While working on a cattle ranch, Evan Wiig began inviting other young farmers to a weekly potluck of both food and ideas. He called it “Meatloaf Monday.”

“We found it was a really valuable resource just to get farmers together on a regular basis to talk shop,” Wiig said. “It grew and it grew… and our little group of six people became 10, became 20 until there were 50 people showing up.”

In 2011, Wiig moved the group out of his kitchen and into the Sebastopol Grange hall when he founded the Farmers Guild, which now includes chapters across California. The organization promotes sustainable agriculture through education, events, networking and advocacy for small-scale farmers. The guild merged with Community Alliance with Family Farmers in January 2017.

When wildfires hit Northern California in October 2017, the guild again organized a potluck to raise money for farm disaster relief. Like the first potluck, this one grew, and in less than two years, CAFF provided about $100,000 in grants to farmers and farmworkers. Recently, Wiig talked about the disaster relief efforts and the climate-smart challenges that lie ahead.

A conversation with Evan Wiig

Q: How did CAFF/Farmers Guild get involved with wildfires and financial support for small farmers?

We never had a program specifically for wildfire or disaster relief. We never really focused on that in the past. But it came to us – I guess it just fell into our laps – because I was living here in Sonoma County and working with farmers in this area. When the fires hit in 2017, it was all hands on deck. Everybody in the community just jumped in and said, ‘What can I do?’ They went to volunteer, they donated whatever they could.

A number of our members got together and said, ‘Hey, we should get together and have a little fundraiser. Let's do what we do best, which is hold potlucks for farmers. We'll pass around a hat and we'll gather some money and we'll send it in to help the people who are getting hit by these fires.’ That was still while the fires were burning, so we had no idea of how big it was really going to get. Each day we got closer to this fundraiser, the fire was getting bigger and bigger, and we saw more and more destruction. The evacuation was surpassed 100,000 people. It was just totally throwing our entire community upside down. The fires were not only hitting urban Santa Rosa, but they were going through the rural farming areas of Sonoma Valley, up in Mendocino, all through Napa.

We started getting word that a number of our farms were actually getting hit. We had farmers who lost barns, and homes, and field fencing, and infrastructure, and all of these things. Luckily, everyone we know got out safe. Our hopes for this little fundraiser were that maybe we'd get a couple of dozen people to show up, maybe raise a couple thousand dollars if we were lucky.

All of a sudden, it just exploded with generosity. Everyone in our community started coming in, all the chefs that we worked with started coming in and said, ‘Hey, what can we do at the fundraiser? We want to cook for it.’ Somebody else would come in and say, ‘Let's do a silent auction, I'll donate this and I'll donate that.’ It came together so, so fast, and there was so much passion to do something. No one wants to sit around twiddling their thumbs when there's so much to be done. But you don't know what to do, you don't know what you can do during a fire. Unless you're a firefighter out there actually battling the flames, everyone else just kind of feels helpless, but they want to do something.

We had planned to do the fundraiser at the Sebastopol Grange hall, where we usually meet. Within three hours before the event started, the parking lot was full of just volunteers. We were like, ‘Oh geez, what are we going to do? We're not going to be able to fit everybody.’ So I started calling around, everybody in my community that I know asking if they knew a place where we could move our fundraiser. Luckily, we found another space that had a much bigger capacity. We got a bunch of signs and we said, ‘The event has moved three blocks down the road,’ and over 800 people showed up that night. Not only was it people donating money but also signing up to volunteer, getting organized, figuring out how we can be better at responding to the needs.

In that one evening, we raised over $50,000 – beyond anyone's expectations. We got a number of our partners on board to help manage the funds, continue to raise money and provide it as short-term relief to individuals who were affected. That included individual farmers who had lost their homes or barns or tractors as well as undocumented residents, who are the backbone of our agricultural food systems. A lot of the FEMA funds and the resources that were available to fire victims were not available to undocumented citizens. Even if they were available, a lot of folks were afraid to go to places with public officials. And so you had people who could have stayed at the shelters who ended up camping on the beach in Bodega Bay just because they were afraid of ICE coming in. It was a really unfortunate situation and a good reminder that when people live in the shadows, it's dangerous.

