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Sonoma County farm women find fun in unity


Bankers and mortgage brokers can network and commiserate about interest rates at their local chamber of commerce mixer or Rotary Club dinner.

But what if you're a female farmer, working from dawn 'til dusk, with problems ranging from marauding wild pigs to the high price of hay?

Sonoma County sisters of the soil — cheesemakers and alpaca farmers, grape growers and pig ranchers — now have a place to share animal tales and compost tips through a loose-knit group known as the Rural Chicks Roadhouse Roundup.

This diverse and growing group of women meets monthly at classic roadhouse restaurants in the North Bay, enjoying beers and blue-plate specials from Volpi's in Petaluma to Juanita Juanita in Sonoma.

"We dish and cuss and do things that women usually do," said Deborah Walton of Canvas Ranch in Petaluma. "But in a place where women don't usually go."

Walton hatched the idea for the Rural Chicks last fall, while having lunch at Cotati's historic Washoe House with Linda Peterson, who works with agricultural nonprofit groups.

"I said, &‘Wouldn't it be fun to get together, once a month, and go to these roadhouses?'" Walton said. "As farmers, we never get out to see anybody else, so we don't know what other people are doing."

The women, who range from their 20s to their 60s, come from diverse backgrounds but share a common bond: They all work really, really hard, and they all love their work and its end product — food.

"Everybody does something different. That's what makes it unique," said Karen Bianchi-Moreda, cheesemaker at the Valley Ford Cheese Co. "But our common denominator is food."

Like the definition of "rural chick" (basically, anyone with an interest in food or farming can join), the group's definition of roadhouse is open-ended, encompassing more upscale restaurants like Barndiva in Healdsburg and Cafe Citti in Kenwood.

But for the most part, meetings are convened at the rustic, charm-filled roadhouses of the North Bay, from the Casino in Bodega to Rancho Nicasio in Nicasio.

"We call them dive bars," Walton said. "It's not a sports bar, it's not a chick bar. It's places that you would normally not go with your husband for dinner."

Sam Gilweit, a 27-year-old pig farmer from Three Graces Farm in Windsor, was roped into joining the Rural Chicks by her friend Lynda Hopkins, of Foggy River Farm in Healdsburg.

"The very first night, Deborah said, &‘We're here to drink, and we're here to cuss, and we're here to talk about farming,'" Gilweit said. "So I said, &‘This is my kind of crowd.'"

Gilweit, who also raises ducks and a few sheep, said she enjoyed getting encouragement from women who understand her world and know how to kick up their heels.

"They have a lot of advice for younger farmers like myself," she said. "These women are the same age as my mother, but it's much more fun."

To promote more interaction, the group started holding open houses before dinner at a member's farm, which expands the conversation and the sharing.

"It's great because you can walk around and chat, and see what other people are doing," said Andrea Davis, a 29-year-old vegetable farmer from Sonoma. "Local food systems in general are very important to me, so I like to be aware of what's going on."

Davis said she enjoys networking with other women farmers, because there are fewer assumptions about what women can and can't do.

"It's a little bit more relaxing to be with women," she said. "I can have a conversation and not have to defend myself."

Peterson, who has been working with Sonoma County farmers since the 1990s, said the group often provides young farmers with a reality check on the challenges of the business.

"It's an iffy proposition to begin with," she said. "There's the issue with land, and being on the lookout for more land. ... If you're in a spot that you're leasing or renting, you never know."

Despite the hardships — or perhaps because of them — a night out with the girls offers an appealing break from the daily tedium of weeding, milking and feeding.

"I love my husband but ... going out with the girls is just really fun," Walton said. "They understand the reason your fingernails look the way they do."

Holding meetings at the downhome roadhouses of the regions fits in with the group's zeitgeist. These hidden gems are easy on the wallet and offer a retro charm that's a kick in the pants.

When the group convened at the Washoe House, for example, Walton called first to ask if they could bring their own wine, and ask about the corkage fee.

They women brought their own wine, but when the bill came, there was no fee charged.

"They said, &‘Of course we're not going to charge you for corkage,'" Walton said. "&‘You opened your own bottles.'"

(You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.)