Featured Farmer Spotlight: Evan Wiig of The Farmers Guild & FarmsReach ~ Bringing Farmers Together

In August, FarmsReach partnered with Evan Wiig and his Sebastopol-based Famers Guild to expand his fun and valuable Farmers Guild meet-ups to more regions across California.

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When we first launched the new FarmsReach platform in January 2013, our community had already ‘nominated’ 17 Featured Farmers — farmers they felt were any combination of excellent farmer, valuable mentor, sustainability role model, or simply a hard-working, go-getter next generation farmer.

This week, we are spotlighting our newest addition to the FarmsReach Featured Farmer posse: Evan Wiig. Sure, he is a farmer of a happy flock of chickens in Sonoma County, but we are featuring him because of his inspiring work bringing the farming community together. In less than a year, he has grown the North Coast Farmers Guild — a fun, casual meet-up of farmers and farm supporters — into an increasingly popular (and crowded!) monthly gathering in Sebastopol, where folks are driving up to 3 hours to just hang out and share information.

With the obvious desire and need for more community among young and experienced farmers, this summer Evan and we at FarmsReach decided to join forces to bring the Guild to other regions across Northern California, and hopefully beyond! Our goal in working together is to support and expand the great work Evan has been doing, while providing a platform to allow the growing attendees of the Guilds to stay better connected in between each of the in-person gatherings.

Basically, our shared goal is to help farmers become more successful (and happy!) through stronger community connections. Read on to learn more about Evan’s background and vision for the Farmers Guild. (Also, see below for details of Evan and FarmsReach at the Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa today, followed by the monthly Guild meet-up in Sebastopol.)

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 7.35.24 AMFarmsReach: How did you get into farming? What do you love most about it?

Evan Wiig: An abandoned dirt plot tucked between two buildings in Brooklyn, NY. I was new to the neighborhood and so got to know people by helping to clean up all the weeds and shattered Hennessy bottles. With almost no agricultural aspirations to begin with, I suddenly found myself tied to that plot almost every day, amending soil, building raised beds, harvesting my dinner and chatting with the neighbors about the politics of food. After a few years, I wanted more: so I quit my office job, called up a friend with some family land back west and asked if they needed a ranch hand to come feed their pigs and muck their chicken coops.

FR: What was the most important piece of advice you received when you were getting started?

EW: Invest in a good pair of muck boots.

FR: What prompted you to create the North Coast Farmers Guild? How did it start? Why are gatherings like this important for the farming community?

EW: Meatloaf Monday. It began soon after my arrival to the ranch [in Sonoma County] when we discovered a few other farmers our age in an area dominated by stone-faced, old dairymen. So naturally, we invited them over for beers and meatloaf. They returned the following Monday with a friend, another young farmer from down the road. The next week a few more arrived.

Soon enough we’d run out of space in our kitchen! But those nights were about more than just meatloaf and beer. Between bites, all these young agrarians got to talking: comparing planting schedules, scribbling chicken tractor blue prints on napkins, lending out their tools.

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So I contacted Jeffrey Westman, a local food advocate in Sebastopol, and asked if he’d donate his event space, the GrowKitchen, one night every month for a kind of young farmers club. At our first gathering of what became known as The Guild, we had about twenty people. At the next one, thirty. Seeing the opportunity, I began inviting the local community to participate: chefs, agricultural organizations, butchers, anyone with a vested interest in the newest generation of farmers and ranchers. The Guild simply stepped in to fill a growing need.

I think this generation understands that they can’t do it alone. Farmers can be strongly independent, but collaboration will be necessary for our survival. Despite the dire state of our food system, in the past decade young people have looked to the agricultural lifestyle with a sense of hope: to get outside, to get dirty, to eat better and feed their communities and even to help reform that seemingly irreversible system into which we were born. They don’t want to plug into a corporate machine but they also don’t want to unplug like pervious waves of back-to-the-landers.

FR: How has the Guild evolved since it started earlier this year and what has been the reaction from the young farming community, or anyone in the community? Where do attendees of the Farmers Guild meet-ups come from?