We provided another $50,000 donation to UndocuFund, which was in a fund that started up specifically to provide financial resources to the undocumented residents. A lot of them are farm workers and important to our food system here in Sonoma County and the whole Bay Area. A lot of the funds went to programs that were working to provide more Spanish language assistance to farmers or to residents during disaster. They went to building up better communication systems so we're ready in the case of a fire. We also provided funds to organizations that were doing long-term resilience projects. That included a lot of folks who were doing ecological restoration – making sure to prevent erosion along the riversides and hillsides, making sure we maintain our topsoil so we can have forest regrowth in a healthy way.

Q: Talk to me about the importance of ecological balance.

In a natural environment, we live in a fire ecology, and so in their natural settings, most ecosystems that are adapted to fire will eventually recover. It might be a new succession, but eventually it will recover.

But given what we do to the landscape, the cultivation, the developments, the road, the asphalts, the stream diversion – we’ve so dramatically altered the California landscape that it's not the natural fire ecology it was a few hundred years ago. It's incredibly different, which means there's more fuel load, you have forests that aren't maintained. You have grasslands that aren't grazed in the way that they would be when we had massive herds of elk and bison and all other types of herbivores. And when you don't have natural flow of fires on a regular basis – a little fire here and a little fire there and a little fire there – those are the things that actually clear the underbrush. Those things are natural occurrences.

Instead, when you have a system where you do everything you possibly can to avoid fire at all costs, and you put out fire and you prevent fire. What you end up getting are these forests that are just totally overgrown. There’s a lot of underbrush. By preventing small, natural fires, you're building this incredibly dense tinderbox, so when we have that one fire we do miss, it's explosive and that's really dangerous.

Then we end up building our communities right next to those places, creating a rural-urban interface, which is where the fires are most prone. It's just a lot of different variables that add up to a huge threat to our communities when it comes to fires.

We learned a lot from this process. I also think a lot in terms of the mycelial network, like mushrooms. When you look at the underground of a forest, for instance, or the underground of an organic farm, there’s life living underneath the ground. You have mushrooms, and you have nematodes and bacterias and root systems from the trees and from the plants and from the perennials. They’re all connected, and they communicate with one another. They're sending nutrients to one another. They’re sending messages to one another. They’re sending energy. They’re taking the energy from the sun through photosynthesis, they're pumping it down. Then there's bacteria providing minerals, and they're constantly communicating to each other, but we don't always see what's going on underneath.

Q: How is the threat of wildfire changing the way of life for small farmers?

When you think about small farmers in particular, the large farms are oftentimes in the middle of major agricultural valleys. So if you want to find the biggest farms, you go right in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, the Sacramento Valley, the Salinas Valley. Primarily, you're going to find the larger farms there.

The smaller farms are usually on the fringes like the ones you find in El Dorado County, in Nevada County, and here in Sonoma County, or just on the edges of those larger valleys. That’s where the real fire-prone areas are, as well as the urban-rural interface around the Bay Area, around San Diego, around L.A. There’s a huge threat to those.

If you're right in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, you're not going to burn. You might have a barn burn down because of an electrical malfunction or something like that, but large wildfires will not sweep through thousands and thousands of acres of irrigated crops. In fact, what we saw over and over again was that irrigated crops created a fire break. We saw that happen with the vineyards, and we saw that happen with the produce farms. The things that burned were the forests and, of course, the developments.

We've been thinking a lot about how to design communities in a way where you can have an edible green belt that surrounds urban areas instead of building developments further encroaching into the woods into these really dangerous, fire-prone, rural habitats. Instead, let's create farms and encourage agricultural zoning in areas surrounding these places so you don't have a house butted up against a dry forest that then goes on for 100 miles. Instead, you have a community surrounded by irrigated crops and then you have the forest. Obviously, that's kind of big-picture thinking.

