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Road 20 Farm, Madera | Food Commons Fresno

Tom Willey’s farming legacy began with “a wild hair” that led the Los Angeles native to the rich farmland of the San Joaquin Valley.

That was 1980, when Tom and his wife Denesse settled on 75 acres at the southwest corner of Road 20 and Avenue 14 in Madera. They named their operation T&D Willey Farms and grew it into a successful production agriculture business.

But within the first few years, “I saw the conventional methods that we were using kind of degrading the quality of the soil and its productivity,” Willey recalled. “I was having to put more chemical inputs in each year to reproduce the previous year’s results. I began to realize it was a system that was backpedaling.”

So in 1987, T&D Willey Farms became certified organic.

T&D Willey Farms

“What is common for all the workers here is that we like to work on this ranch especially because here we are not in danger of chemical fertilizers,” said Freddie Olivo, who worked for the Willey farm for nearly 30 years and continues to farm the same land today. “We are hard workers, but it was Mr. Willey who was the one studying how to fight pests and how to use natural vitamins to make the product better for the Earth.”

Juan Jose Martinez worked for the Willeys for about 20 years and continues to live on the farm as its caretaker.

“Whatever we plant here, it grows well depending on when we plant it, the water and the soil,” Martinez said. “We have four different areas, or blocks, here on the farm. Over the years, we learned which block is better soil for plants. If the soil is weak and we plant cabbage, the cabbage will be small. We plant each crop where it has the best chance to grow.”

The farm staff learned directly from the Willeys – everything from how to nourish the plants with vitamins, to how to pack the produce to make it look appealing. But as Tom and Denesse neared retirement, they wanted to pass not just their legacy but their vision for community-based agriculture.

Food Commons Fresno seemed like the right fit.

Food Commons Fresno

In April 2015, the Willeys sold their CSA business to Food Commons Fresno, which used the weekly produce delivery service as the launchpad for its OOOBY (Out Of Our Back Yard) program. In 2016, Food Commons took over the lease for the Willeys’ farmland, which is owned by Agriland Farming Co., and rebranded the operation Road 20 Farm.

What is Food Commons? Think of it as the hub of a new food model based on small-scale organic farmers and producers of artisan foods. Traditionally, these local suppliers have not had the scale, technology or distribution systems to compete with “big agri” on a regional basis. But Food Commons serves as an aggregator and distributor, packing fruits and vegetables from a variety of local growers to fulfill individual and wholesale orders.

“We’re building an entirely new model for a community-owned food system,” said Trent David Ebaugh of Food Commons Fresno. Among the benefits, he said, are support for local jobs, fresher food, reduced preservatives and packaging, and fewer “food miles” for the produce to travel.

Fresno began the prototype for this Food Commons model in late 2014, first as a trust followed by a community corporation. Now, the movement is growing in Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles and Seattle.

OOOBY Produce Boxes

In Fresno, Food Commons fulfills about 1,000 orders a week for its OOOBY fruit and vegetable deliveries. Boxes range in price from $16 to $35 (plus add-ons). Food Commons Fresno accepts CalFresh EBT payment and gives EBT discounts.

Weekly OOOBY boxes are delivered to multiple pickup sites primarily in the greater Fresno area, but also north to Madera and Merced, south to Reedley and east to Oakhurst serving Yosemite. A new home-delivery option is available in Fresno, Clovis and adjacent areas.

Multiple farmers contribute to each box, with local artisans supplying add-on items such as bread, coffee, eggs, granola, jam and other food products. In addition to the produce from Road 20 Farm – the only farm managed by Food Commons Fresno – the OOOBY program also aggregates produce from about 40 other organic farmers on a seasonal basis. Through Food Commons’ wholesale program, these farmers also reach about 30 restaurants, retailers and nonprofits.

Individual farmers receive about 45 percent of OOOBY retail profits and about 75 percent of wholesale profits.

Road 20 Farm

Road 20 Farm now plays an important role in helping Food Commons Fresno plan and fulfill individual and wholesale orders. The farm grows about 50 different vegetable crops on a 12-month farming cycle. The farm is bustling every weekday with workers harvesting, washing, packing and shipping the produce.

Farm Manager Rick Ambrose said he could see the difference when he worked on the sales side for an organic grocer.

“I used to buy from this farm, and the difference was from start to finish,” Ambrose said. “Everything is wrapped in a layer of paper, and when it's opened up it’s like a gift. Other farms just don't do that. You just see the care from Point A all the way to the final product. It's their love for it, their passion for that shows through.”

Ambrose moved from the sales side to become farm manager in March 2018.

“One of the first meetings that I had, I said, ‘You guys are the best of the best. It’s your farm, so do it your way, and I’m here to back you up,’” Ambrose said. “I’ve been proud of them every day. I've learned from them. They have become more of a team, and they help each other out.”

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