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Innovative farm succession catalyzes Food Commons Fresno

FarmLink loan finances final phase of succession for Tom and Denesse Willey

September 29, 2017 – Over the past two years, an innovative farm succession has helped to create a new economic model for local food systems, and preserve the legacy of Tom and Denesse Willey, longtime voices in the organic food movement. The T & D Willey Farms partnership with Food Commons Fresno creates the first prototype of the Food Commons, a project co-founded by Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farm and Larry Yee, former UC Cooperative Extension leader in Ventura County. California FarmLink had the privilege of helping to close the succession with a $150,000 loan to Food Commons Fresno.

As described by the Food Commons, the disconnect between people and their local food systems “can lead to the undesired effect of stunting local opportunities for market entry and entrepreneurship.” In an interview with FarmLink, Warren King, president of the Food Commons Community Corporation, explained, “the Food Commons model is a vertically integrated value chain that is owned by the community for the benefit of the community, and it’s used to bring not only jobs and economic activity, but also wealth.”

The Food Commons vision resonated with Tom and Denesse, and it helped shape their transition to retirement. They were first generation farmers operating on their own for more than 35 years. They had agreed not to pressure their children into farming and determined that they could not wait for any of them to possibly return to the farm. In an interview for this article, Tom explained, “So we started considering what the alternatives would be. Not having operated an internship program like some other organic farms, we hadn’t been sorting through a bunch of the other people over the years that might be interested.” Tom also explained how their transition took shape, “There were three or four paths of possibility that we went down to a certain degree, over a period of about five years, and the only one that really proved to have conviction behind it, was Food Commons.”

He continued, “They were initially interested in purchasing the land, but because it had inflated to such a value, it was impossible for them to raise those kinds of funds on the timelines that they had to do it in, even though we worked at that for probably a couple of years…we found somebody in our own neighborhood that was willing to purchase the land, lease it back to us for as long as we wanted to farm, or allow Food Commons to essentially assume the lease if we didn’t want to continue. So, that’s kind of how we created a private land bank, in a way, for somebody who had owned the property, that respected what we were doing and its value to the community, and made the property available to another entity that was willing to carry on that mission.” In late 2016, the Food Commons took over operations of the 75-acre farm.

After the sale of the farmland, Tom and Denesse invested the funds in an income-earning asset that they hope will provide for them in retirement. But there remained, Tom noted, “the issue of the equipment and that’s where you guys [FarmLink] come in…eventually you were able to loan enough money for them [Fresno Food Commons] to acquire about half the equipment.” Warren King added, “The hurdle was, where are we going to get all the equipment, and what do we need, and Tom and Denesse had exited the farm business with 25 years of equipment they wanted to sell. We basically purchased half of the equipment they wanted to sell…it allowed us to leverage our philanthropic support as a downpayment, and with a loan from FarmLink for the equipment, it got us into the business much quicker.”

“Now they have the farm and they have enough equipment to get busy out there and hopefully grow a lot of crops,” said Tom.

Central to Food Commons Fresno’s’ vision is providing local, organic food to food-insecure families in the Fresno area – they have built numerous partnerships to realize that goal. A key part of the puzzle for Fresno Food Commons was local produce distribution, and they became part of OOOOBY (Out of Our Own Backyards), a CSA-type distribution model and brand from New Zealand. The weekly boxes are branded as OOOOBY Fresno, which operates alongside their wholesale accounts. Tom commented, “It’s a very ambitious agenda, and it’d be great to see them be successful at pulling that off…hopefully, now they have the resources, partly thanks to you guys, to give it a serious go.”

Tom continued, “We didn’t want to sell the name of our business, because it’s a little bit too personal. But, you know, we certainly wanted to lend our support to what they’re doing, so we’re trying to hand things off.” Part of the Willeys’ agreement with Food Commons Fresno is providing mentorship and assistance. “We have an obligation to provide whatever guidance they’re looking for…so whenever they reach out to us for mentoring or information or assistance or whatever, we’re there with it. But I’m not out on that farm on a daily basis or anything like that,” said Tom.

As for his retirement, Tom reports that, “I’m doing some writing and speaking. I just preached a sermon at a local church…trying to tie historical perspective into some of these things…I’m always out there proselytizing about what’s going on in my head. I’ll continue to do so, because I still want to be very involved in food and farming, in a different manner than as a primary producer. That period of my life is over now, so I just want to contribute in other ways to the success of another generation of young farmers who want to do a really good job of caring for land, and feeding their neighbors and their communities.”

This succession is one of the more innovative models FarmLink has come across. Our project, Agrarian Elders and the Next Generation, organized three succession planning workshops last winter, which spurred about 25 families to start succession planning. In early 2018, FarmLink will organize another succession planning workshop in the Monterey Bay region. The project encourages the effective use of estate planning, conservation easements and other tools to help structure sustainable farm transitions.

Preserving farm businesses is important, especially doing so in ways that create opportunities for the next generation. The T & D Willey Farms succession is a great example of vision, innovation, and a strategic use of FarmLink’s Loan Program to support one part of a succession strategy. FarmLink can also support farm succession with its farm mortgage financing program; one of the ways that we are building pathways to ownership for the next generation.

Today, the T & D Willey Farms website promotes Food Commons Fresno and OOOOBY, and describes themselves: “Farmers emeritus, sharing knowledge, ignorance & experience with receptive hearts and minds.”

California FarmLink is proud to have been part of the succession, and wishes great success for everyone involved. Warren King of Food Commons Fresno summarized, “We are so happy to have FarmLink and those who have been supporting FarmLink as part of this venture with us. It’s a very humbling experience. We are embarking on a different way of operating in the food universe.”

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