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Man on a mission

Mar./Apr. 2006 California Country magazine

Will Scott Jr. is determined to keep the legacy of African-American farmers alive and well in the Golden State.



Farmer cultivates new African-American legacy


Will Scott Jr.

Will Scott Jr. is not your average farmer. He's a man on a mission.

Whether it's delivering fresh greens and black-eyed peas to one of California's most popular soul food restaurants or driving hundreds of miles to sell his produce to people who otherwise would never see it, Scott is determined to keep the legacy of African-American farmers alive and well in the Golden State.

"We need to make sure African-American farmers are visible because, for a long time, we've been invisible," Scott said. "We as a people have played a tremendous part in agriculture throughout the U.S. What I do, it's just one last-ditch effort to say we do exist, even if it is in a small number."

Of the more than 80,000 farmers in California, only about 300 of those are African-American. That's something Scott would like to change.

Born and raised in the South, Scott came to California as a teenager. He worked for more than 30 years for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in Fresno and retired five years ago with the goal of finally taking it easy. But then he caught the farming bug. After planting a couple of tomato and corn plants in his Fresno backyard, he decided to try a few more crops. He started with those he was most familiar with growing up in the South: black-eyed peas and okra. Today he farms more than 43 acres of vegetables and fruits, including the two he began with, as well as tomatoes, corn, squash, sweet potatoes, broccoli, melons, various greens and peppers.

Growing all that great produce came easy for Scott, but finding places to sell it proved more difficult. So Scott and his family decided to branch out and sell to restaurants up and down the West Coast. One of Scott's biggest clients is The Plantation in Sacramento, widely acknowledged as one of California's best soul food restaurants.

Plantation owner Drake Jones had been seeking fresh produce to use in his dishes, but he couldn't find any growers of the typical items you find in Southern-style cooking, like okra or collard greens. That is, until he heard of Will Scott. The two finally met up a year ago and instantly formed a bond that would prove meaningful and profitable for both. Now, Scott travels up to the restaurant every weekend and delivers the produce right to the front door stepmin person and with recipe ideas in hand.

"My mother used to fry all of our vegetables when I was growing up," Scott said. "But now, because the produce is so fresh and literally picked the day I bring it up to the restaurant, there are a ton of different things to do with it. In the summertime, nothing beats a fresh tomato, cucumber and red onion salad. That's your meal right there!"

Every weekend, after Scott delivers produce to the restaurant, he's off to his next stopmthe Mandela Farmers' Market in West Oakland. Together with wife Brenda, daughter Michelle and son Rodney, Scott drives every Friday and Saturday to the market to sell all the produce they've harvested that week.

In many ways, the market is similar to any weekend farmers' market. It was formed six years ago and features farm families from Fresno to Livingston selling a variety of items. But spend a Saturday morning there and you'll see that this farmers' market is a little different. Located underneath the Bay Area Rapid Transit tracks, the open market gets started every weekend by a disc jockey who plays the latest hip-hop tunes, making this market distinctly young and urban. The market may seem unusual to outsiders, but for the residents of West Oakland, it is a much-needed resource.

According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, West Oakland is one of the Bay Area's poorest spots. Nearly a quarter of all the residents live at, or near, the poverty level. And since many don't own a car and rely on convenience stores to get their food, finding fresh produce is a bit of a treasure hunt. But now, thanks to farmers like Scott at the Mandela Farmers' Market, the season's best produce is right at their fingertips.

And every Friday and Sunday, come rain or shine, this is where you'll find Scott and his family. Besides selling his fruits and vegetables, he's also selling a bit of the rural life to people who typically don't see a ripe tomato or a fresh ear of corn in their neck of the woods.

"There was a severe need of fresh produce in the West Oakland area, so we made a promise that we'd connect the farmers of the valley with the people in the city," Scott said. "So we got together and started a market there. I think people, regardless of where they live, should have access to fresh, quality produce."

Derrick Jones agrees. He's one of Scott's newest, but most faithful, customers. He makes the 45-minute drive over from Burlingame every Saturday just to see what new produce Scott has.

"I'm not a chef or gourmet by any means, but once you taste Will's fruits and vegetables, you'll never want to try anything else," Jones said. "And I'm a new father, so it is really important to me to know where my food comes from and the face behind it. You really couldn't ask for anyone better or nicer than Will."

"For us, the market is kind of like family," Scott said. "There are some real faithful that come out here. They support us and we really couldn't do it without them."

In between tending to his family farm and driving up to Northern California, Scott finds time to be president of the African-American Farmers of California.

The Fresno-based organization has increased from 25 members in 2000, when it opened a 16-acre demonstration farm just west of Selma, to 42 members today. It serves as a testing area where new farmers can get hands-on experience growing a variety of produce. These "would-be growers" are learning everything from how to drive a tractor to how to irrigate their crops. And it's paying off. Many of them have gone on to grow and sell their own produce at farmers' markets from Oakland to Los Angeles.

"We bring in new farmers and existing farmers and we do all sorts of training," Scott said. "They can lease an acre or two and grow something and then they take the technology back to their farms."

John Roberts of Fresno said he learned from his experience at the farm how to use drip irrigation. Roberts and his wife, Rosemary, have turned 5 acres of land into production of vegetables they sell, often through their church.

"It helped me a lot to be able to do things together as a group, to learn from one another," Roberts said.

Scott also enjoys teaching a younger group of people interested in farming. That's why every summer he invites school kids down from Oakland to his farm in Fresno. For Scott, it's not a chore, but rather a love of the land that makes him want to share it with what could be the next generation of farmers.

"I enjoy spending time with kids because they are the future," Scott said. "And if you expose them to something positivemsomething vital to our existencemthey'll grab hold of it and really take control. And that's what we needmregardless of whomwe need farmers.

"One of my questions I like to ask them is, 'Does this grow above ground or below' and they'll turn around and ask, 'Do you know the nutritional value of that?' They'll turn around and quiz me! They really are amazing and a pleasure to have out to the farm."

And while children are the future of California's rich agricultural tradition, it's only because of people like Will Scott that there is a tradition to be handed downmeven if he is a little modest about it.

"I've had my 15 minutes of fame," Scott said with a huge grin and hearty laugh. "I don't need any more attention. But if we can get the message across about supporting a variety of farmers and get more people interested and taking quality food to where it should be, then I've done my job. This is what I was born to do."

Tracy Sellers is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation and the popular weekly television program "California Country." She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or tsellers@cfbf.com.


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