From the Big City to the Vineyards, to the Organic Movement, to Microbes
T&D Willey Farms is a place where ideals are alive and well. Mr. Willey is after all, the veritable grandfather of organic vegetable production in the Central Valley. He got his start alongside other the forerunners, “misfits, and maverick thinkers” who dared to be misunderstood and dove headfirst into organics in the early 1980s.
When you see someone who fits the organic farmer bill as much as Tom Willey–his beard, his hands that have done their fair share of field work, his familiarity with the world of microbes, seedlings, and soil components–you’d be apt to make the assumption that he’s been farming since the day he was born. That assumption, however, would be wrong. Not only that, it would bypass the surprising twists and turns that led Tom and his wife Denesse to their seventy-five acres near Madera, California–where on a clear day you’ll have a view of the Coastal Mountains to the west and the snow-covered Sierra Nevadas to the east.
While Denesse comes from generations of Midwestern farmers, Tom started out far away from the farm. He grew up in a family of “black-thumbed,” houseplant killing city dwellers from our very own Los Angeles, California. As a young adult, Tom set his sights on degree and then a career in the corrections business, as in the locked down, indoor world of prisons and paroles. When a post-graduation job lead in that field fizzled out, Tom found himself on the North Coast in need of a way to pay the bills.
“I was stuck there with nothing to do, so I went out and picked wine grapes on some different farms around there. It was the first experience that really had a big impression on me. I just kind of got romanced by it, kind of got interested in it,” Tom remembered.
That experience lead to Tom earning a degree in viticulture from Fresno State University which inevitably lead to his start in vegetable farming here in the Valley.
“When I got out of school doing that, the grape business was kind of in a funk, so I got a job growing vegetables and that was that. I’ve been a vegetable farmer ever since,” he said.
Tom worked for a few large scale conventional vegetable farms and was even farming conventionally, according to his university training, when he and his wife Denesse started their own farm in the 80s. In the early days, Denesse worked as a nurse to help support the family while the farm got off the ground and now she runs the sales end of the business. She’s stays busy keeping up with their farm-based Fresno area CSA and the wide range of customers, from grocery stores to Abundant Harvest Organics, for their year round crops.
Tom and Denesse’s move toward organic agriculture arose out of their dissatisfaction with the unbalanced nature of the conventional methods they were using. Tom observed that each year the soil required more and more chemical fertilizers and pesticides in order to reproduce the last season’s results. It was, as he put it, “a system that was moving backward instead of forward.”
“I find natural systems agriculture much more challenging and stimulating than the chemical agriculture I once practiced,” Tom reflected. “Even though I avoided the study of science during most of my college and university career. Since I’ve become involved in organic farming, I’ve found it necessary to try and understand more about natural systems and the interplay of biology and how that makes things grow and the earth productive. I’ve become fascinated with that,” he said.
That fascination has fueled T&D Willey Farm’s process of setting down strong roots in a way of farming that relies on human interaction with the land and the creative, intuitive, and cooperative farming methodology organic production requires. All produce from the farm is harvested by hand, and that human touch is something that built into the value system of the farm–evidenced by the stable year-round jobs the farm provides for over fifty farm employees.
Seeing as Tom can tell you first hand about the cultural and economic environment surrounding the beginnings of the organic movement here in the Valley, it makes it all the more significant when he says, “Honestly, I think in some ways the organic movement has accomplished more in the thirty years I’ve been involved with it than I expected it might accomplish in my whole lifetime when I started out. So that’s very encouraging. I think we’ve made a greater impact on the whole food system than I ever thought we would.”
And if you need another reason to expect a sunny future for organics in the larger American food system, Tom looks to the enthusiasm of the up and coming generation of aspiring organic farmers.
“It’s very exciting to see so many young people who are not necessarily of farming backgrounds coming out of the woodwork and wanting to get involved in producing food, growing crops, feeding local communities and preparing food in more healthful ways. That’s been really encouraging,” he said.
Tom and Denesse Willey are contribute weekly to your AHO subscription boxes with the year-round seasonal veggies that spring up on their seventy-five acre farm.