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