Anne Teller: At the forefront of Sonoma’s sustainable movement

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Oak Hill Farm, the world that Anne Teller and her husband Otto Teller built, is a vivid incarnation of their life-long vision of land stewardship.

In the 1970s, when America was just waking up from its white-bread-and- canned-string-bean days, Otto and Anne Teller planted vegetables on their Oak Hill Farm on Highway 12. It was Anne’s idea to have a little roadside veggie stand like the ones along California country roads of her childhood.

Inspired by Robert Rodale and others, they jumped in with both feet. Otto invited some of the best agricultural minds to Oak Hill Farm, including then Governor Brown’s Secretary of Resources Huey Johnson, Farallon Institute’s Sim Van der Ryn, and many others.

These were heady times, disorganized but full of hope and inventiveness. The farm was “organic and sustainable” before that concept became popular. Books such as Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” influenced their dream of local growing and eating that supports stewardship of the land. In turn, the farm influenced others, such as Jonah Raskin in his book “Field Days: a year of farming, eating, and drinking wine in California.”

Thus, Anne’s vegetable garden at Oak Hill Farm was at the forefront of the organic food movement, as later the farm-to-table movement, which revolutionized American eating. Now growing over 200 different vegetables, fruits and flowers, Oak Hill Farm produce finds its way onto dinner plates at Soho’s Bar Agricole, Boulettes Larder in the Ferry Building, Blue Barn, Umami, and others.

Anne grew up in Palo Alto. After attending Smith College in Massachusetts as a political science major, she returned and graduated from UC Berkeley in 1953. Marrying soon after college, she lived in San Francisco with her first husband, raising their four children, Arden, Kate, Will and Ted.

“Living in the city” she told the Index-Tribune last month, “I drove a jeep and raised plants and sold them to my friends.” A farmer at heart, she has always loved planting seeds and making plants from cuttings. Above all, she has enjoyed pruning fruit trees. “My favorite thing is shaping trees”, she adds.

Over the years while living in the city, Anne would bring the kids up through Sonoma Valley to visit her mother’s rugged family compound at the base of Hood Mountain near Kenwood. Every spring they passed the flowering peach orchard along Sonoma Highway where the iconic white barn stands now, and “ooed and ahhhed” at its pink splendor.

Around 1975, with the children grown, Anne was invited to a small dinner party in Sonoma county and was seated next to a widower named Otto Teller. They had many interests in common, and discussed bee-keeping, water transpiration and Otto’s peach orchard that she had admired over the years. She later attended a Cinco de Mayo fiesta on Otto’s Farm that was “happy and casual which I loved.” Anne and Otto connected, wed, and were married for 22 years until Otto’s death in 1998.

During the years Anne was raising her family in San Francisco, Ohio-native Otto Teller was attracted to Sonoma County by its abundant creeks and trout streams. Otto and his first wife Elena purchased two properties along Sonoma Highway. First to be purchased was the ranch around the old white barn on the east side of Highway 12 just north of Madrone where the Blake family ran black angus cattle. Then came the purchase of the property just to the south of it, surrounding a red barn set back from the road. The Red Barn was the cow barn of a dairy co-op run by Herman Johnson, and later became home for Teller’s “back greens” enterprise. “Back greens” are the supportive greenery included in commercial flower bouquets. Together, these properties became Oak Hill Farm.

Otto was described by a friend, as “a big, irascible, and exasperating figure who was generous to a fault… an environmentalist and organic farmer decades before those pursuits became politically correct.”

It was Otto Teller, a land preservationist and farmer, who gathered together some fellow land-owners in 1976 to found the Sonoma Land Trust, creating the organization which now protects more than 50,000 acres of magnificent and important open land in Sonoma County. The 1,000-acre Oak Hill Farm seeded the Sonoma Land Trust by donating their 300-acre “secret pasture” and placing an easement on the remainder of the property, starting the land “bank” for further growth and conservation.

The secret pasture is high in the Mayacamas to the east of Highway 12, requiring a steep hike to get to. Legend holds that, in the 1850s the pasture was the clandestine retreat of the Mexican desperado Joaquin Murrieta and his accomplice “Three-finger” Jack, and where they pastured their rustled cattle. The October 2017 fires revealed an embankment that had been hidden for decades under brush, presumably a fortification against the lawmen hot on Murrieta’s tail.

A further land acquisition in 1981 was the ancient Old Hill Ranch vineyard which lay across the highway, so named after pioneer William McPherson Hill who founded the vineyard in 1851. The ancient gnarled vines are to be among the oldest in the Valley. Anne’s children, the four Bucklin siblings, founded their eponymously labeled “Bucklin Estate Wines” in 1980 and continue to make wine off the historic vineyard while Anne’s son Will Bucklin “dry farms” the vines – using only the water nature provides - following biodynamic and organic farming principals.

