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

Jan 10, 2017

As the generation that pioneered organic farming begins to retire, they’re searching for different ways to continue their agricultural legacy. Some growers are passing on their farms to their kids, but as FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports not all organic growers are as lucky to have a second generation that wants to take over the family farm.

When longtime organic farmers Tom and Denesse Willey decided over the last few years that it was time to retire they turned to their kids to see if they wanted to take over the farm. Their answer was no.

Tom Willey has farmed for decades in the Central Valley. He will still help advise and mentor Food Commons Fresno.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

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

The Madera County vegetable farmers began working the soil in the 80s. They’re local organic pioneers and letting that legacy of organic farming fade away wasn’t an option.  

“A lot of us started 30 to 40 years ago and it's time to hand the baton to somebody else,” Willey says. “Organic is becoming very, very popular now. It’s breaking into big conventional retailers now like Costco, Walmart, Kreuger.”

The couple recently announced they’re in the process of leasing their farm to Food Commons Fresno. It’s the same group that took over the Willey’s food box program – 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.

"It's a trend that's in progress. I don't think anyone knows exactly how that's going to play out because the overall economic trends are towards consolidation, but demand for organic has been a big plus for these young farmers."- Cathy Calfo, Executive Director of CCOF
This is an example box from Ooooby run by Food Commons Fresno.
Credit Ooooby Fresno

“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 younger generation taking over this farm is looking forward to building upon what farmers like the Willey’s have labored over for decades. David Silveira’s checking out the soil health on the farm. He’ll work the land when it’s up and running.

Kiel Schmidt and Jenny Saklar are both on the Food Commons Fresno team.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“It looks really rich, dark soil, very light,” 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.”

The Willey’s aren’t the only organic growers looking to young people to take over their farms. Succession efforts are in play across the industry so much so that groups like California Certified Organic Farmers and California FarmLink are reaching out to hundreds of farmers to help them with succession plans as well as training young people about organic farming in schools. The reason? Baby boomers are aging out and want to retire. 

“It’s a trend that’s in progress,” says Cathy Calfo, Executive Director of CCOF. “I don’t think anyone knows exactly how that’s going to play out because the overall economic trends are towards consolidation, but demand for organic has been a big plus for these young farmers.”

There are more than 4,000 certified organic businesses in California and Calfo says there’s a surplus of young people that are interested in them. Jane Olvera Quebe is the chair of the Institute for Family Business at Fresno State. She says for many growers the transition process to a younger generation can be messy, especially if it's staying in the family. That’s why she says it's imperative they get outside help in the succession process.

“You’re going to have a lot of dynamics to navigate that are not just about business, but are also about personal,” Olvera Quebe says. “It’s trying to find the easiest and smartest path even when you have generations down the line that are interested in that ownership.”

The Masumoto Family Farm in Del Rey, Calif. is going through a change in season.
Credit Jim Choi and Chihiro Wimbush / Changing Season: On the Masumoto Family Farm

Father and daughter organic stone fruit and raisin growers Mas and Nikiko Masumoto are witnessing this firsthand on their farm south of Fresno. “Now you have this millennial generation who have a different need for compliments and this whole life work balance,” Mas says.

Nikiko’s 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 Masumoto.

But Mas doesn’t want to just retire and hand over the farm to Nikiko. The farm’s his life and he says it's important that they work the land together so Nikiko can learn his reasoning behind the way he farms. Blossom Bluff Orchards near Parlier is going through a similar transition. Thirty-nine-year-old Bryce Loewen worked in animation and now is learning to farm under his parents guidance.

The Loewen family farms around 80 acres of tree fruit in Sanger, Calif.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“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,” Loewen says.

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 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.”

For all these growers it's important that their legacies remain. They chose to farm organically when it wasn’t popular and for personal reasons like the health of their families and the environment. And as younger people begin to take the reigns of the organic movement it’s an opportunity to build upon what the roots of organic farming have labored so hard to grow.