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Farmers vow to rebuild after Sonoma County fires

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Even as fires continued to threaten homes, businesses, farms, orchards and ranches last week, whispers of optimism could be heard throughout the Sonoma County farming community. While no one is downplaying the extent of the damage, many are looking toward a bright future, even in the face of devastating personal losses.

“I’m so excited about the future,” said Joby Oft of What’s Up Farm on Mark West Springs Road as he backed up a tractor.

Although some crops made it through the firestorm, all of the infrastructure at both the farm and the academy, was destroyed. Oft has been delivering tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers and pumpkins to chefs the past couple of weeks, as they cooked for those displaced by the fires.

Oft founded the farm, located on the grounds of Redwood Adventist Academy, with his brother-in-law four years ago and now is its sole operator. He estimates that he has about a thousand customers a week at the farm stand, many from Calistoga and Clearlake as well as from the surrounding community. He also delivers produce to 15 restaurants and teaches the academy’s students all about agriculture, from farming itself to the retail side, both programs launched this year.

Now he is re-establishing irrigation and planting crops — winter wheat, farro, barley, chick peas, and lentils — that he will harvest in the spring. The school, which is currently holding its sessions at a church with which it is affiliated, also will rebuild on location.

Not far away, near Wallace and Riebli roads, Joey Smith of Let’s Go Farm lost nearly everything, including the farmhouse where he has lived most of his life. Even in the face of such loss, there was a bit of good news. When he was able to return, he found his 13 sheep huddled together munching on the bit of produce that remained. His chickens survived, too.

Smith, 34, has been the board president of the Windsor Farmers Market for just two months. He also operates a CSA (community supported agriculture, a weekly subscription to the farm’s harvest). The crops that were in the ground when the fires broke out included cabbages, kale, okra, collard greens, lettuce, summer squash, tomatoes, watermelon (really good watermelon, he said), beets, parsnips, cilantro, basil, green beans, strawberries, celery and carrots, which he hopes may have survived because they were underground. His mixed orchard, also lost, included pears, Asian pears, persimmons, pomegranates, figs, mulberries, apricots, Santa Rosa plums, and apriums, a hybrid of apricot and plum. Everything in cold storage, including shallots, garlic, pumpkins, winter squash and dried beans, was consumed by the fire.

In the long run, Smith expects to rebuild. In the short run, he is still exploring options, including where he will live for now.

In Sonoma, The Patch, which attends many Sonoma County farmers markets each week and operates a farm stand a few blocks east of the Sonoma town plaza, survived and was open for business at the Sebastopol Farmers Market on Sunday, Oct. 15.

“We lost electrical power,” said farmer Lazaro Calderon, who lives in south Santa Rosa, which means he couldn’t water his crops until power returned, a reality faced by farmers who rely on well water. The Patch specializes in both hybrid and heirloom tomatoes, onions, summer and winter squash, colorful peppers, garlic, green beans, potatoes, basil, carrots and figs. It is almost always the first with tomatoes in the spring and the last with them in the fall, harvesting, typically, until Thanksgiving.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Glen Ellen, including its farms and ranches, was hit hard. Oakhill Farm, with its historic Red Barn, was evacuated twice and its farm manager, David Cooper, lost his home and other farm buildings. Atwood Ranch, north of Oakhill Farm, suffered damage as well, but its barn, where so many weddings and high-end Wine Country events are held, and its animals, which were evacuated, made it through, as did the primary residence of Tom and Julie Atwood.

Austin and Missy Lely of Bee-Well Farm, located adjacent to the Atwood Ranch, lost their home, farm and vehicles, though chickens and other animals survived.

Glen Ellen’s Flatbed Farm on Highway 12 is gone. Kendra “The Farmer’s Wife” Kolling, known for her extraordinary grilled cheese sandwiches and an enthusiastic member of Farm Trails, lost her home in Kenwood.

Throughout this crisis, people have spoken of miracles, of a single house that stands among the rubble of its neighbors, of a beloved dog who suddenly appears as its humans survey their losses, of 900 animals saved by the tireless efforts of Safari West owner Peter Lang. Triple T Farm may be one of our farming miracles, as it is located on Melita Road north of Highway 12, an area that was under mandatory evacuation. News of its demise circulated with alarm but late last week, staff were harvesting for weekend farmers markets; it escaped unscathed.

Olive trees that survived should be fine, as should their fall crop. The Olive Press held its first of two community presses on Oct. 22, with its second day coming up in late November. McEvoy Ranch, located in Petaluma just over the Sonoma-Marin county line and widely known for its ultra-premium olive oil and a new line of outstanding vinegars, is fine and has offered an acre of land and a greenhouse for displaced farmers at no charge.

Farm Trails canceled its annual Weekend Along Farm Trails, scheduled for Oct. 14 and 15. But even as she surveyed damage sustained by members, Executive Director Carmen Snyder was planning a new holiday event, tentatively scheduled for Nov. 15 through the end of December. Details will be available at farmtrails.org as soon as they are finalized.

Many farmers markets located in the fire zone itself, such as the Kenwood and Tuesday Evening Sonoma Plaza markets, had already concluded their 2017 season. Others canceled markets during the fire, some because vendors called to say they couldn’t make it, another because its location — the Sonoma Valley Friday morning market, in Depot Park in Sonoma — was used as a staging area for emergency vehicles, and one, the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market, because it lost its location in the west side parking lot of the Luther Burbank Center.

Year-round markets, including the Saturday market in Oakmont, and seasonal markets that haven’t completed their season are resuming their regular schedules now and all have offered to accommodate farmers who cannot attend their regular markets.

The Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market has established two temporary homes. The Wednesday market will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Tierra Vegetables Farm and Farm Stand, located on the east side of Highway 101 at 651 Airport Blvd. (Tierra Vegetables itself was seriously threatened by fire, which came as close as a mile to the farm; a back burn on the fire’s eastern edge and shifting winds saved it). The Saturday market will take place at the Alliance Church, located at the corner of Occidental and Fulton roads in Santa Rosa, also from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. On Saturday, the market celebrated its 50th birthday. Given that the market not only moved by lost thousands of potential customers who lived near its permanent location, it was surprisingly well attended.

The West End Farmers Market, which takes place on Sunday in Railroad Square, lost its main produce vendor, Leisen’s Bridgeway Farm. The diverse farm, located on the banks of Mark West Creek, produced extraordinary watermelons, tomatoes, microgreens and more, and also raised chickens for eggs. They lost olive trees, fig trees, a green house, a hoop house, farm vehicles, vintage cars and about half of their chickens. A secondary location where they grew produce was also at risk because they were not able to water the crops. The Santa Rosa Community Farmers Market moved temporarily to Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa but has returned to the Santa Rosa Veterans Building as of Oct. 25.

On Sunday, Oct. 15, while many were still under mandatory evacuation, Evan Wiig, a founder of The Farmers Guild, walked the Sebastopol Farmers Market, approaching customers for donations.

“We want to buy out all the produce at the end of the day and deliver it to chefs cooking for anyone who needs to be fed,” he explained as people pulled $10 and $20 bills from their pockets and purses.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts “Mouthful, Smart Talk About Food, Wine, & Farming” on Sunday evenings from 6 to 7 p.m. on KRCB FM. Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com