on agriculture and the industrial food that’s presented in most supermarkets every day. We’ve got to move the needle off of that chart… Get off that treadmill.

Accomplishing good things costs time, money and effort, and that’s why cheap food isn’t good and good food isn’t cheap. That’s an effort that we have to keep working at.  And, I don’t know if the marriage of Whole Foods and Amazon is going to take us in that direction. I think it’s probably going to take us back in the other direction, which is unfortunate and sad.

FR: Can you speak more about the merger of Amazon and Whole Foods, and their apparent cutting prices and moving away from their local sourcing? What about other big-box stores?

Amazon gives people infinite choice, and that’s great, so the little guy will have just as much opportunity as the big guy to get in the catalog, But, I don’t think it’s going to sort out that way.

Could Whole Foods get Amazon to move more in the “artisanal” or “small producer” direction?  I’m pretty skeptical, but NPR wrote a piece last summer where they interviewed a bunch of farmers, who all think it’s going to be great for the little guys.  They interviewed me too, but I didn’t show up in the article because I had the opposite opinion – ha! I guess they didn’t want to air that opinion.

If you look at what Whole Foods has been doing for the last few years actually, you’ll see they’ve been dumbing down their whole buying programs, and they offer a lot fewer items in their produce departments.

They’re trying to get behind the mattresses to duke it out with Walmart and Costco, and the way they’re going about that, I don’t think is very congruent with what their mission statement is and who they are.  Unfortunately they’re a publicly owned stock corporation, so as Mr. Mackey so succinctly put it: The “greedy bastards” that own shares in his company are forcing him to do this.

FR: An increasing number of articles talk about the “unpromising” opportunity of starting to farm or farming as a career.  They note the compounded issue of the aging farming population, the steep learning curve and expensive land, regardless of farm size. What are we to do?

Ha, well farming is a pretty necessary activity! We all have to eat, and we can’t really be hunter-gatherers anymore – especially with 7 billion+ people on the planet.  Most people don’t know how to grow their own food, so farmers have to continue to grow large volumes of food effectively and of high quality.

Success in agriculture is very difficult, just like success in any small business enterprise is risky.  It’s not impossible, and we definitely need people to do it and be successful. Otherwise, we’re going to be in a pretty serious pickle in the very near future.

You can certainly have a product that’s in demand, but you have to find out who your constituency is.  When we started in 1980, times weren’t good either.  It was called the Reagan Recession at the time, which was a deep recession. There was a lot of dysfunction in the economy, but dysfunction also creates opportunity. So, when things aren’t being done very well, it means you have a lot of opportunity to do something well and gain attention for it.  I think we’re at another point like that.

OPPORTUNITIES & ADVICE FOR SMALLER-SCALE/NEWER FARMS

FR: Now that large farms grow organically (albeit monocrops), what are your thoughts on the opportunity for newer, younger farms that don’t have economies of scale to compete – especially when most consumers don’t know the difference?

Exactly. The lack of economies of scale for small farms is going to be a disadvantage because the big marketing and producing entities are really focusing on low unit cost of production and being able to supply the marketplace with low-cost organic products. All of this threatens the integrity of what we’re doing on the land.

I think that smaller diversified farmers are going to have to dig deeper into local food systems and have an intimate customer base to convince people in their communities to support the kind of farming they do. The kind of opportunities that we had in the wholesale business probably won’t continue for modest-size farms [in the future]. I think the organic wholesale market business is probably going to be taken over by the big boys.

FR: What would your advice be for smaller, newer farms?
 Would you say you’re optimistic and have faith that things will work out?

I’m optimistic, but I’m not pollyannish. Hopefully people are enthusiastic, and not foolish, and get some experience under their belts working alongside or under experienced farmers until they have a handle on the basics. Only after that, then find a unique angle and go after it [on their own].

I highly recommend being someone else’s employee for a while until you absorb quite a bit of knowledge before you have your own operation.  That’s what I did.  Go find a farmer you admire and work for them.

In one form or another, I also think new farmers need to scatter out farther geographically and serve communities that are underserved – not bunch up in the same places like Sonoma County, Santa Cruz or Nevada City. Get out there and serve the far-flung communities of the nation.  You’ll find a much more receptive audience in places that don’t have a lot of organics available to them already.

