Sustainable farming needs math as much as mulch, says one veteran
As I begin looking for concrete ways to advance local agriculture, I’m going to talk to some established players about what they see as the problems and potential for the immediate future.
I phoned up T & D Willey Farms because, in some sense, they’ve made it: Tom and Denesse Willey earn a comfortable income off 75 acres in the California’s San Joaquin Valley, near Madera. Most of their produce goes to organic specialty markets, and they deliver about 15 percent of what they grow through a community supported agriculture, or CSA, program.
“The CSA enjoys probably twice the profit margin of the farm wholesale business, but the hassle factor is also very high, in comparison,” Tom Willey told me, with a chuckle. I called because I had a very basic question: The Willeys have a proven model; why we don’t see a landslide of other farmers emulating them?
Tom Willey has been thinking about these issues for years, and he laid out a few specific suggestions — along with a couple of big-picture quandaries.
Q. So basically I’m calling because I read in the New York Times that you are making money, and I want to know why we don’t just see a wholesale conversion of agriculture to look like T & D Willey Farms?
A. There are certainly many other people like myself that are operating profitable organic farms of modest scale. But why is there not more proliferation of the modest-sized farms that are financially successful?
I think there’s a conundrum with the legions of young people being attracted to local and organic agriculture. They seem to be a bit hesitant about getting involved in what I call production agriculture, which is feeding a hell of a lot of people besides yourself. And they seem to be more strongly attracted to the Jeffersonian concept of having your little piece, your couple of acres, and farming mainly for self-sufficiency and some very small-scale marketing in their community.
One of the reports I’m getting from young people who have been through some renowned organic farm schools or internships is that they are not learning much about farm economics. I think that’s a real disservice. If they came to my school — if I had one — they’d learn a hell of a lot about that, particularly from my wife.
Q. They forget that sustainability also means economic sustainability.
A. Exactly. Denesse and I have tried to set a specific example. We wanted to be financially successful, of course. We wanted to serve as an example of a farming couple who worked together as a business, exclusively doing farming, no other sources of income, and to make a comfortable middle class living from it. Because we think that growing other people’s food is as important as, you know, being people’s pastor or doctor or lawyer, and those professions are certainly well compensated. So why have farmers always had to take it in the shorts economically? And grow food for so many people and work so many hours and so hard for so little remuneration?
I don’t have his permission to say who he is, but there’s a very successful and highly revered organic farmer on the East Coast, and two years ago he had a horrible bout with cancer and he didn’t have the money for health insurance. I mean that is just unconscionable. And he is feeding many people some of the best organic products that we know of. It’s just not right.
So Denesse and I have always stood up for demanding fair value for our products from those who purchase it. And if they won’t pay us a fair value, we’ll just go to growing our own food, we won’t grow anyone else’s. It’s bad education to give people food for less than its true value — and in this society, as a key food policy ever since World War II, we’ve been doing it. We wanted to serve as a different kind of model.
Q. Are there specific keys to your success?
A. Well I’d say that one key was my experience working on farms that were profitable before I tried to start my own. Trying to find out why those farms were profitable gave me the foundation.
Avoidance of debt was another big part of it. There was a gentleman down the road from where I rented my first farm, his name was Leon Poe, and he was the descendant of slaves from Louisiana. He farmed a 15-acre market garden, had been doing so for about 30 years when I ran into him. He taught me the keep-the-ball-rolling method of farm finance. You plant a crop of turnips, use the profits from that to plant a crop of tomatoes, make money to finance the crop of potatoes and etc. — but to really know your costs and make sure you are selling crops for more than it costs to grow. I know that sounds — I mean you go duh! But you wouldn’t believe how many farmers don’t know their costs of production.
Q. Just the basic, boring, bookkeeping.
A. I learned that when I worked for this monster farming company called the Newhall Land and Farming Company. A 10,000 acre ranch south of Merced. I spent about two hours every morning sitting at a stupid table coding in all this stuff. The employees had to code in their time, what field they were in, what they were doing, what equipment they were using. Well, that way they knew all the costs going into the crop.
We don’t do that to that anal of a level in our farm, but we do it. We do it particularly with labor, because on a farm like ours it’s insanely labor intensive. I’m telling you the truth here: When I sell you a dollar’s worth of produce, 70 cents of that goes to labor compensation. We’ve had a wave of wage increases here in the Valley over the past year, because the scarcity of labor has become extreme with the border shut down for so many years. The border used to be a semi-permeable membrane, they’d open the valve a little bit close the valve a little bit, but since everyone has gone apoplectic about immigration, the border is basically shut down. So little by little the labor pool is eroding here.
Q. Interesting. I would have though you would be in a different labor pool, since you need year-round employees rather than seasonal migrant labor.
A. Well we do, we do, and a lot of our employees appreciate the fact that they have year-round work and other benefits. But when that wage started going up, our employees came to us and said, “Hey we need to have a chat here.” So we had a big meeting out in the front yard of the farm and we discussed it. They said, the disparity is just getting too great and you have to do something, or some of us are going to start melting away. So we instantly raised the wage a dollar. And with that, some of our crops became money losers, so we actually had to lose some of our diversity.
Q. So the point is that it’s important to have the analytics on labor costs so that you know that those crops are going to be unprofitable ahead of time.
