As California's Organic Farming Pioneers Age, A Younger Generation Steps In

Feb 18, 2017
Originally published on February 18, 2017 11:38 pm

The generation that pioneered organic farming is beginning to retire. These farmers want what they've built to last. Some growers are passing on their farms to their kids. But not all of them have a second generation who wants to take over the family farm.

That's what longtime organic growers Tom and Denesse Willey discovered when they decided over the past few years that it was time to retire. When the Willeys asked their kids if they wanted to take over their 75-acre farm in California's Central Valley, they all said "no."

"They're all pursuing other professions and interests in life," Tom Willey says. "We considered a number of different alternatives over the last five years of how to hand off the farm."

The vegetable growers began working the soil in California's Madera County in the 1980s. The Willeys are local organic pioneers. The idea of letting their history fade away was just too painful.

"A lot of us started 30 to 40 years ago and it's time to hand the baton to somebody else," he says.

And besides, growing organically is actually a way for farmers to make money. "Organic is becoming very, very popular now," he says. "It's breaking into big conventional retailers now like Costco, Wal-Mart."

The Willeys recently announced they're in the process of leasing their farm to Food Commons Fresno. It's the same group that took over the Willeys' food box program – now under the name Ooooby – a year and a half ago. Kiel Schmidt is the wholesale and development manager for the group. He says Food Commons Fresno would like to see the region become a farm-to-fork hub like Sacramento is.

"Food is a mystery for lots of people and it just ends up on the grocery store shelf or on your plate, and we want to demystify that as much as possible," Schmidt says.

The person who will eventually work the Willeys' land is organic farmer David Silveira. Willey is mentoring Silveira on the ins and outs of the farm, such as checking out the soil health.

"It looks like really rich, dark soil," Silveira says.

Tom Willey adds, "We really improved the tilth of soil and the workability of the soil over the years, putting all of that organic matter in there with compost."

Jane Olvera Quebe, chair of the Institute for Family Business at California State University, Fresno, says the Willeys are just one of many organic businesses in California looking for successors. There are more than 4,000 organic businesses in the state, and groups like California Certified Organic Farmers are reaching out to hundreds of aging growers to help them with the changeover.

"When it's a family business, it's not only a complicated matter, it's also an emotional matter," Quebe says. "The ones that are the most successful are where the older generations have put a high level of trust and faith in the younger generations. That allows them to let go."

Father and daughter growers Mas and Nikiko Masumoto are navigating this transition firsthand on their farm south of Fresno, where they grow organic stone fruit and raisins. "Now you have this millennial generation who have a different need for compliments and this whole life-work balance," says Mas, whose peach farm became a symbol of the food revolution in the 1980s.

Nikiko is in her 30s, and she moved home to live and work on the farm several years ago, after receiving a master's degree. She realized she didn't want her family's farming history in the Central Valley to disappear if her father were to pass away.

"I think, Dad, you really, really do love just grinding away. And I want to stop every once in a while, and I want to pause, so there's a huge difference," says Nikiko.

But Mas doesn't want to just retire and hand over the farm to Nikiko. The farm is his life and he says it's important that they work the land together, so that Nikiko can learn the reasoning behind his farming methods.

At Blossom Bluff Orchards near Parlier, Calif., Bryce Loewen, 39, is currently going through a similar handover under the guidance of his parents.

"If it wasn't so lush and beautiful here – and it wouldn't be if it wasn't an organic farm – I doubt I would've come back," says Loewen, who used to work as an animator.

Loewen says he and his sister will eventually take over the 80-acre farm. But for some farmers, having a family member continue farming their land isn't an option.

Richard Peterson has farmed organic stone fruit in the Reedley area for four decades. This was his last season and now he's retired. His kids weren't interested in taking over the farm. So he found someone else to lease his land.

"We like it because he has a son-in-law who's involved, so that's another young person getting into farming," says Peterson. "It's very hard for young people to get into farming these days because the capital investment is so great just to buy land."

