Connecting with the earth, each other and their communities

In an age where our lives and commerce are guided by intangible electronic transmissions we can neither touch nor smell, a burgeoning corps of young farmers are turning their attention to the most elemental and essential of all human occupations: cultivating the earth.

A new generation of young farmers is emerging across the country, committed to organic agriculture, sustainable farming practices and feeding their communities. There are networks of independent, organized and educated farmers sharing their expertise, principles and successes. Nowhere are they more evident than in Sonoma County.

The first Tuesday of every month the North Coast Farmers Guild meets at the Sebastopol Grange Hall to share food, information and have some fun. The guild is part of the newly established Farmers Guild Network, a collection of seven farmers guilds throughout Northern California, including guilds in Sonoma Valley, Mendocino, Yolo and Nevada counties, and the Central Coast. Their goal is providing connections for farmers who are working to build vibrant and diverse local food economies.
A public event in Sebastopol in July attracted about 400 people throughout the evening, with the unexpected crowds causing some traffic jams on Highway 12 as the Grange Hall parking lot overflowed. It was also an indication of how much support there is for locally grown food, according to Evan Wiig, executive director of the Farmers Guild Network. “I think people are excited about food and food culture and excited that agriculture is becoming something that is fun and special and part of our everyday life and people want to be involved in it,” he said. “People want to know who their farmers are and where their food comes from. They want to connect, not just with farmers and their food, but they want to connect with each other.”

Those in attendance at the July 2 event included those actively working in agriculture, people in the food industry and people who shop at Farmers Markets. “It’s a broad community, but a community that really had something in common,” he said. “There was a common thread — food and farming — and they came out to celebrate that.”

Homegrown Talent and Dedication
That common thread begins in the fields and orchards of Sonoma County. In the case of the New Family Farm, it begins in the fertile soils along Atascadero Creek west of Sebastopol. Adam Davidoff and Ryan Power started farming five years ago and now farm 10 acres of land, growing vegetables and herbs, raising pigs and utilizing teams of horses for some of the farm work. Davidoff and Power both graduated from Analy High School and went on to earn degrees in Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz. Davidoff spent a year in New Mexico before returning home to start New Family Farm with Power.

Their enterprise embraces the principles that guide many modern organic farms, grounded in a holistic context and a commitment to a sustainable ecology and economy. Ryan Power recalls a professor at Santa Cruz telling him that “agriculture is the largest medium through which people interact with the ecosystem,” and that message stuck with him. “Ag is where we need thoughtfulness and mindfulness,” said Power. “It involves activism and social change, which is borne out of the idea that the way we as a people are treating the earth is not right … we need to figure out how to feed people without harming the earth. I feel really confident about that.”

Among the first things to do, said Power, is to support the idea of farming and bring more people into the fold. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, less than 1 percent of the 313 million living in the U.S. claim farming as an occupation, and 45 percent of those claimed farming as their principal occupation. “So we (as farmers) feed 99 percent of the population. That is not a sustainable ratio,” he said. “I don’t want to be a commuter. I don’t want to work for another man’s wealth. I’m proud to be a farmer. We raise a lot of food. When we send out four truckloads of food out into the community, and that makes me feel excellent. We’re feeding families and children. We’re feeding the community.”
New Family Farm sells their produce directly to customers at local farmers markets and to local grocery stores, including Oliver’s Markets, Whole Foods Market and Andy’s Produce Market. “This is a great county for farmers to get a foothold and for people to know how their food is grown,” said Power. “People are becoming more aware of how their food is grown and are learning to appreciate the art of growing food more than the business of growing food.”

Davidoff admits to a certain degree of business naiveté when they first started their farming enterprise. “We got into this business without enough of a business acumen,” he said. “If someone had forced us to take a farming business class we would have gotten our mistakes out of the way a lot quicker. We need to be the best and the brightest people doing farming — our future depends on it. As farmers we need to be the smartest ones out there, the sharpest tools in the shed. We need to be innovative in everything we do, whether it’s using the horses, or no-till versus till, or packaging, transportation … everything.”

Despite the hard work, long hours and modest income, Davidoff said returning to Sebastopol to farm the soil was the right decision.

“We were disillusioned when we got out of college,” said Davidoff. “This continues to be the most tangible thing we can do … it feels like you are making a difference. At the end of the day, turning the pigs or the horses out to pasture, listening to the birds … It all comes back about why we’re doing this. Since we’ve been doing this I’ve never been disillusioned.”

Davidoff seeks a balance in his work and his life. The farm is certified organic and he uses horses for a portion of the work that would otherwise require motorized equipment. But some things, like shaping beds and spreading manure, still require a tractor. “There are lots of nice things about using horses,” said Davidoff. “It allows you to slow down and work at a farm pace … it’s a beautiful, challenging and humbling relationship. It’s a more holistic approach and allows us to view the farm as an organism. We use them in the places where it makes the most sense. In the spring we use them a lot. There is a steep learning curve. We learn a lot each time we do it.”

