Evan Wiig and the Farmer’s Guild bring new and seasoned producers together.
The young man on stage takes a deep swig from the bottle of Wild Turkey in his hand and turns to the microphone. Frontman for Whiskey and Circumstance, a band that describes itself as “USDA-certified organic, pasture-raised, farm-to-stage cowboy disco,” Evan Wiig sings about heartbreak, love, and glitter floating in his trough.
Two years ago, Wiig worked for an academic publisher in New York City. On this night, he’s thousands of miles away in every respect, entertaining a crowd in Sebastopol gathered to celebrate the Community Alliance with Family Farms and Farmlink. The crowd is young and slender, lifting pints with dirt-begrimed fingers as children with homemade haircuts run between their legs. Aside from the fact that no one is smoking (anything), it’s like being back in the ’70s.
Meet the new generation of family farmers.
Wiig, 27, moved to Valley Ford from Brooklyn in 2011 after realizing that he’d much rather spend time at the local farmer’s markets and on the abandoned property he’d helped turn into an urban garden than sit at his desk in Manhattan.
A friend’s family owned a cattle ranch out here, so Wiig took off for Sonoma County to learn, among other things, that he has an uncanny affection for chickens. He also learned that there was a stunning amount about farming and ranching that he doesn’t know.
“I met some people my age who were also giving it a go, and we started having dinner and drinks and, over the course of those meet-ups, I realized that everyone was sharing information and resources,” Wiig says by phone from his home at Green Valley Village in West County. “People were talking about planting resources and comparing chicken coop designs. That was incredibly helpful, and I realized that it was a vital resource for people who are getting into farming.”
The Farmer’s Guild is a group that supports the newest generation of farmers, but what’s most essential is that we build a connection between this generation and people who have been doing it for a long time. Evan Wiig
He chuckles. “Soon enough, it didn’t fit in our kitchen any more.” The Farmer’s Guild was born.
An inveterate organizer, Wiig formalized the dinner-and-drink meets into monthly events that became Farmer’s Guild meetings at Sebastopol’s GrowKitchen, encouraging new farmers to swap information and stories with older farmers. They soon outgrew that space, too, and in November launched a new monthly program with the area Grange association.
“What the Farmer’s Guild does is to provide an incubator for ideas,” Wiig says. “The Farmer’s Guild is a group that supports the newest generation of farmers, but what’s most essential is that we build a connection between this generation and people who have been doing it for a long time. One group is the future, but it’s also the one that can provide some enthusiasm and excitement. What we need is experience and wisdom. It’s a lot nicer if one person can make a mistake for everyone and let everyone know.”
Each evening begins with a “potluck of epic proportions,” as everyone brings their best produce to showcase. “It’s really cool because there’s a lot of pride in that,” he says. And then there is a speaker, be it someone from UC Davis Extension or, as happened last fall, a young woman with a “book report” on an old 1930s text she’d found on how to start a farm.
He’s actually been so successful in his outreach efforts that Wiig isn’t farming right now at all. Instead, his Farmer’s Guild is working with FarmsReach.com, which helps create a digital community for farmers.
“I’m helping to develop this website as a tool for farming communities,” Wiig says. “Nowadays, you can communicate, ask questions, post events. You can communicate with your guild network as long as you have a smart phone, you can do that in the middle of your field, in the milking barn, out in the pastures, even if you’re 50 miles from the next neighbor.”
Farming is difficult, dirty, poorly paid work without a whit of security. Why are so many young people embracing it?
Wiig thinks for a minute. “There are two things,” he says. “Number one is that people are reexamining the food system that we’ve taken for granted for so long. Not many of us have grown up with direct access to agriculture and there’s a realization that this disconnect is dangerous. The agriculture industry is changing at such a rapid speed that people are getting alarmed. If we continue to be so passive in consuming the basic essentials of life, we’re endangering ourselves.”
He’s also concerned about the monopolization of such products as pork and the danger that lies in having one corporation control everything about the product from the animal’s genes on down.
“The second reason is just authenticity,” he says. “People are looking to find an honest living. My generation is the first that’s really grown up in a world where we’re clicking a lot of buttons. I embrace technology, obviously I think it’s a wonderful tool for connecting and organizing, but I think that the world we’ve grown up with is so far from getting our hands dirty or even just doing manual labor.”
He pauses. “People are drawn to the idea of getting chicken shit on their shoes.”