The Petersons, Willeys and Loewens all chose to farm organically before it was popular and lucrative. Now they say it's up to young people to decide how the organic industry will grow in the future.

Copyright 2017 Valley Public Radio. To see more, visit Valley Public Radio.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to spend the next few minutes talking about people who grow, cook and serve our food. We'll tell you why one restaurant owner hates so-called cheap eats. And we'll tell you about one of the beloved figures in New York's 1960s food scene who mysteriously disappeared but whose cookbook has resurfaced.

But we'll start at the source - the farm. You might have noticed how organic food has become popular in recent years. But many of the people who produce that food are getting older, and not all have obvious successors waiting to take over their family farms. Valley Public Radio's Ezra David Romero tells us more from Fresno, Calif.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: When longtime California organic growers Tom Willey and his wife Denesse decided it was time to retire, they asked their kids if they wanted to take over their 75-acre farm. They told Willey no.

TOM WILLEY: They're all pursuing other professions and interests in life. We've considered a number of different alternatives over the last five years of how to hand off the farm.

ROMERO: The vegetable growers began working the soil in California's Central Valley in the 1980s. The Willeys are local organic pioneers, and letting their history fade away was just too painful. Besides, growing organically is actually a way for farmers to make money.

WILLEY: Organic is becoming very, very popular now. It's breaking into big conventional retailers now like Costco, Wal-Mart, Kroger.

ROMERO: The couple is in the process of leasing out the farm.

WILLEY: And then that tractor over there, that beauty that I found way up near Chico, our entire farm was ran by that tractor for the first five to 10 years.

ROMERO: The person who will eventually work the land is organic farmer David Silveira. He and Willey are digging in a field to check to see how crops will fare in the earth here.

DAVID SILVEIRA: Looks really rich. It's dark soil, very light.

WILLEY: We really improved the tilt of the soil and the workability the soil over the years, putting all that organic matter that we did in there with compost.

ROMERO: Willey is mentoring Silveira on the ins and outs of the farm. This whole handover is part of a project from the organization Food Commons Fresno. That's a group of 20 and 30-somethings with a mission to see Fresno become a farm-to-fork region. Silveira says it also wants to be a supplier of inexpensive healthy food.

SILVEIRA: We're going to ramp up incrementally until we should see it look a lot like it did when Tom and Denesse were operating it.

ROMERO: Food Commons Fresno already runs a successful CSA program where people sign up for boxes of organic food that they pick up at a spot in their neighborhood. The group's wholesale and development manager, Kiel Schmidt, says they took over the program from Willey about two years ago. For him, this venture is about educating the public on where their food comes from.

KIEL SCHMIDT: Food is a mystery for lots of people and it just ends up on the grocery store shelf or on your plate. And we want to demystify that as much as possible.

JANE OLVERA QUEBE: When it's a family business, it's not only a complicated matter. It's also an emotional matter.

ROMERO: That's Jane Olvera Quebe with the Institute for Family Business at Fresno State. She says the Willeys are just one of many organic businesses in California looking for successors. There are more than 4,000 organic businesses in the state, and groups like California Certified Organic Farmers are reaching out to hundreds of aging growers to help them with the changeover.

QUEBE: The ones that are the most successful is where the older generations have put a high level of trust and faith in the younger generations. That allows them to let go.

ROMERO: Letting go is something that Central Valley farmer Tom Willey is in the process of learning. But he says the mentorship process is actually a great way to know his legacy will go on.

WILLEY: We just want to be available to transfer whatever knowledge that we have that is welcomed. And that's going to be our role. It's a big challenge, but hopefully they will find success in doing that and we'll be able to support them in that success.

ROMERO: The Willeys chose to grow organically before it was popular and lucrative. Now, Tom Willey says, it's up to young people to decide how the organic industry will grow in the future. For NPR News, I'm Ezra David Romero in Fresno. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.