Maybe it's a little idealistic at this point, given the momentum of development we have here in California, but if we really want to protect ourselves, we have to be radical in terms of what our solutions are going to be. You have to think about planned grazing, bringing in goats and cattle into areas to bring down some of that brush. Prescribed burns is another thing we're working on a lot right now. In the natural state of California, you would have these fires and they would clear the brush in small, contained, carefully managed fires. The Native Americans did it before the arrival of Europeans. Now we see a resurgence of ranchers and property owners trying it as well.

Q: You did your first fundraiser in 2017. What's happened since then?

We were really fortunate that the fundraiser we created back in October of 2017 was just the start. We created this fund, it grew, more people started donating. We continued to raise money for it, and over the course of its life, the fund generated almost $400,000. We've given money to those who were affected in the North Bay fires, we then used some of those funds to provide resources to farmers who were affected by the Camp Fire and a few of the smaller fires down in Southern California. We are continuing to support programs like that.

Q: What is the status of the fund?

We are doing three more donations and then we're closing it – not because there's not a need. It’s just because, it's a lot of work managing a fund. I had no idea how much work giving out money would be. There's such a huge need. And, as we see over and over again, the fires are not stopping. They're just growing, they're increasing, they're multiplying.

I think we need to really take a step back and ask, ‘How are we going to fund this?’ It's one thing to have a bunch of one-offs and depend on individual contributions from our generous members, but we need to be looking at larger scale solutions. We need to be looking at how can we make sure that the financial assistance is there for everyone who's going to need it because this isn't going to stop.

I don't think our little scrappy non-profit organization is going to be able to rise to the occasion of the magnitude that we're dealing with here. We need to be looking at this from a state level, and hopefully, a federal level as well. It's going to take a lot more than just ‘raking the forest.’ It's going to require serious conversations about how we manage our forests and manage our developments.

And yes, that whole ‘raking the forest’ thing was pretty ridiculous. But we do need to ask, ‘How are we managing it?’ Raking is not going to work, but certainly asking, ‘Can we have grazing? Can we have prescribed burns? Can we start limiting developments? Can we support infill and instead of rural developments that are butting up against these forests?’ There's a paradigm shift that's going to need to take place.

Q: What's your vision for disaster assistance?

We're talking about an ecological crisis that is being perpetuated by climate change. This is not just the occasional fire and flood that we've seen in the past. This is going to increase and multiply. We’re going to see greater floods. We’re going to see greater fires. And if we as a nation can't address it, then I don't think it's going to work on a local level.

We have a crisis at a global level. I think we need to come up with solutions that can meet the scale of the problem we're dealing with. When you look at what happened the last time we had an ecological crisis of this magnitude, it was in the 1930s when we had the Dust Bowl. We lost one-sixth of our topsoil. We had entire communities destroyed economically and ecologically. That wasn't a random fluke in nature. That was man-made ecological disaster on a national scale.

We had farmers who had worked in humid, wet East Coast climates who were encouraged by the government and the railroad companies to move west and bring their agricultural practices. No one stopped to ask, ‘How do you do that in the arid west? How do you do that in the Great Plains where things are very, very different?’ So you had these farmers over-tilling their lands, not taking very good care, and not recognizing the new climate they were farming in. As a result, we had one drought and suddenly – bam – entire communities were upside down.

We had clouds of of precious topsoil that drifted as far as Washington D.C. Our lawmakers in Washington could see the Dust Bowl from the window of the capital. We responded with the New Deal. We responded by creating the Soil Conservation Service, which is today called the Natural Resources Conservation Service. We hired all these unemployed men and women to go out and plant literally billions of trees or to plant prairie grasses that would control the erosion that was taking place in the Great Plains. We hired people to go out and talk with farmers about how to manage their soil, how to prevent erosion, how to be smarter with their water conservation practices.

We had this huge national-level response to a national-level ecological disaster. It wasn't a perfect response, but our nation did respond. The Soil Conservation Service didn't necessarily save everyone, and there were a lot of problems with it. One in particular was that a lot of African-American farmers were discriminated against. They weren't provided the same resources. There were a lot of flaws and loopholes, and political wheeling and dealing that made the New Deal not as ideal as it could have been.