FR: Of course the issue and opportunity is being able to afford to lease or buy the land in whichever area they choose.

There are MANY parts of the country where land is a lot more affordable than here in the Gucci zones of California.  Even in our San Joaquin Valley, where very few small farmers want to come because it’s not very attractive, the land is unaffordable presently.  It may be more affordable in a few years when the bubble might burst, but at the moment, I wouldn’t suggest anyone buy land here either.

RESPONSIBLE RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN OLDER & YOUNGER FARMERS

FR: You’ve said that you 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.” What are you doing in this capacity?

I think back on my career and recall the people who were supportive and helpful for me: How much more they knew than I did and how much it meant to me for them to share that knowledge.  It’s huge. I don’t know if I’d ever have been successful without those kind of people, so I’d like to serve in that capacity now.

Everyone needs a mentor. Everyone needs someone who knows more than they do. And you need physical and neighborhood networks.

[As a mentor,] you pretty much have to go to their farm. Go at least once and spend some time there, and then you can be helpful over the phone.  You’ve got to set your eyes on the place and see what they’re up to in order to be effective.

I’ve been doing some mentoring up on Soil Born Farms, which is a community farm up in the Sacramento area; and I’ve been doing some mentoring at another farm up in the Gold Country.  I’ve also been working with about 15 different ex-farmworker farmers down in my area, mentoring them for Coke Farm who does their marketing. I’m trying to be active in that effort.

In reality, there’s not as much demand for mentoring as I was hoping or expecting.  There are about a dozen ex-farmworker organic farmers in this area that market under the Coke Farm banner, and they put me in touch with them to mentor, but I don’t hear from them very often.

Everybody gets their head buried in the sand, and just plow ahead doing what they’re doing.  How often you poke your head up to see what’s going on across the wider horizon varies from person to person.  I’m not working as intensively as I would like with that group.  But, they’re busy doing what they’re doing.  I would help if they asked for it.  I don’t want to impose on them banging on their door too often, so I figured I’d just make myself available.

We had a gathering of those farmers in March, and talked about fertility and composting, etc.  The Cokes and I have done a fair amount of reaching out, but it hasn’t amounted to a huge amount of activity or draw on my time yet.

They’re middle-aged, so it’s not about younger farmers not asking for help; although I’ve found a similar lack of response among the younger set as well.  Strange to not use help available to them.

FR: While aging farmers do want to find a successor, it can be such an emotional transition… Do you think the issue of trust is a significant obstacle to farmers actually “letting go” to a younger farmer and retiring?

Taking over another person’s operation is a very delicate and tricky business – like walking on eggshells.  Even if that person is in your own family or your own child, it’s still very difficult to make those kinds of transitions.

Taking over someone else’s business is a different process than just working with another farmer to gain knowledge to start your own.  Some of my farming friends have children who are taking over their operation.  Some of them seem to be doing it successfully, and some of them not.

In our case, all three of our children are doing other things.  They were not interested in taking over the business, so we rolled the dice with The Food Commons, which is a very, very big idea.  We don’t know how far a concept like that can go or how much success it can find. We’ll see. The Food Commons is very different than the traditional means of generational transfer of a farming operation.

FR: Do you see the nonprofit organizations and UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) providing additional support to farmers like they used to? I know you know that UCCE has lost a lot of its funding over the years.

UCCE simply doesn’t have the resources anymore. But, there are other types of organizations now, like ALBA, CLBL, CAFF.  There are a lot of people who are fooling around with it, but how effective it all is in aggregate, I’m not really sure.

I would like to see the UCCE offer more resources for small farmers, but it’s just not the reality at the present moment.

There are a lot of disparate organizations out there doing different things and trying to make an impact. Plus, now we have the internet, which we didn’t have 20-30 years ago.  You can do a lot of research and get a lot of info on your own, which was a lot more difficult to access a few decades ago.

But, there are still a lot of people out here who really need hands-on support.  

SOIL MANAGEMENT, CLIMATE CHANGE & AGTECH

FR: In so many different articles, you talk about the soil and the future of no-till…as well as all that needs to be done. Is this your “new” calling? 

