Farmer Olympics in Petaluma: From compost shoveling to watermelon tossing
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?”