But we now have an ecological disaster not only on a national level but on a global scale. If we can't respond to it on a global level, at the very least we need to respond at a national level, and we need to provide resources that fit the magnitude of the problem. We can't have these small little piecemeal programs – FEMA coming in and declaring a national emergency here, a national emergency there, as if putting out little fires without really recognizing that we've got a bigger problem than that.

We're going to need America to really step up and ask how we can respond at the same level that we did in the 1930s to get us out of the Great Depression, to get us out of the Dust Bowl, to put millions of people to work, and to restore the land that we ourselves degraded.

Q: This isn't limited just to wildfires.

No. This is a disastrous year for the Midwest. Not only are farmers – especially soy farmers – struggling through the tariff war that's taking place right now, but on top of that, they had one of the latest planting seasons on record. We had so many floods that they couldn't even get into their field to plant. There's the old saying, ‘Knee high by July.’ You want to make sure that your corn is up to your knees by July. Well, people are just getting into their fields now, and it's going to be the economic ruin of entire rural communities. We need to figure out how to respond to that.

We need to look at how we're managing our land and how we're growing our food in a more sustainable way – what we call a climate-smart way. We know we have techniques to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration. But on top of that, we have to face the inevitable fact that the climate is changing and how do we farm in response to that? How do we farm in flood-prone areas? How do we farm in places that we know are going to be prone to wildfire?

Q: Do small farmers play a unique role in this?

I think one of the roles they play – and this is the one of the reasons why I'm so passionate about working with small farms – is that small farms are the innovators. When you look at the biggest innovations in our food and agricultural system, it's not coming from the big guys. The big guys are following the little guys.

Who were the first organic farmers? The small farmers. But today, organics is a multi-billion dollar industry. Driscoll’s is doing it, and Walmart is doing it and Safeway. I mean, everybody's doing it. But 20 years ago, it was all these little small-scale farmers who were willing to take the risk and try something different in their production. They paved the way. They taught people how to do it. Those larger farmers looked at the way that these small, innovative farmers were doing it and built on that. But who took the risk in the first place? Small farmers.

Look at heirloom varieties Big farms aren't taking a gamble on interesting new varieties and heirloom varieties. It's the small farmers who are saving those seeds. It’s the small farmers who are trying out these new multi-colored carrots and selling them at the farmers market in a direct way. If they catch on, then guess who's going to follow in their footsteps? The bigger farms.

The same thing is happening with climate-smart farming right now. We have these techniques to reduce tillage, to use innovative cover cropping systems for hedgerows and unique crop rotations. We have a rotational grazing – all these different climate-smart farming practices that are being innovated by small farms.

As an organization, our hope is that we can simply say, ‘Look it's working for this little guy, it can work for this big guy.’ We need to provide support for these innovators so that everyone else can follow in their footsteps. And if the big guys aren't going to be the innovators, then we need to create an incubation for the people who really are going to take those risks.

Conversely, when it comes to the consequences of climate change, you look at things like crop insurance and all of that. If you're a big farm, you can hire somebody to manage the policies, to manage the insurance and the bureaucracy and the paperwork and get all that stuff done. If you're a small family farm with just a couple of people trying to make ends meet, you don't have time to do all that stuff. When it comes to things like insurance, our small farms are going to need support. We can't have a system in which the people who succeed are the people who have the resources to fill out paperwork. So we need technical assistance. We need administrative help for these small farms to apply for the climate-smart farming grants that we have here in California. We need to help small farmers look into crop insurance options.

We need advocates to go to the capital and give their voice to say that we need systems that reward good land management practices – practices that aren't one-size-fits-all. We need to make sure that we're taking into account the unique needs of small farms, because the lobbyists who are going to Sacramento, the lobbyists who are going to D.C., most of them are totally out of touch with the unique needs of small farms. If we don't have somebody out there speaking for them – or bringing them to the capital to speak for themselves – then the policies are going to be crafted in a way that benefit and protect large interests. That's just the way politics goes. But it's why organizations like ours and a number of our partners are so important when it comes to making sure that it's an equitable recovery.

Q: What are the other things you're going to do to help small farmers recover from wildfires?

We've created an online resource specifically designed for small-scale farms to help with disaster resilience – everything from how to manage your property, how to manage your natural resources, how to prepare your livestock, how to have the right crop insurance and all of the things involved in getting disaster relief.

