A 75-acre plot of land farmed by Tom and Denesse Willey just west of Madera sits empty. Just a few weeks ago, the final harvest of the year was wrapping up at the direction of the Willeys, who are retiring and handing their organic farm operation over to Food Commons Fresno.
Food Commons Fresno is expanding its community-owned food model with the addition of the organic farm at the corner of Avenue 14 and Road 20 that was started nearly 20 years ago. The move for Food Commons Fresno to take over the farm and lease the land was announced Tuesday.
Tom Willey said he and his wife had been looking for someone to take over the farm for more than half a dozen years. They were not able to find someone with an interest in what he calls “production agriculture.”
“So the fact that Food Commons was willing to take on a project of this scale, we’re very gratified … because we feel like the big food system is not going to go away,” Willey said.
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A lot of us started 30 to 40 years ago, and it’s time to hand the baton to someone else. We were fortunate to find a bunch of young people that are operating the Food Commons to take up the challenge.
The transition in farm operations seems like a natural progression of the relationship between the Willeys and Food Commons Fresno. Last year, T&D Willey Farms sold its community supported agriculture food delivery service to Food Commons, which renamed it “Out of Our Own Back Yards,” or Ooooby Fresno.
The long-running food subscription service operated by the Willeys had about 800 customers. Now, the entire farm will become a division of Food Commons Fresno, which moved its headquarters to downtown Fresno in August. Other divisions of the food company include a wholesale division where fruits and vegetables are sold to restaurants and several institutions, including hospitals. A kitchen is also planned at the company’s original location on Belmont Avenue.
“We do hope to bring our different employee groups that will be in downtown Fresno versus here in the farm in Madera … together pretty regularly so that everybody gets to know each other and respect each other and become family,” said Kiel Schmidt, business development manager at Food Commons Fresno.
Food Commons Fresno employs 14 people. The Willey farm employed about 50 full-time workers through the final harvest. Those workers are on furlough, Willey said. But there are plans to bring them back to the farm.
New farm manager
David Silveira, a farmer who owns Rancho Piccolo in Atwater, will manage the farm in its transition to Food Commons. Silveira said he plans to bring back the workers the Willeys once employed.
“All of that is going to continue, and it is going to be incremental,” Silveira said. “We’re very excited to be able to connect the two organizations.”
Ownership of the land belongs to AgriLand Farming Co. Inc. A couple of years ago, Willey sold his property to James Maxwell, CEO of AgriLand. The move allowed Maxwell to serve as a land bank agent for the Willeys “in order for us to have the resources to put our retirement plans into place,” Willey said. The Willeys continued to farm until they were able to find someone willing to take over and provide the same organic services.
“We recognize that what they’re doing is very worthwhile, and we are happy to adjust in order to make sure that their operations are unhindered by anything that we would do,” Maxwell said.
Willey said he hopes organic farming can continue to grow.
“Natural systems, agriculture and biologically intensive agriculture is the direction agriculture needs to take in order to be sustainable long term,” Willey said.
As a society, we take our food for granted, and we don’t put enough thought and effort into figuring out how it’s produced and how it’s continued to be produced with integrity.
In contrast to conventional farming, which uses synthetic inputs, organic farming helps maintain a cleaner atmosphere and allows carbons to remain in the soil, Willey said, adding that reducing greenhouse gases and fighting climate change is a benefit.
Schmidt said Food Commons Fresno expects to continue Willey’s legacy in organic food production. He said he wants consumers to know the food they grow is produced with integrity.
Willey’s children are pursuing other careers and have no interest in the farm. Farm succession is something Willey said is a concern for many farmers his age.
“A lot of us started 30 to 40 years ago, and it’s time to hand the baton to someone else. We were fortunate to find a bunch of young people that are operating the Food Commons to take up the challenge in our case,” Willey said.
Schmidt said he plans to continue working with the Willeys, whom he considers organic pioneers. They will provide tips and advice for problem-solving, he said.
Willey said he sees organic farming as a necessary future.
“As a society, we take our food for granted, and we don’t put enough thought and effort into figuring out how it’s produced and how it’s continued to be produced with integrity,” Willey said.
Schmidt also said the food box delivery service will see more produce coming from the new farm. Ooooby Fresno was in a position recently where almost none of the products came from the Willeys, despite a preferred supplier relationship with the farm.
“We hope to get that back to where it was before, if not even more,” Schmidt said.
There is no set date for when farming will resume on the Willey land, which will be renamed and re-branded.
Willey is mainly happy his farm operation will continue.
“Everyone who eats is a farmer,” Willey said. “It doesn’t matter if you are a judge, or a professor, or a pastor. If a farmer is not out there feeding you, you will drop everything you do and you will go out and you will dig in the dirt and figure out how to grow your food.”