Another one of my passions is to push forward with that kind of agenda.  As an Eco-Farm Planning Committee member, I’m trying to add more into the program so that we can keep learning how to manage soils better and get the highest potential by caring for the organic matter in soils. That’s something I’m still pretty involved in.

There are a whole lot of angles too, like getting more carbon into soils, boosting photosynthetic activity, cover cropping, the elimination and minimization of tillage, crop rotations, animal influences – all of this big package.

One of the biggest, most difficult aspects, and yet the potentially most rewarding, is to eliminate tillage, or to minimize. I can’t say I was very successful in doing that in my farming practice, but I know that that’s where we need to go. That’s where we should be headed. I’m still actively engaged in trying to learn about that.

There’s kind of a renaissance going on about the awareness of the value of soil.   It’s even starting to catch on in urban populations, which is very exciting to see. There’s a group called Kiss the Ground, who do some pretty cool media stuff, and they’re urban people.  You can see how well they grasp the value and importance of soil and the potential of caring for it.

It’s pretty heartening to see people waking up to the potential of soil.  You could put a lot of the aberrant carbon from our atmosphere into soils, and then keep it there for longer periods of time.  And, by doing so, make the soils more productive. All that is exciting, and the fact that consciousness of those opportunities is really spreading, particularly among urban people, is really encouraging. It’s gaining momentum.

There are certainly nodes of individual effort and small communities of farmers across the country who are doing really good work with this. So, trying to network those who are thinking about how they can improve their soil management practices will keep moving things forward – hopefully!

FR: Who is leading the charge in CA for the “soil movement?”  

The person I collaborate with very closely is Jeff Mitchell at University of California, who pretty much focuses all of his work and efforts on this issue.  He’s the “pied piper” in CA for efforts in the university setting, but there are others.

We actually formed a group of organic vegetable farmers in January 2018, where each of us are doing experiments on integrating no-till systems into our farms, and then we’ll share our experiences among the group. The project is supported by Jeff Mitchell and the Regenerative Agriculture Institute at Chico State.

People are undertaking the projects now so there’s no specific timeline to share the results yet. Jeff did apply for a pretty large grant from NRCS to support the work, and we just landed that three-year funding, so things will probably get more formalized. As it is now, the farmers are doing the experimentation on their farms on whatever timeline they can manage, and then we’ll get together periodically to share results and what we’ve learned.

Jeff is also working on a longer-term research project that’s developing new “low soil disturbance techniques,” evaluating results over a 20-year span. They’ve had success with tomato, wheat, cotton, sorghum, garbanzo beans, broccoli and corn so far.

There has been a lot of innovative work at different scales, so – as he says – progress is going to happen.

We know where we want to go, but don’t know exactly how to get there yet. So we’re putting our heads together – in the open-source tradition of the organic community.

The goal is to take soil management and food quality to the next level, and that definitely involves minimizing or eliminating tillage, which organic farmers actually have a tendency to do more of because it’s about our only method of controlling weeds.

We’ve learned more recently that that kind of disturbance is pretty detrimental to the complexity of soil life that we depend on for cycling nutrients. So, we’re trying to figure out how to deal with that!  It’s not an easy nut to crack.

Additional notes from Jeff Mitchell:

“Beneficial cover crops are definitely under-utilized and under-appreciated in CA. Our state is pretty behind as far as reducing disturbance of soil, due to existing systems of production that have been refined over the past 90 years. These systems rely heavily on intensive tillage for high production and yield.

“Obstacles for CA in particular [to adopt less soil-disruptive methods] include:

  • Psychological and financial risk to change systems.
  • Existing production systems dependent on CA’s historical abundant water supply and irrigation, which of course is now changing.
  • Inaccessibility of appropriate equipment in CA for CA conditions.

“Nonetheless, there are exciting challenges and opportunities for the future. Water and fertilizer scheduling and management, combined evaluations, and new monitoring instrumentation will all be important.”

FR: With so many burgeoning AgTech companies trying to help farmers be more productive, what are your opinions about that money-backed biotech sector working to address the same issues of optimizing soil health (among other things)?

There’s a lot of influence of technology right now, and some of that is quite useful, like Big Data. And the ability to read genomes now, and the soil micro-biome. We don’t know yet how to interpret what we’re reading, but we’re able to pull data out of there on the genetic profiles of microbial systems.