We also want to look at the community scale, because when it comes to recovery, it's not just about what are you doing as an individual. A disaster hits communities, not just individuals, and it's the same thing when it comes to recovery. We need to be ready to respond as a community. So we're working with communities. We're doing town halls across California to help farmers ask how can they, as communities, be prepared.

The average age of farmers in California is over 60 years old, which means we have a large aging population of farmers living in rural areas… Are we making sure that our older farmers are connected with other folks in their community to make sure they can go check on them? I heard stories over and over again during the fires here about people who would go through their neighborhood knocking on doors in the middle of the night saying, ‘Get out, get out, get out,’ and that saved people's lives. But if you don't know your neighbors, if you're not connected to your neighbors, if you don't know the resources that are in your community, then it's everyone for themselves, which is not a good way to respond to a disaster. What we're trying to do is create better connection and better community building.

Q: Give me an example of how closer communities help save lives and property during a wildfire.

When we saw the fires that raged through Northern California in 2017, what saved people – what saved their homes, their farms, their livelihoods – was the relationships that were already built. The ability to call people up and say, ‘Hey, I've got 50 head of cattle. I need some pasture because I'm evacuated.’ Or, ‘Hey, I got my truck burned out, but I have a delivery that I need to make. Can I help out with going down to the city with you?’

With the evacuations, we had a lot of emergency kitchens that popped up. So we helped facilitate a bunch of donations. Farmers from all over California were calling us and saying, ‘Hey, how can I help?’ Local farmers as well as farmers from elsewhere in the state started to send donations of food. We worked as sort of the switchboard operator between them and these emergency kitchens that were popping up in Grange halls, and restaurants, and schools, and church basements. People just getting together and cooking food. So we were connecting the farms with the chefs, and the chefs then with those evacuation centers, and the first responders, and all the evacuees who were spread out throughout our community.

That goes back to the mycelial network. It's those relationships that you don't really know exist. You see people at the farmer's market, you see people on the street, and you see people at a Farmers Guild meeting. You don't always know what's the point of us getting together, what's the point of making these relationships? Is it just to share a beer and enjoy a Tuesday night or something or is it more?

When disaster strikes, you realize how important those relationships are, even if they're just casual relationships, ‘Hey, I know Jimmy, he's raising sheep a couple of properties over. And Sarah, she's got a produce farm down the way. And Bobby's got a restaurant in town.’ Those relationships can save lives. Those relationships help distribute thousands and thousands of pounds of food to those who need it and can just be a lifesaver.

When you have that breakdown of community, when you lose those relationships, when young farmers aren't talking to older farmers, when chefs aren't directly connected to farmers – then all you have is government bureaucracy to depend on. And government bureaucracy is not fast enough. It’s not accurate enough and it certainly isn't going to be able to respond in the unique ways that a community needs when disaster hits.

We were so incredibly grateful and profoundly inspired by the community connections that we had here during the fires. They really paid off and saved lives. And so, we want to make sure that every community in California has that same level of connection, and that when disaster strikes, they can call on that community to ask for help. We can't stop the wildfires, but I do think we can prevent their destruction. I do think we can make sure that when recovery comes along, it’s equitable – that it includes everyone, and there aren't people falling through the cracks.

Q: In California you have a very multi-ethnic and diverse group of small farmers. How do you work with that?

That's a huge challenge we have. We do have lots of different languages, lots of different cultures. Not everyone is always mixing. We’re trying to break down some of those barriers, whether you're from a Latino community or a Hmong community or you're a fifth-generation white rancher. Making those connections is so incredibly valuable.

We also want to make sure that our government services are able to respond. In Sonoma County, we realized that one of the huge gaps here was Spanish language interpreters for disaster programs. The county definitely found that out very quickly that when you have people coming to the evacuation centers, coming to get aid, coming for basic information and you don't have Spanish-speaking staff to be able to respond, that's not serving the community. We need to make sure we have people on staff for disaster relief. We need to make sure that our small farm advisors are serving those communities.