EW: At the end of each gathering, there are huge smiles on everyone’s face. The response has been incredible. How do we top that? – everyone asks. And yet we do. Time after time. Among the crowd, I’ll see faces that have been there from the start as well as new faces. Some of our Guild members walk in quite literally from their fields across the road. Others drive up from their urban farms in Oakland. Then we get those who drive in all the way from Yolo or Mendocino County just to attend the Guild! Some are managing huge swaths of land, others are just embarking upon their first farm internship. We get cattle ranchers, vegetable, fruit and flower farmers, chicken coop carpenters and everything between.

FR: We are excited to work with you to now bring these Farmer Guilds to other regions in California! What excites you the most about this project?

EW: The goal of FarmsReach and that of the Guild are equally simple: connect farmers. We’re not single-handedly reforming subsidy programs or reducing the price of agricultural land or unionizing the organic farming industry. We just want to get people talking. And that simplicity is what excites me. Anyone can do it. I’m just here to help them.

Right now I’m working with FarmsReach to develop online tools that make those connections easier, to reach out to existing organizations and programs and to help regional communities establish their own Guild-like groups. No membership dues, no secret handshakes. Just find a place to meet up once a month, stay informed, and don’t be shy. It’s amazing what you can get if you just ask. We make that asking easier.

Evan with some members of his band Whiskey & Circumstance

Evan with some members of his band Whiskey & Circumstance

FR: What are the long-term goals of these Guilds and what’s going to be the key to success?

EW: The challenges that new and young farmers will face are daunting—lack of capital, land access, health care, credit, competitive markets, etc. As I see it, the Guild won’t directly tackle any of these. There are many amazing people and organizations out there working hard at these. But there are other obstacles.

In the more affordable regions of the country, young farmers will face isolation and a rural culture ravaged by the collapse of family-farms and the rise of Big Ag. Success for the Guild means that if a young farmer here in Sonoma is ready to take the leap and start their own mid-size farm on land elsewhere, I can point them to a hundred different regions, all with their own thriving agricultural community and a farmers guild ready to offer support, solidarity, and a place to crack open a beer after a hard day in the field.

FR: What regions are you targeting in the next six months?

EW: I’m open to any community that sees the potential of a Farmers Guild in their region and wants our help to get it off the ground. For the time being, I’ve been talking with folks in Mendocino, Yolo and Nevada Counties as well as in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys.

FR: How can farmers of all experience levels get involved? How can local organizations get involved?

EW: It takes a village to raise a turnip. The focus of the Guild is to provide support for young farmers, particularly those who’ve got some experience but need help striking out on their own. But the diversity of our Guild is what’s made it so successful. Interns with two week’s experience arrive to share their enthusiasm, while established farmers with two decades of experience will stop in to share their wisdom. And among the organizations that come to share their resources have been: FarmLink, Marin Organic, Animal Welfare Approved, Spiral Food Co-op, FEED Sonoma and more. Want access to a huge room jam-packed with budding young row-tillers and pig sloppers? Get in touch.

FR: Aside from being a young farmer and launching the Guilds, what do you like to do in your free time?

EW: I’m in a rock-and-roll band comprised of fellow Guild members. Somewhere between farmhouse funk and cowboy disco, we write songs about fallow land and chicken shit.

~  You can imagine how excited we at FarmsReach are to work with Evan! Below is a slideshow to get a taste of the vibe of the Farmers Guilds. If you are a farmer, rancher or farm-related organization and interested in bringing a Guild to your area or presenting at one, contact us or get in touch with Evan directly: evan (at) farmersguild (dot) org. And, if you’re available today 9/10, Evan and FarmsReach will be out and about sharing more about our work together:

To see the latest resources and wisdom shared among regional farmers, check out the Farmers Guild Groups pages and general FarmsReach Conversations.

For more information about the Sebastopol, Sonoma Valley, Mendocino, Yolo or upcoming Sierra region Farmers Guild, contact Evan Wiig

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