Wine Country fires hit organic farms hard in Glen Ellen, Santa Rosa
By Tara Duggan October 11, 2017
Photo: JOSH EDELSON, AFP/Getty Images
Burned property smolders in Glen Ellen, where several farms have been destroyed. Multiple wind-driven fires continue to ravage the area burning structures and causing widespread evacuations.
Several small vegetable farms in Sonoma County have fallen victim to the North Bay fires, including several that were founded in the past six years by young farmers taking part in the local organic farm movement. While properties are still partly intact, many farmers have lost homes and essential infrastructure, and they said that getting back to the business of providing vegetables to customers will be an uphill battle.
In Glen Ellen, Oak Hill Farm, Flatbed Farm and Bee-Well Farms either burned completely or suffered severe damage, as did Let’s Go Farm and Leisen’s Bridgeway Farms in Santa Rosa.
“Those farms alone each had a huge impact,” said Evan Wiig of the Farmers Guild in Sebastopol, a network of local farms including several of the ones lost in the fire. He said the fire’s influence on local agriculture will be “massive.”
“We lost pretty much everything, but our animals have been able to survive,” said Melissa Lely, 27, of Bee-Well Farms, which she founded in 2015 with her husband, Austin, on 40 acres of leased land. The couple lost their home and at least $50,000 in farm equipment, plants and crops.
They’re amazed that none of their 12 cows, 500 chickens and two goats was lost, even though the low grass all around — and under the chicken coops — burned.
Since Monday, the Lelys have spent every day, from dawn until late at night, taking care of their animals and their neighbors’ farm animals. Since the power is out and water pumps aren’t operating, they are lugging 50-gallon drums of water around the area. The two plan to continue farming after the disaster.
“This is just a bump in the road,” said Melissa Lely.
Other farmers aren’t feeling so optimistic. Janet and Corrie Leisen of Leisen’s Bridgeway Farms in Santa Rosa were on a cruise to Florida when they heard about the fire. The farm had been in the family since 1870, though the couple had only been selling to Bay Area farmers’ markets for the past five years, said Janet Leisen.
They lost hoop houses, olive trees, fig trees, a greenhouse, all of their farmers’ stand supplies, vintage cars and farm vehicles. Leisen estimates that half of their 200 chickens perished. On another 3-acre site where they grow produce, there is no power to water the crops, so they likely will die.
“It looks like we probably are going to shut down,” said Janet Leisen, who added that because she is 62 and her husband is 65, they weren’t making enough from the farm to justify restarting. Both are retired from careers in the dental industry.
Farm manager David Cooper lost his home at Oak Hill Farm, a produce and flower farm, along with several farm buildings and equipment. On Tuesday, the fire reignited in the hills about 500 yards from farm buildings, he said.
By Wednesday, Cooper hadn’t yet been able to go back to the farm and wasn’t sure about the fate of the fields and a 100-year-old barn. Oak Hill Farm owner Anne Teller and her late husband, the conservationist Otto Teller, began farming there more than 50 years ago.
Joey Smith, 34, discovered Tuesday that the family home where he lived for most of his life had burned to the ground, along with a lot of equipment on Let’s Go Farm in Santa Rosa, which he began running in 2011. Among the losses were a tractor and new solar panels, which were supposed to be a 30-year investment.
“The garden so far survived,” he said, based on photos someone took for him, since he cannot get to the property. The fences have blown down, so his sheep are eating up the produce in his fields.
In addition to the immediate losses, those involved in local agriculture are concerned about jobs for farm and vineyard workers in the area, as well as the long-lasting impact the fire damage will have on farms and vineyards that depend on outside visitors.
“Here in the North Bay, there’s a strong connection between agriculture and tourism,” Wiig said. Farmers and vintners rely on the North Bay being a destination, he said. “If our hills are blackened, how many people are going to want to come spend weekends here, visiting our farmers’ markets and farm stands? It’s going to hurt our economy.”
The Farmers Guild and others are planning fundraising benefits for farmers, and a separate group of volunteers is gleaning produce from local farms and bringing it to restaurants and other professional kitchens to cook meals for those displaced by the fire.
“We’re preparing to help farmers for what will be a very long recovery,” Wiig said.
Tara Duggan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.