Sonoma County is growing a new variety of farmers. With organizations like the Sebastopol Grange and The Farmers Guild educating community members and advocating for small farms, the seeds of change within local food systems are being planted.
Information is power, and people know much more about where their food comes from as well as the effect of big business in agriculture and its stronghold on our food systems. Executive Director of The Farmers Guild Evan Wiig is one of a handful of people working to restructuring this arrangement and educating others on healthier connections to our food.
“Our food system has been somewhat commandeered and co-opted by an incredibly large agri-business monopoly,” Wiig said. “So there is an interest from people in how to re-create local food economies, in how to be more innovative, small scaled and more community minded.”
With the cost of land rising in Sonoma County and food prices not keeping up, Wiig said and young farmers today are faced with challenges that their ancestors did not. A young farmer today cannot buy land, farm in the same way or start a farm the way farmers did 30 to 50 years ago.
“Everything that farmers were doing in the 70s is illegal today. The regulations are not the same,” Wiig said. “The food safety regulations, the cost of land, the cost of labor and processing have sky rocketed and become so much more complex that today you need to start with several million dollars just to get started.”
Wiig said one of the ways for young farmers to start out is to start small. A group that supports farmers with access to capital and land leasing is California FarmLink and has helped over 3,000 farmers and ranchers throughout the state since 1999.
Caiti Hachmyer owner of Red H Farms agrees with Wiig that FarmLink does good work for small farms and leasing to new farmers is important, and she said it is now time to go even further in the discussion. Hachmyer believes it’s important to talk about the transfer of land and the ability of young people to access it in a long-term ownership capacity.
“Even if I can find land to rent, the investment that I’m going to put into that land is never going to make as much sense as if I can actually own that land,” Hachmyer said.
Another test is while most of the farmers now going into their retirement, farms are either going to corporations or consolidating with other larger farms. Hachmyer said we need to find other ways to transition that land to the younger generation of farmers. It is less about leasing, she said, and more important to talk about creating programs where young farmers can have subsidized land ownership.
“For instance, the way we have subsidized housing programs in the cities where an apartment is built and a certain number has to be sold below market rate,” Hachmyer said. “I think we need to figure something like that out for farmland because having farmers rent land is not enough to actually create a viable farming population.”
The goal, Wiig said, is to create community and agriculture resilience. The Farmers Guild created a program called Follow the Rooster, which allows anyone interested to pledge an action towards the cause. Wiig said the actions people can do to support a resilient food economy is not that simple but they are important.
“Buying from a small farmer in their first five years is very important,” Wiig said. “Join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organization in your town or lease your land to a new farmer. We need incubation, so if you have 3 acres, lease it to a young farmer. In exchange, you get fresh vegetables delivered to your doorstep every single day.”
Although the picture may look bleak for farmers, there are solutions Wiig said. These solutions are entrenched through communities joining in innovative ways. According to Wiig, collaboration between organizations and the blending of beliefs is necessary as well as the continued education to the public and advocacy of small farming in our communities.
Buying locally is definitely important, Wiig said and knowing what that means is imperative. A perfect example, he said, is the circular ‘eat local’ signs on businesses, which are not serving locally grown food, but are a locally owned business. The other distinction is knowing what food grows better in certain areas. A tomato in Bodega Bay is not always going to be better than a tomato in Santa Rosa, which has better tomato weather.
“You don’t have to be an uber localist,” Wiig said.
The Farmers Guild meets at the Sebastopol Grange every first Tuesday of the month to share food, skills and ideas. With a goal to collectively strive toward the economic viability of agriculture as well as to create social networks necessary to attract, cultivate and sustain a new generation ready to work the land, the gatherings are an ideal place to build like-minded community.
Sebastopol Grange member Jeanna Collette said the gatherings of young farmers is a great place for the community to relax, break bread and soak in local news and innovative ideas around agriculture. Collette said there is a place for farmers and people who want to grow their own food at home.
“I’m a young mother and so not only am I growing a garden, but I am growing a family,” Collette said. “The Grange has seeds in the soil and seeds in family. The meetings feed me in a different way then a farmer does, but we all eat at the same table.”
The meetings create a family and a community, Collette said and provide a rich educational source for young farmers. Anyone wanting to know more about anything connected to agriculture and food, Collette said will find answers.
“It’s a powerful testimony to people connecting. We meet, we talk about what we want to learn about and collectively find resources to make it happen,” Collette said. “It’s a wonderful container for the community.”