Farmer Olympics in Petaluma: From compost shoveling to watermelon tossing

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The crowd cheers wildly and the camera pans around to an excited announcer, dressed in a suit, his voice inflected with the anticipation of an Olympic competition.

But this isn’t Rio de Janeiro and he isn’t speaking with a record-breaking relay swimmer. It’s Sonoma County and the athlete-in-training is Claudia De La Pena from the Petaluma Seed Bank — practicing her spade-lifting technique for the compost-shoveling competition at the third annual Farmer Olympics at the Petaluma Fairgrounds on Sept.17.

“I’m doing about 120 reps, five times a day, every day,” explained De La Pena to Evan Wiig, founder of the Farmer Olympics and director of the Farmers Guild, a nonprofit statewide organization that creates community hubs for sustainable agriculture.

Three years ago, as an extension of Wiig’s work with the guild to bring together farmers and food advocates to grow the local food movement, he decided to throw a party.

“It was pretty simple,” he said. “We just wanted to throw a party in the middle of the harvest season to give farmers a break and have a good time.”

The small barbecue with local food and wheelbarrow races drew members of the Farmers Guild, but also enthusiastic chefs and nonfarmers from the community who wanted to celebrate the harvest. The next year, the Olympics grew to almost 400 people and gained sponsorships from businesses like Sonoma Compost and Straus Family Creamery. The Sebastopol Grange was bursting at the seams and, to the dismay of local law enforcement, parking spilled out onto Highway 12.

“It was a blast!” he said. “So much of a blast that ever since then people were just asking, when is the next Olympics?”

Wiig said one of the most appealing qualities of the event is that it isn’t a passive affair of exhibits or spectacles. The games, which appeal to everyone from young kids (potato sack races and scarecrow building) to experienced farmers (T-post pounding and seed transplanting), allow people who grow food to chat with the people who buy their food on an equal playing field, literally.

“There is a direct engagement between farmers and the general public in a way that is interactive and intimate,” said Wiig.

This kind of community building isn’t new for Wiig, who has built up the Farmers Guild’s from an informal dinner gathering in Valley Ford to almost 10 independent groups throughout the state, from San Luis Obispo to the Sierra Foothills.

Wiig’s idea to create community hubs for sustainable agriculture, where people get together on a regular basis to talk shop, share resources and learn about public policies that affect them, gained momentum quickly. Most importantly, Wiig explained, guild members form relationships — or social capital — that “connect different links in the food chain that have been separated” and, ultimately, make it easier and more efficient to be a farmer.

New farmers, like Colby Accacian of Coyote Family Farm in Penngrove, said the monthly guild meetings helped him tap into the community of farmers — aspiring and experienced — in the county.

“It’s been helpful in getting our farm up and running, but also having a resource there to ask people questions and just know you’re not alone,” he said. “When you’re in the field all day, you wonder, where is everyone?”

Accacian and his co-manager, Sonya Perrotti, moved to Penngrove about three years ago. They grow a variety of vegetables, fruit and flowers on their 3-acre farm (their “signature” crop is quinoa greens) and sell their bounty through a CSA and farmers markets. This year they plan to host the Farmer Olympics’ watermelon toss competition.

It will be Accacian’s first time at the Olympics and he’s looking forward to the friendly competition — which he said complements farmers’ natural tendencies toward efficiency and speed in their work. It also fosters interaction between fellow farmers and the community at large.

“It’s a nice way to come and support each other and recognize we’re businesses competing for similar markets, but also farmers that support each other in what we’re doing,” he said. “Spreading awareness about where food comes from and who farmers are — it’s fun for farmers and fun for community members.”

This year’s Olympics will once again feature local businesses and groups like the School Garden Network’s scarecrow-building contest, the Straus Family Creamery’s butter-churning competition and the “Ugly Produce Beauty Pageant,” sponsored by the Ugly Produce is Beautiful Educational Campaign. Winners will be awarded gold, silver and bronze medals and might also walk away with top-of-the-line farming and gardening tools, donated by Baker Creek, or a book from Chelsea Green Publishing.

The events are purposely meant to appeal to kids who just want to show off their egg- and spoon-balancing skills, but also to people who seek a deeper understanding and connection to sustainability and local food. Unlike other agriculture-themed fairs that either have no connection to local producers or cater specifically to organic farmers and gardeners, the Farmer Olympics offers many different levels of engagement, said Wiig.

“If all you want to do is play a game stacking produce boxes and get a local grass-fed, pasture-raised corn dog, you can do that,” he said. But, on the other hand, if you want to learn more about carbon sequestration, farmworkers’ rights or soil nutrition, you can do that, too.

This year’s Olympics will also highlight farm-based creativity and innovation with the inclusion of Farm Hack — a worldwide community of farmers and makers that are building and modifying farm tools. The Farmers Guild has teamed up with the Chimera Arts and Maker Space in Sebastopol to unite engineers, tinkerers and farmers to “think up and build solutions to on-farm challenges.” They are invited to enter their inventions into a competition at the Farmer Olympics.

“It’s an attempt to bring two diverse groups together, farmers and techies, and see if they can’t help each other out in some way,” said Dave Harris a construction consultant, beekeeper and Chimera member.

About 50 people gathered at the maker space in the beginning of August to pitch their farm-related ideas — like a bicycle harvest wagon and a portable silo. Harris plans to enter his idea for a beehive-monitoring device that identifies the optimal conditions for bees to pollinate and thrive on a garden or farm. Together with a group of 11 software and electrical engineers and IT professionals including Henry Ptasinski, Tommy Rosettie and Rich Gibson, Harris hopes to be able to measure these conditions with a series of metrics (temperature, vibration, sound, hive weight, etc.) through a beehive “black box.” Ultimately, the team hopes to bring this research to others to help stem the worldwide decline of bee populations.

Perhaps unlike other maker spaces, Chimera is in a unique position in Sonoma County to attract people from many different backgrounds.

“You have this great ag community and all of these tech people either on their way to or from Silicon Valley,” said team member Rosettie. “It’s the perfect melting pot for this sort of project.”

And showcasing their ideas at the Farmer Olympics, with its broad audience, is also a perfect opportunity to further the open source idealism that is nurtured at Chimera.

“Entering it in the Farmer Olympics could better advance the whole idea,” said Harris.

Wiig said they are hoping for 1,000 people at this year’s Olympics from all over the state. The Petaluma Fairgrounds venue will have space for an abundant farmers market, live music by the Vivants and Hubbub Club, local food, kombucha tea and beer and plenty of activities for the whole family. Cost is $15 for adults, $10 for kids aged 6-12 and kids 5 and under are free.

For more information, including behind-the-scenes farmer training videos, visit farmersguild.org/farmer-olympics-2016.

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