We had a bill in the assembly this legislative season that would have provided a whole bunch of new small farm advisors specifically focused on socially disadvantaged farmer communities, including Hmong farmers, Latino farmers and black farmers around Fresno. They are very different groups. Unfortunately, that bill did not pass. So we're going to be pushing for that again. But we need folks in counties across California who are trained to respond, people asking the questions in advance: ‘How do I get to those farmers when disaster strikes? How do I communicate? How do I get in touch with them?’ The last thing you want to do is figure it out while the fires are burning.

Q: Do you see these advisors as being a critical part of putting together an advance plan?

I do. I wouldn't necessarily expect the small farm advisors are going to have really intricate, comprehensive disaster preparedness plans, but those who are tasked with coming up with fire disaster plans and response should be able to contact a small farm advisor and say, ‘We need to reach the community of Hmong farmers’ or ‘We need to be able to communicate with farm workers in Salinas, can you help us? We have the plan, we just need to be able to reach them, we need to be able to communicate with them, we need to help them mobilize in a way that's best for them.’ If you already have those relationships built, if you're already serving that community, you can respond better.

Q: What else do you see going forward for CAFF and the Farmers Guild? How do you see your role evolving?

What I would like to be able to do as an organization is to continue to organize communities so they're ready to respond. What was most important here was that we had the relationships already built and we could call on them. We have a little Farmers Guild Facebook group that people are usually like, ‘Hey, I'm selling my tractor’ or ‘Hey I got this bug on my cabbage, anybody know what this is?’ Just things like that. During the fires it was, ‘I need somebody to help evacuate my horses’ or ‘How do I get back on my land to irrigate because I'm in an evacuation zone?’ or ‘What are my disaster relief assistance options?’ So many questions.

The one thing that was just everywhere during the fires was confusion. Everyone was confused. No one knew what to do, how they could help, who to ask for what. Everyone was just up to their neck in requests. It was a really confusing time and frustrating for a lot of people. But it was made so much easier when there were connections and when people could share information. Again, people want to share information. They want to provide answers, but if they're not connected, then they can't do that.

I see the role that we play as being that mycelium, being that connecting force that gets people together every once in a while to share resources and maybe share a meal and visit each other’s farms so that when disaster does strike, they have people on speed dial. They have people in their contact list. They know who to respond. Someone comes to them and says, ‘Hey, I need pasture for my sheep that I had to evacuate.’ Someone could say, ‘Well I don't have that but I was at the Farmers Guild meeting last week and I know two guys who could probably help you out.’ Bam. Two phone calls later, we're loading sheep into a livestock trailer and getting them to a safe place. And that's the kind of role that I see us playing.

We also want to be able to use our communities to help create a collective voice. When we go to advocate for solutions, we need a collective voice that comes directly from farmers. We need to know what they need so we can advocate for these changes and say, ‘Look, climate change is real.’ Our farmers are the first ones who are feeling the impacts, and we need to come up with a response that is about more than just putting in windmills and solar panels. It also has to do with disaster response. It has to do with the farms whose entire growing seasons are shifting because of climate change.

There are going to be greater floods, greater fires, longer droughts, and this is a problem we all have to face together. We can't just do it with small, incremental steps. We have to be bold and we need to get that message across. If the giant fires burning down California aren't getting that message across, I don't know what will, but we need to rally together, put the pieces together and make a case that it's time to be bold and respond.

Q: Why is it important to preserve the stories of small farmers who've been through fire, flood, and other natural disaster?

You can read every book and online resource and go through the FEMA website and do as much objective research as you can to be prepared to respond to a disaster, but nothing will really prepare you for what it does. There are so many different things that it affects, from your relationships to your mental health to your finances to your cash flow in your business.

Hearing stories from real people who have lived through it is absolutely vital. We need to preserve that as documentation of the trends that we're facing when it comes to climate change and increased disaster here in California...

Sharing stories is important. We’re a storytelling species. That's how we understand things. People don't respond to statistics. People respond to stories. And so for these generous and brave individuals who were sharing their stories about living through wildfire on their farms, I'm just so appreciative and I just think there's nothing more important that we could possibly do than to gather their stories.

June 23, 2019

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