When Otto arrived, the farm properties were in disarray. Rusting cars and trash littered the land, creeks and barns. After hauling acres of rubbish away, Anne and Otto tried to imagine how to make the farm pay for itself. At Anne’s suggestion they planted vegetables, supplementing Otto’s flower enterprise, and keeping the workers busy through the summer season. They hired a foreman to tend the vegetables, giving Anne the opportunity to develop her orchards.

In 1976, the grand Eucalyptus tree at the entrance to the farm blew over, revealing its massive tangle of roots which still stands at the entrance. Anne built a farm stand onto the upended root ball and sold vegetables and flowers there. But the location was not conducive to stopping, so the salesroom was moved into the red barn where it remains today. At first there was a casual honor system of selecting your own vegetables and putting money in a cigar box. Later, the red barn flourished with floral designer Jean Thompson and manager Gail Lamar. The store had a feeling of abundance, and in fall with a charming potbelly stove ablaze, the feeling of warmth.

A friend remembers the annual Day of the Dead festivities in the red barn. The traditional Mexican holiday honors the dead in a celebratory spirit, with an immense alter adorned with gold and orange cempasuchil grown at the farm. Vibrant floral arrangements lined the walls of the barn, with tables laden with platters of seasonally harvested foods, good red wine from the Old Hill vineyard, live music and dancing. This joyful party was enjoyed by the community of customers and workers who make the farm prosper.

Anne and the farm crew spent years hauling vegetables and flowers to farmers markets around the county. In her trademark fedora, she offered sunflowers, persimmons, marigolds and cosmos, squash and pumpkins, corn and peppers, and plenty of greens. Much of their flower crop was trekked to SFO and shipped to Washington DC and Detroit. Unsold vegetables were donated to Meals on Wheels and community kitchens. The rest were sold to restaurants in San Francisco.

Oak Hill Farm’s bread and butter had been “back greens” - blue eucalyptus and long myrtle which are added to commercial bouquets but sold afar. Initially, when Anne had switched the dynamics to row crops, she invited the community onto the farm to become personally involved in the farm experience. As years passed, the foreman position was given to accomplished farmers such as Nathan Boone, former partner Paul Wirtz, and now David Cooper.

The legacy of Otto and Anne Teller and the Sonoma Land Trust is well known. The nonprofit, non-governmental Sonoma Land Trust, has grown to an accumulation of 50,000 acres of spectacular land that will now be protected from development in perpetuity. The Land Trust is currently working to protect the open lands and wildlife corridor around the Sonoma Developmental Center. They have just conserved the Starcross Monastic Community property near Annapolis. They have overseen the return of the north end of the San Francisco Bay to its original wetlands after breaching the levee, protected the Jenner Headlands, repaired the Stuart Creek Run in Glen Ellen, and have many more projects.

Sonoma Land Trust either buys outright certain desirable land, or they buy a “conservation easement” which enables the owners to maintain ownership, but agree to never develop it. By donating the “secret pasture,” the Tellers lent viability and respect, and jump-started the important work that the Land Trust continues today.

Anne’s four children left home to chase other dreams, eventually returning to pursue farming and environmental activities, all preservationists in their own ways.

Daughter Arden Bucklin-Sporer and her husband Karl raised their three sons in San Francisco and the northern flank of Hood Mountain. She turned a vacant lot next to her children’s San Francisco schoolyard into a garden, furthering the “green school yard” concept which emphasizes science in the garden.

She co-founded and led Education Outside which grew to support outdoor garden-based science in 60 Bay Area public schools.

Daughter Kate Bucklin lives on Oak Hill Farm with her partner Tom Hegardt where they help Anne manage the farm. A PhD in population genetics, Kate was the fisheries geneticist for Trout Unlimited and has served on the board of directors for the Teller Wildlife Refuge in Montana.

After managing the family farm for many years, son Ted Bucklin manages the grounds and operations at Westerbeke Ranch and Conference Center along with his wife Wendy Westerbeke, across the Valley.

Son Will and his wife Lizanne run the Old Hill Ranch vineyard founded by the four Bucklin siblings, producing field-blended wines.

Together, the Bucklin siblings are working to continue Otto and Anne’s legacy, honoring the values of cultivating and preserving the land.

Anne Teller’s home sits among lemon trees in the hills behind the barns at the base of the Mayacamas. She has shaped her fruit trees carefully, and has shaped the culture, history, and ecology of our valley landscape in her own unique way, giving our community an inspirational legacy.

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