Using horses to plow a field or pigs to graze off the edges of a planted area are ways of finding a balance of the old and the new. “It’s really about keeping the big picture in mind and keeping things in context for what you are doing … we try to keep the balance between efficiency, beauty and a fulfilling lifestyle,” he said. “When you are growing a farm you have to be intentional and thoughtful. Do you want to grow a whole field of tomatoes just to be profitable? Or do you want to farm in a way that is about quality of life and growing food that is healthy? We feel like we’re making a difference in the world.”

Power and Davidoff are passionate about agriculture’s place in society and in the daily workings of a community. They bristle at the stereotype of farmers as poor and uneducated. “We really believe that farms should be the hub of a community,” said Davidoff. “Farms support the community and the community should support them. We’re trying to show that farmers can make a good living both monetarily and in the quality of life. I’m educated and have a desire to learn from the best thinkers of our time. I can’t get stuck in the paradigm where I can’t make a good living. I don’t want to be rich, but I do want to send my kids to college … I’m going to keep farming, there is no doubt about that. It’s just a matter of where and how.”

A Second Generation of Farmer in Healdsburg
For the past 35 years Yael Bernier and her husband Paul have been farming in the Healdsburg area. Yael is known for her multiple varieties of garlic (14) and Paul for dry-farming steep hillside vineyards that few others care to take on. They live in a home on two acres they bought on Canyon Road in Geyserville in 1976, affectionately known as the “home place,” where they reared their three children. Later they bought an adjacent property with a home and another three acres, which is where their son, Zureal, now lives with his wife and child.

Zureal is the second generation of farmer in the Bernier family. He first thought he’d like to go into farming after studying abroad in Argentina during his junior year at Healdsburg High School. He spent a year in an agricultural school with other students destined to farm. “That was my first time I realized that people my age were thinking about what they wanted to do with their lives,” said Zureal. “I thought my parents have something cool going on and that might be a good direction.”

He took a circuitous path before returning home to join his parents. After a stint at Santa Rosa Junior College, Zureal studied fruit science at Cal Poly State University San Luis Obispo and earned a degree in agriculture. He moved home and farmed with his father for a while, travelled, and lived and worked in Santa Cruz and Berkeley. “I came back in my senior year (of high school) and realized that agriculture was a pretty valid path to go down,” said Zureal. “I didn’t make my mind up that was what I was going do to right then. I’ve done many other things. It’s been good to see some other things and consider what the other options are.” Returning to Sonoma County, Zureal worked for other organic vegetable growers and started his own vegetable enterprise.

At one point, Zureal and Yael were each selling vegetables at the same market, under different tents. “I realized why try to do my own thing when my parents aren’t getting any younger,” he said. “I didn’t make any sense to have a mother and son competing with each other.” Both readily admit it was hardly competitive, and never awkward.

So Zureal decided to throw in with his parents, and he now splits his time between working with his father in the vineyards and the compost and his mother in the fruit and vegetable operation. “I’ve always joked that Zureal has the worst of both worlds,” said Paul. “He has to work with me in the vineyards and his mom in the vegetables.” Zureal noted wryly that he was “pretty well getting ripped right down the middle” when it comes to his labors. “It makes my job really diverse and challenging at times. There are always a hundred things going on.”

While the Bernier’s family is anchored at the home place, their farming takes them to numerous locations. The vineyard sharecropping takes Paul and Zureal to eight different ranches, in addition to their own, where they farm 40 acres of vineyard. Several years ago, Paul was asked if he was interested in a vineyard in the Alexander Valley, which hadn’t interested him in the past given his predilection for Old Vine Zinfandel. But he took on the vineyard and it changed the course of things for the family.

In the mid-2000s Yael started expanding the vegetable growing activities. “For years I would talk Paul into taking out a row or two of grapes here and there” so she could plant more vegetables, said Yael. When the family took over operation of Alexander Valley vineyard in 2010, the owners agreed to remove several acres of vineyard, where the Berniers now grow three acres of vegetables and an acre of fruit trees. The timing was fortuitous.

“It coincided with me deciding I was ready to farm with my parents full time,” said Zureal. “Now, at this point neither of my parents are willing to admit it, but they are approaching retirement … which leaves me as the one person who has been with the operation long enough to take over. Both of my parents are critical to the operation.” And he adds with a slight smirk, “… I don’t think they are going to get laid off any time soon.”

It’s clear that Zureal values the opportunity to work alongside his parents and appreciates the work that has gone into building a farming business. And they appreciate his independent thinking. “Learning the business from my parents, a lot of it feels perfect and some of it could be improved and modified,” he said.