There are always people trying to sell farmers things, sometimes “snake oil,” for a nickel, and you’ve got to be careful where you spend your nickel, because the nickels are very hard-earned.

Many people are looking ways to make profit from scientific discoveries. They might find one organism, bacteria or fungi that does something amazing in the soil under certain conditions, and they want put it in a bottle sell it to you.

On the other hand, Jeff Mitchell is trying to teach you how to create an environment in your soil in which those organisms might flourish naturally.  If you’re not managing your soil well and you have that organism in a bottle, it might not find a very hospitable environment when you dump it onto your land. It might not do the work that they claim it will.

There is a lot of legitimate work going on in academia, science and technology. I’m not arguing for being a luddite. I’m arguing to incorporate the best science and the art of cultivation.  The best science is probably imparting more knowledge than it’s giving you products to purchase.

There’s a lot of good that can come out of technology. We just have to learn to use it wisely. Jeff and I have had many discussions about people focusing on the bells and whistles of technology, but when you get down to it, the biology has been around on the planet for several billion years, and it’s really nature’s foundational game.  There’s more to be gained by stewardship rather than by manipulation.  We have to make our farming practices less disruptive to the generous process that already happens in nature.

The sad thing is that since we don’t have enough support for public research like we did 50-100 years ago, so much of the research in the universities is now supported by profit-driven private industry because the public has gotten too tight-fisted with funding.

Private money is simply invested capital that needs to make more money. So they’re always trying to monetize scientific discoveries as quickly as possible. That doesn’t always pull us in the right direction for society and agriculture as a whole.  That’s a big strain in our culture and economy right now.

In a time when we’re being challenged by climate change, we need more open-sourcing; we need more sharing of knowledge across the community.  If we’re going to meet the kind of challenges that we’re up against right now, it’s going to take a lot of collaboration – a lot of cooperation – and less focus on making a fast buck.

The natural approach is the “quiet revolution.” The other one is the “noisy revolution.”  Hopefully the quiet one is picking up steam as well – and going somewhere.

FR: Speaking of climate change, how do you think CA farms are going to have to adjust their operations aside from obviously being more efficient with water?

I think that’s why the advances in biological soil management are so important. Soils that are biologically healthy are receptive to rainfall. They allow the infiltration of rainfall versus having it run-off. The best soil management practices build up the level of soil carbon, which is sponge-like material that absorbs and holds more water. Soils that are managed that way are going to store significantly more water in the crop’s root zone. So, you can make more effective use of the same amount of water (or lesser amounts of water) in soils that are managed that way instead of being stripped of their biology and their carbon – either from over-tillage or the use of chemicals.

The natural substance that makes soil hold more water is organic matter, 50% of which is carbon.  You don’t have to buy things from industry to make your soil hold more water. You just have to manage your soil – husband it better. It’s all about management; it’s not about buying expensive inputs from industry.

Another big factor in these changes in climate is to have a lot of diversity in the cropping system so that you can see which crops are responding positively or negatively to the changes, and you can adjust. It’s an ongoing experiment in diversity.

All that diversity creates a lot of biological stability, but it’s a challenge for using labor in an efficient manner, so your unit costs of production in highly diverse farms are a lot higher than monoculture, so that’s what makes it difficult to compete in the marketplace where prices are being forced downwards.

We’ve got all kinds of labor issues going on right now. The cost of labor is going up. The scarcity of labor is increasing. Immense number of challenges coming from all different angles. It’s scary.

FR: Do you feel like the biology-based “quiet revolution” is reaching a point where there is a major breakthrough on the horizon?

Yeah, I do. It’s very exciting work. It’s something that I wasn’t able to achieve very much in my own farming career. I got to the point where I understood what was missing in my system.  I did a few experiments that were supported by Jeff Mitchell on minimum-till vegetable production, but none of them were very successful, so I came away from my farming career with a great hunger to see this thing get to another level.

If I had another 25 years of my farming career, or maybe 10, then I could’ve pulled it off or gone much farther down the road towards where I wanted to be.  But, I still have access to the farm, so we’re going to do some no-till experimentation out there starting this fall.

