When the Sonoma County Harvest Fair Awards were presented at a grand dinner at Grace Pavilion on Sept. 24, Ryan Petersen ascended the stairs to the stage as the newest recipient of the Young Farmer Award, the longest-running of four awards that acknowledge members of the agricultural community and its supporters.

Petersen, who heads up Petersen Land Management and is a volunteer with the Geyserville Fire Department, joins 35 previous recipients.

The Harvest Fair has recognized a young farmer for both excellence and commitment to the community annually since 1976. Recipients includes fathers and sons — Ryan's father Dane Petersen was the 1981 awardee — and brothers, like Mike Sangiacomo, who received the award in 2007, and Steve Sangiacomo, the 2009 awardee. The late Warren Dutton and his sons Steve and and Joe were honored in 1977, 1999 and 2000 and Lee Martinelli Sr., Lee Martinelli Jr. and George Martinelli were the 1978, 2004 and 2008 recipients. To find a woman, you have to look back 11 years, when Kelly Parsons of Parsons' Homegrown was the 2001 awardee, one of four women to be honored to date.

The other awards include Young Person in Agribusiness, added in 1980, and Lifetime Contribution, added in 1984. In 1987, a fourth award, Friend of Agriculture, was added to honor an individual who supports the local industry without necessarily being directly involved.

Awards overlooked

In the frenzy to taste award-winning wines and snag a case of a sweepstakes winner, people tend to overlook the agriculture awards. Yet the awards, especially the two that acknowledge the younger generation, are crucial to the industry.

"It is critical for agriculture to think about where the next generation of farmers will come from," said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers Commission, "and it comes from these people. The award seems to signal a responsibility to get more involved in the agricultural community."

Frey points to the Dutton brothers as an example. Both have been on the board of the commission since its founding in 2006 and next year, Steve Dutton begins a term as president of the Harvest Fair board of directors.

Recipients are selected in the spring by a committee made up in part of previous awardees; each nominee's overall agricultural endeavors, leadership activities and community activities are considered before a winner is selected.

Age 40 or younger

Age counts, too, of course.

"The awardee for Young Farmer must be 40 or younger in the year the award is given," said Sheila Quince, who will retire early next year after 30 years at the Harvest Fair.

Looking back over a decade of awardees confirms Frey's intuition: All recipients are still involved in their agricultural endeavors and most remain active in the community as well. Those who are not currently involved anticipate a time in the near future when their business and family responsibilities will allow them to return to more active community involvement.

"It was an honor to be among so many great farmers and ranchers and I felt challenged to get even more involved in our agricultural industry and community," recalled John Balletto, the youngest farmer to receive the award — in 1988, when he was just 28.

At the time, Balletto was an organic vegetable farmer. Today he heads up Balletto Vineyards and Winery, known for its cool-climate wines. At this year's Harvest Fair, Balletto wines received two gold medals and two double gold medals.


"I'm the vice president of Alexander Valley Winegrowers," said Bret Munselle, a fifth generation Alexander Valley farmer who was honored in 2010, "and I'd like to be more involved [in the community], but I spend a lot of time chasing my two little girls around."

Munselle, whose first zinfandel, Munselle 2008 Osborn Ranch Zinfandel, received a Double Gold in this year's Harvest Fair, has been asked to be on several boards but with a third daughter due in late November, he is currently focused on growing his family. Combined with a new winery, these endeavors keep him busy though he envisions a future when he will have more time.

"I was humbled by the award," recalled Mike Strunk of Park Avenue Turf, the 2002 Young Farmer awardee. "It's mostly grape growers but I am a sod farmer and was very happy to be acknowledged."

Step back

After being active with the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, he had to step back when he lost an important manager. Since 2002, Strunk has more than doubled his acreage of sod, most of which is grown in Sacramento Valley, and planted 18 acres of chardonnay on his Sebastopol property.

There has been a bit of crossover in the awards, awardees who have won in more than one category. Last year, Rich Kunde received a Lifetime Contribution award; in 1991, he and his wife, Saralee Kunde, were honored as Friends of Agriculture. In 2002, Warren Dutton and his wife, Gail, were honored with a Lifetime Contribution award. Warren Dutton died of a heart attack in 2001.

Freelance writer Michele Anna Jordan writes about food and wine for the Press Democrat. You'll find her blog, Eat This Now, at pantry.pressdemocrat.com.