Q. When you are talking about young people not wanting to do production agriculture, is that what you mean? They don’t want to do that kind of math?
A. Yes, but I think some also have an aversion to the economic model. I’m starting to smell a criticism in their hesitancy. And I’m starting to appreciate it and understand it. I was just kind of pissed off by it for a while because I would go, “C’mon guys, this is how the world is fed, and we need you to pick up the baton from us.” But I think some are saying it’s not an appropriate model.
I mean, paying immigrant people eight or nine bucks an hour to work their butts off in the blazing heat and freezing cold all year is not a part of my farming that I’ve been totally comfortable with and proud of. I think these young kids probably want to do it a different way.
I notice that my East Coast organic friends are less dependent on immigrant labor than I am here in the San Joaquin Valley, but the immigrant labor thing is going on all over the country now, and it’s gaining more of a foothold in just about every community. The question is, how are we going to feed the country off two-to-three acre Jeffersonian farmsteads? It’s a difficult enough task to imagine that we could do it off of farms of my scale, OK, let alone postage stamp farms. I don’t know, it’s a real dilemma.
Q. That seems to point to either paying even more for food, or having some radical non-capitalist method of paying for food.
A. Yeah, well. I don’t think we are going to change capitalism too soon. But people are coming up with other interesting concepts and models. There’s a group called the Food Commons attempting to launch one of their systems here in Fresno. Where they want to have community ownership of farmland, and distribution facilities, and retail facilities, and treat everyone in the system more fairly. You know, just about anyone in the food system is under-compensated: restaurant people, people who work in grocery stores — it’s not just farms.
Maybe some of these idealistic people can plug into something like that and work, but not be a slave to it. You almost have to be a slave to it to be a successful farm owner. And that’s gone on ever since we invented agriculture 10,000 years ago: This so-called jail of civilization is really built on ripping off the surplus from farmers for less than it’s worth. That’s how you have money for universities and lawyers and Sistine Chapels and all that kind of stuff.
It’s been a rip-off system ever since day one, and we are kind of running out of people to rip off because no one wants to be the peon. So is there a way of creating a different model that could be fairer? I think that’s what Food Commons is trying to come up with.
Q. What about environmental sustainability — what are the next steps there?
A. We’ve got an incredible challenge in the next generation. We may have to learn how to do agriculture without fossil fuel inputs. Right now, organic agriculture is really dependent on that through the back door. A lot of the nitrogen we depend on is created in Haber-Bosch fertilizer plants: if you grow conventional feed and give it to a cow, and it comes out the rear end, then all of a sudden it’s organic nitrogen and you can use it in organic systems. So we are really kind of using conventional systems as a crutch for organics in that respect and others.
We are also very tillage dependent, which is another thing we have to overcome, because the violence of tillage destroys the potential of soil. Those are huge issues. Just the viability of agriculture itself is a huge issue.
The organic movement has contributed a few baby steps in the direction in which we need to head, but the pressure is on. We’re not just talking about tinkering with the edges; we really need to come to grips with the problem of agriculture, as Wes Jackson says, rather than just the problems in agriculture.
Before I got involved in agriculture I avoided science like the plague. But now you really need a strong science background: plant physiology, chemistry, soils, particularly microbiology now is becoming a really important part of agricultural success. If we are going to get rid of the toxic-medicine approach to agriculture, we really have to learn how the microbiological systems work. I really see hope in these young scientists who are learning to grapple with complexity.
Q. All right, any other practical, more readily achievable steps that will be important for fostering local agriculture?
A. Effectively communicating your story and ethics to your customer base is important. It’s been a real key to our success. We do a newsletter for CSA members. I do public presentations. I have a radio show. With every box of wholesale produce, you are going to get a column that I write about these issues, so people know what T & D Willey stands for and what they are supporting when they buy our product. That’s been key in our ability to get fair value, because we sell ourselves.
Another way I think young people are falling short is that they are going out and purchasing land before they have the ability to judge land. They get on pieces of ground that don’t have intrinsic productive capacity. So I really advocate renting land before you purchase land to learn the region you are trying to settle in.
We were better marketers than we were farmers for quite a while. And even though that was really frustrating, I think it served us well, because there are too many people who grow good food but then sell it for too little. Another issue is that people will grow something before they know what the hell they are going to do with it. So I think you really need to know where and how you are going to sell your crop before you put it in the ground.
You can’t believe how many panicked calls we get from people. ‘”Ugh, I’m picking this stuff, and what do I do with it?” We go, “Why didn’t you think about that before you planted the damn thing?” A lot of people don’t have great foresight into marketing — they are just so excited about producing.
Q. I can understand that. Marketing and bookkeeping don’t sound as romantically appealing as farming.
A. There’s a saying that farmers are always price takers, not price makers. You have to become a farmer who is a price maker. You have to distinguish your product from the masses in the market.
We really need to be growing the highest quality, most nutrient-dense produce. Unfortunately we don’t have the tools to assess that cheaply on a daily basis. If you can do that, you are a price maker.
If you are just selling into an amorphous market, under someone else’s label, you are a price taker. But if you are selling locally, you can really identify your customers. We established our name and our label and found a few thousand people who would support it. You just carve out your constituency, figure out how to produce what they need, and get them to understand that they need to pay you fairly for it.