I think it must be a team effort between a lot of farmers and the research community because there are big barriers to overcome, especially in very diverse, complex vegetable farming systems. It’s a lot easier to do no-till on row crops, grains and pasture systems than the highly diverse vegetable production model, which is fairly common to organic agriculture in California over the last 30 years or so.  It’s challenging.

FR: What do you wish you had done differently on your farm?

We were super tillage-dependent. We were using a lot of compost and crop rotation for our nutrient cycle system, and we weren’t really growing cover crops. I didn’t think that was an issue for a long time, but then I finally realized that it was an issue and how we could have done much better by growing cover crops.

Highly diverse cover crops and minimizing or eliminating tillage are probably the two key features that we have to more deeply incorporate into organic production systems if we want to get better performance out of our soil.  Growing cover crops is less difficult than eliminating tillage.  It’s not just single or two-species cover crops like vetch and oats, but the kind of super-stimulation that a soil’s microbial community seems to get from cover crops that are as complex as a polyculture of a dozen or fifteen different species at the same time.

FR: What’s the extra effort for a farmer to learn how to grow the perfect cover crop mix?

That in itself is a challenge.  The right mix in one climate, environment or bio-region is going to be different than another. And, to get all those species to express themselves successfully in that mix is a trick.  It’s not easy.  When we see people who try to do it, there are a lot of challenges the first couple years.

There are a few people who are doing it successfully, like Gabe Brown [of Brown’s Ranch], one of the featured presenters at Eco-Farm last year. He’s been working on it close to 20 years, so he’s found a lot of success by trial-and-error and learning from mistakes.  But, he’s in North Dakota, so the kinds of things that you do, the seasonality and the species that will grow in that environment are totally different than the semi-arid climate in California with irrigation water restrictions, etc.  Everything is location-specific just like in real estate!

Jeff Mitchell has been working on this with a lot of conventional producers of larger scale, row crops and dairies, so I’ve been trying to pull him into the orbit of our organic grower community.

FR: Is there one thing that you wish newer organic farmers, who aren’t familiar with all of the soil knowledge you’re referring to, could start doing or actually implement now?

Probably using good quality compost and cover cropping. Even though we think it’s such a widespread practice in organics, now that there are so many organic sack fertilizers, I’m pretty astonished at coming across certified organic farmers who don’t use cover crops or compost, and say they’re organic farmers.  Those are fundamental practices that we still should get people to use.  I thought everybody appreciated the value of them, but apparently not.  There’s a lot of work to do out there.

That could be a good first step for all mainstream organic farms, for sure. 

The Food Commons

FR: How have you been since the transition of Food Commons? What’s the status with everything these days?

They’ve been farming pretty intensively on a third to a half of our former farm’s acres, slowly building its customer base, delivering wholesale and CSA boxes in the local area here. They’re making grand plans going forward.  They’ve also recently launched a Direct Public Offering (DPO) to allow the public to invest in their current operations and future plans.

They have a lot of our former employees out there on the land. They’re all doing a very good job, but they’d love to be joined by a competent manager. They are indeed looking for someone new to replace David Silveira.

David was managing The Food Commons farm part-time along with his own farm he had up around Merced, but he ended up shutting down his farm.  He no longer works for Food Commons, as Capay Organic Farm took him to manage their agriculture operations.

After a year, The Food Commons team is persisting, growing and planning for the future – producing market product on our former farm. Transitioning our farm to The Food Commons was definitely preferable to having our land turn into conventional almond orchards – that’s for sure. We are very encouraged and pleased, and proud to be associated with them.
 

FR: Last question: You’re a role model and mentor for many farmers of all ages and types…  If you could impart just one last word of wisdom, lesson from the school of hard knocks or promise for the future, what would you want to tell them?

Don’t let yourself be deflected from the course. Persist. Keep at it.

FR: That could be interpreted in any one of many ways….

My generation thought we were going to solve all the problems for you guys, and you guys were just going to live in paradise, but we didn’t quite get it done. We’ve left a few challenges for y’all young folks to grapple with, to probably find life more interesting than if we’d accomplished everything we thought we were going to.

We wouldn’t want you to be bored living in the Garden of Eden!

Stay the course. Don’t give up.

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