The Union ~ Putting Down Roots

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by Laura Brown

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 8.29.06 PMThe Farmers Guild, a networking and resource group for farmers, is cropping up in a number of Northern California communities.

Some are looking into ways to start a farm guild in Nevada County.

Started in 2011, the guild is a group of farmers, ranchers and members of the local food community that gathers each month to share resources, information, a farm-grown dinner and a few drinks after a day in the field.

It began almost two years ago when just a few young farmers out in Valley Ford, Calif., began gathering around a ranch-house table.

Over a casual dinner of farm-fresh food, they began to trade stories, compare planting patterns and share gossip from the feed store.

And very soon that group began to grow: from six to 10 to 20 to way too many to fit within our kitchen,” said Evan Wiig, community manager of The Farmers Guild.

Soon the local Grange partnered with The Farmers Guild and the online community, FarmsReach.

Members of the guild see each other in person at monthly meet-ups to share food and stories and then reconnect online to ask questions, find tools, get advice or find other resources like FarmLink, a group that links farmers to land.

Networking with other farmers and the broader food community helps take the isolation out of farming.

The Farmers Guild provides a ready-made social and professional hub where farmers can meet other like-minded entrepreneurs, find jobs, share equipment, stay up-to-date on policies that affect them, and hear about events, grants, classes and more.

“It’s a place to belong. So many young people want to farm but don’t want to disconnect from the world. They’re still putting down their own roots …” said Wiig.

“To keep our newest farmers farming, they must learn to connect with each other for solidarity, with their elders for counsel and with their wider community to educate them, build markets and re-establish local economies of food.

The idea is taking off. Last fall the Sonoma Valley Farmers Guild was formed, followed by the Mendocino Farmers Guild and the Yolo Farmers Guild.

Today there are multiple other efforts to form guilds around Northern California, including a hub in Sierra and Plumas counties.

In February, the Guild hosted its inaugural “Guild-Raising” — an event that attracted more than 300 farmers, ranchers and local food advocates, including Grass Valley folk such as Leo Chapman of Sierra Harvest.

Local farmers in Nevada County are tentatively supportive of the idea of creating a farmers guild in the region.

“We need our existing local farmer support system to be more effective and coordinated,” said Eric Dickerson, a farmer and local sustainable Ag activist.

“I personally think we need a way to network young farmers … and I think we need a Young Farmers Guild,” said Cathe’ Fish, one of the organizers of the Nevada County Sustainable Food and Farm Conference.

Despite Nevada County’s thriving community of young farmers, some young people new to the area see a need for one group where everyone can meet for inspiration and camaraderie.

“A farmers guild may help to bring farmers of different backgrounds and philosophies together. It seems like the community is somewhat divided by certain agricultural practices. I haven’t been around long enough to say if this is completely true, it’s just an observation.

“The Farmers Guild may encourage more dialogue between these disparate points of view,” said young farmer Stephanie Stevens.

Representatives from The Farmers Guild attended this year’s farm conference in Grass Valley where a number of farmers approached Wiig with interest in starting a Farm Guild in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

“I came away with a very long list of farmers — young and old — who expressed interest in forming a new Farmers Guild. We even had an enthusiastic offer by the Banner Grange Hall to host the group. At this point, however, we’re still waiting for someone to stand up and spearhead the group. A Farmers Guild is for farmers, by farmers. But I’m confident that someone will rise to the challenge,” said Wiig.

In 2013, the Banner Grange almost tripled its membership through events such as a popular seed swap and a BriarPatch Co-op sponsored film-screening benefit.

Sierra Harvest (formerly Live Healthy Nevada County and Living Lands Agrarian Network) is actively pursuing a partnership with the farm guild, said co-director Malaika Bishop.

The Farmers Guild recently launched a new scholarship fund to provide financial assistance to new farmers seeking continued education in their field.

In addition, the guild has partnered with Community Alliance with Family Farmers to offer a year of educational workshops.

Once a local host is established, building the foundation of a guild in Nevada County should be easy, said Wiig.

“As for Nevada County, setting up a guild ought to be a cinch. There are few places with as much community support of local food, with as many organizations working toward positive change and where the farmer holds such respect,” said Wiig.

“To connect with Nevada County would be a huge opportunity for the wider guild network, as our ultimate goal is to multiply and spread all the ideas, tools, opportunities, wisdom, and support that will and must transform our food system,” said Wiig.

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