Farming is more than ever an entrepreneurial endeavor, a high stakes game that is fraught with risks, not the least of which is extreme and unpredictable weather, such as the drought we’re currently facing here in the West.
It’s no wonder that many multi-generation farming and ranching families are disappearing from the landscape. Many of those who have stepped up to take their place are finding that their success depends on collaborating and connecting online and offline with other farmers and ranchers.
The popularity of FarmsReach and the Farmers Guild — gatherings of local farmers, ranchers, chefs, artisans and agriculture advocates — has grown out of this reality. FarmsReach, a farmer-to-farmer online network based in Berkeley, Calif., has become the online extension of the in-person Farmers Guilds in Northern California. Offline, we meet at local Grange halls or in other community spaces.
Since the 2012 founding of the first Farmers Guild in Sebastopol, four new guilds have been formed. In addition to Sebastopol, guilds are now actively working in Sonoma Valley, Mendocino, Yolo County and soon, the Sierra Foothills.
The guilds are equal parts social and business. They give beginning farmers access to trusted advisors who can share the wisdom of two decades worth of experience, who can argue the merits of no-till farming, compare notes on rotational grazing or share tips, stories and solace over this year’s drought.
Through the guilds, the innovative and creative farmers and ranchers are finding new ways to cross-pollinate, to reconceive agriculture as an integrated, dynamic and connected way of life. This new model lessens the risk that new farmers will fail, and it increases the health of our farms and the abundance of the food they produce.
The first North Coast Farmers Guild started as a fun, casual meet-up of farmers and farm supporters. Today, our monthly meetings in Sebastopol attract up to 70 farmers and supporters each month, with many folks driving up to three hours just to hang out and share information.
Some of our guild members walk in quite literally from their fields across the road. Others drive up from their urban farms in Oakland or even Mendocino County. Some are managing huge swaths of land. Others are just embarking upon their first farm internship.
We get cattle ranchers, goat cheese artisans, vegetable, fruit and flower farmers and chicken coop carpenters. Interns with two week’s experience bring wide-eyed enthusiasm, while established farmers with two decades of experience will stop in to share their wisdom.
Though our resources are focused on California right now, FarmsReach is committed to helping other communities get new guilds off the ground.
Setting up a guild is not that hard. Find a few friends from your local agricultural community — farm interns, ranch managers, local farm advocates — and evaluate the resources, needs and wants of the group. Is there a Grange hall in your neighborhood that could serve as a meeting place for your guild?
Pick a convenient monthly date and send out invites to neighbors at the farmers’ market. Reach out to the older, more established farmers in the area and tell everyone to bring a dish to share. Then tap into the wider Farmers Guild online network on FarmsReach.com.
Look at the challenges today’s new and young farmers face. They struggle with lack of access to capital and credit, disappearing farmland, sky-high insurance costs and extreme weather events. They also face competition for the food dollar from large-scale supermarket chains and mega stores.
As I see it, the guilds won’t make any of these obstacles disappear. But they do give the beginning farmer a place to have community, the confidence to try new methods, or just a place to get trusted advice from farmers from all over the state and stay current on the latest policies affecting our farms. The guild is a hub, a place to kick off your muck boots and crack open a beer after a hard day in the field.
Evan Wiig is a Sebastopol chicken farmer and organizer of FarmsReach’s Farmers Guilds. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.