A Fresno Farmer Defies Drought to Sustain Link Between Country and City
Will Scott Jr. gets ready to head home after a day on his farm. (Alice Daniel/KQED)
Collard greens, black-eyed peas and red and green tomatoes fill the table of a small farmstand in central Fresno, enticing urban dwellers out for their Saturday morning coffee.
“I would like to purchase this lovely, beautiful bunch of greens,” one customer says. “How much are they?”
They’re $3 a pound. Fifteen-year-old Dashon Standifer helps his mom, Porsha, bag the greens. He helped grow these crops, as did his twin brother, Dayvon.
The twins also know how to cook with the produce. They’ve got a good recipe for relish and another for homemade pie from tomato stew. It tastes like apple pie.
“We call it mock pie,” Dayvon says. “We also make our own homemade crust!”
They entered their mock pie and canned relish into cooking and baking contests at the local fair, The Big Fresno Fair. Both entrees won first place.
The brothers got their gardening and cooking skills through a program called the Freedom School at their New Light for New Life church in Fresno.
One of their mentors was a 75-year-old farmer, Will Scott Jr. He’s been teaching farming skills to young African-Americans for years.
“It’s nice to know how to work the tractor, and grow food,” says Dayvon. “And Will Scott is a good role model.”
And he’s been one for years. Scott helped establish a demonstration farm where kids can get their hands dirty. And he’s introduced hundreds of kids to agriculture in one way or another, either through talks he gives at churches and schools or out on the land, where he teaches farming step by step, row by row.
“Not only how to condition the land, but also how to plant and then do maintenance on it,” Scott says. “And then the harvest part of it and [we] also look at the marketing aspect of it, too.”
He says there’s still a negative association with farming that comes from a history of slavery and oppression. Scott’s own grandfather and father were sharecroppers in Oklahoma. He was 5 when they left the state.
“That’s when we got off the tab,” Scott says. “You had a tab, you know. You were almost chained to the land. So when you paid your tab off, you’re free to go.”
But he says agriculture can now mean a job, especially in California’s fertile Central Valley.
Yes, there’s farming the land but there are plenty of other related opportunities, he says, like installing drip systems. Or well drilling, he says, looking over his shoulder at his own well. It’s a topic he’s been confronted with lately. Because of the drought, Scott’s well will likely go dry by December.
“I need to take it deeper so I have access to more water, give me some kind of guarantee and less worry,” he says. But to replace it with a much deeper well could cost around $40,000 and, like most small farmers, Scott doesn’t have that kind of money.
It’s a predicament many small farmers face, says retired University of California farm adviser Richard Molinar.
“They don’t have the same resources. They don’t have the same bankroll that the large corporate farms do,” he says. “So they’re, in many cases, living on the edge. Their farm is being held together with shoelaces.”
“He has devoted at least the last 20 years to not only farming but also to advocate for the black youth and African-American farmers,” Molinar says. “He’s been thinking of other people and not himself, and he is now in some constraints.”
Before Scott went into farming full time, he was an engineer for Pacific Bell. Now he spends his days growing mustard greens, turnips, collards, broccoli, lettuce, okra and black-eyed peas. He says small farming is a way of life that is being threatened, especially now with the drought.
“The small farmers’ way of life is something we must sustain,” Scott says. “This country was built on small farmers.”
The Rev. Floyd Harris, a minister at New Light for New Life Church in Fresno, understands Scott’s plight.
Harris is also a farmer and the founder of the Freedom School, the program the Standifer twins are enrolled in. The Freedom School teaches boys important life skills to help them become well-rounded, healthy men.
Harris says Scott also advised him on a community garden behind the church. “You know he reaches out, not just here in Fresno but he’s down in the Bay Area, he’s down in L.A.,” Harris says. “And so every seed that he plants, I will say, is a seed of life.”
In fact, Scott hauls his produce every week to a neighborhood in Oakland, where he says there are plenty of liquor stores but not a lot of fresh food.
Harris says that when Scott teaches kids what happens when seeds and water mix, it’s inspiring. “And three months later you can go to that same plant that you touched and you dug a hole for, and see that that one plant has 50 tomatoes, or 30 tomatoes green and red,” Harris says. “That’s hope.”
And there is some hope for Scott. Another farmer, Paul Buxman, has started a campaign to raise money for him. Buxman is known for his tasty Sweet Home Ranch jams, but he’s also an accomplished impressionistic painter whose rural scenes of the Central Valley have sold all over the country.
He says anyone willing to contribute $50 will be given a free lithograph. There are four to choose from, he says. So far, Buxman has raised about $5,000.
“Let’s help get this farmer some water,” Buxman says.