“Zureal is more formally trained than we are,” said Paul. “Yael and I operate by the seat of our pants. In the vineyard, I’ve done things wrong just to see how far I can go and still get away with it … and I’ve learned a lot along the way.”

And the younger Bernier is the beneficiary of his parents’ trial and error. “There is a large infrastructure behind this operation – equipment, land, relationships,” said Zureal. “I am happy about all this … it’s definitely a challenging job, but there is a real future in it. Sonoma County is an amazing place and it has a lot to offer. The ‘movement’ (of young farmers) is happening right now … there is a cycle of more small farms popping up along with restaurants and wineries and there is kind of an upward spiraling of this that is getting bigger and bigger. There are more people fully involved in small farm operations, and it goes hand in hand with food and it creates a lot of diversity with food events and the farmers markets. It creates a connection between the producers and the customers.”

Zureal said he enjoys the direct contact with people in the community. Gratification comes “not just selling food to restaurants and wineries, but we are selling food to customers at the Farmers Markets, working class people who want good food. That’s priceless. We’re feeding our community and neighbors and friends.” The Berniers sell their produce at the Farmers Markets in Santa Rosa, Healdsburg and Cloverdale and they sell directly to many local restaurants. Zureal is on the board of directors of the Original Certified Santa Rosa Farmers Market and the Berniers are members of the Farmers Guild. They recently became certified as organic farmers through the California Certified Organic Farmers agency.

Small farmers compete with much larger farms that can afford to sell fruit and vegetables at lower prices. Lower prices, however, can’t compete with fresh, local produce. “This is freshly picked, locally grown and the prices we charge make it affordable to us,” said Yael. “We’re not making big profits.”
“The reality is you are getting something that is freshly produced, and it is something that is sustainable and healthy,” said Zureal. “It’s supporting long-term sustainability, health-wise and economically. It’s a choice that people either make or they don’t make.”

For their part, the Berniers have chosen farming as a way of life. “People ask me why I do it,” said Yael. “Shouldn’t I be retired? We built this place and I feel connected and intertwined with this place. I often feel like I’d have to be carried out of here. I feel intertwined and grounded.”

For Zureal, he appreciates “the satisfaction of watching the process of planting an area and seeing it grow and fill in … and how you are able to eat and live off what you grow. Our focus here is on building soil nutrients and fertility through cover cropping and compost. How could I now farm that property? There is so much gratification with farming and the lifestyle of farming. It hooks you in. It’s not just a career.”

The other two Bernier children, Sam and Briana, occasionally help out on the farm. “We’re a family that likes to cook and we like to eat good food,” said Yael. “That is an important part of having this lifestyle.”

From Meat Loaf to a Farmers Guild
The newest wave of young farmers is bent on supporting others who want that lifestyle. The Farmers Guild started innocuously enough two years ago in Evan Wiig’s kitchen in Valley Ford, where he was working at True Grass Farms, which raises organic meats. They’d get together for an informal meal and a few beers. The casual meetings were known as “Meat Loaf Mondays” because they involved ground beef from the farm.

“Initially there was no profound attempt to start an organization,” said Wiig. “But we were living in a town of 126 people who were much older, more conservative and much more reserved, and here we were these young whippersnappers who wanted to do things differently. We realized this was very important. If any of us were going to stay in ag we had to have these kinds of connections.”
Part of the push among young farmers to organize is the increasing average age of farmers. In the U.S., between 1997 and 2007, the average age of the principal operator of a farm increased from 54 years old to 57 years old, according to the USDA’s Census of Agriculture. “There is a huge exodus from family farms,” said Wiig. “I realized the benefit of providing a resource of young farmers to get together and be more successful collectively was a huge impact, way beyond whether or not my chickens are going to lay enough eggs to make a living for myself.”

Thus the Young Farmers Guild was formed, with most of the members in the 20s and 30s attending monthly meetings at the Sebastopol Grange Hall. Some confusion arose as to “what was a young farmer,” said Wiig. “Some people assumed it was 4H or FFA, and once the Guild grew so large we didn’t want that confusion. It became the Farmers Guild. This is an organization for all ages and we realized that one of the most important things we could do to meet the needs and contribute to the success of young farmers is to have old farmers participate and show up at meetings. They need to pass on this knowledge, wisdom, experience, their tools, their land and their farms.”
In June of this year, The Farmers Guild Network became a non-profit organization with about 1,000 members, including farm operators, interns, ranch hands and farm workers. The group has launched a crowd-funding campaign to fund its ongoing operations. “The Farmers Guild is free for anyone and a service for the community,” he said. “And people find it valuable. We are reaching out to our community to help us make this viable.”  SD

Photo by Gary Ottonello