One Year Later, Hug Your Farmer
By Samantha Harmon
Many of us need no reminder that the tragic wildfires that ripped through Sonoma County a year ago were the most devastating on record, destroying 5,300 homes, numerous businesses and impacting thousands of lives. The economic impact of the fires continues to be felt across the county with tourism visits well below past years.
Sonoma County farmers, who already face economic challenges due to the high costs of labor, land, housing, and the competitive industrial model that disregards true cost accounting, took a large hit in the fires. For those fortunate farmers that did not lose or incur damages on their farm, access for many was restricted because of the dangerous conditions and road closures. Without a way to get to their farms, much of their hard work from the last several months was lost. Those who were able to access their operations still faced hurdles, as the fires burned for nearly three weeks. Electricity outages halted irrigation schedules and eliminated cold storage for harvested produce, meat and dairy products; farmworkers were unable to help harvest because of lost homes or road closures; and many farmers temporarily lost their distribution outlets. Whole neighborhoods of customers were evacuated, or worse, lost their homes; several locally-sourcing restaurants were closed; numerous farmers markets were canceled; and events that attract local and Bay area consumers, such as Sonoma County Farm Trails’ annual Fall Tour, were called off due to the fires.
After the Fire (Left): Austin and Melissa Lely of Bee-Well Farms were forced to leave their farm just before midnight on Oct. 8th, with no time to protect the farm. When they came back the next morning most of everything was gone, but they found that all their animals had survived. Fire Recovery (Right): Bee-Well Farms, and their animals, now welcome visitors to their thriving new farmstand!
However, there were some silver linings. Farmers donated surplus harvests to the abundant relief efforts. Volunteers gathered in eager teams to help harvest, clean, package, and deliver available produce to numerous chefs across the county who, like Backyard Restaurant, closed down their businesses to provide thousands of organic, healthy meals to evacuees and first responders. Our community came together, as we do in crisis, to feed each other.
After the Fire (Left): Flatbed Farm experienced many losses in the Nuns Fire, including their barn; Fire Recovery (Right): The good news is that Flatbed Farm opened up their farmstand just in time for the spring season this year.
Sometimes it takes an event such as this to remind us that without a local food system, we have no fresh food. We are often too busy with daily to-do’s to stop and contemplate how our favorite foods arrive on our plate each day, and all that is involved in this eating process, including the people, land, resources, infrastructure, transportation, distribution outlets, etc, who make our nourishment possible.
After the Fire (Left): Oak Hill Farm lost farmer housing, the farm workshop, and many of the namesake oaks on the hillside. Farmer David Cooper also lost his beloved tractor. Fire Recovery (Right): Amid the loss, the farm team was focused on habitat restoration and quickly got back to work in the fields that yield over 200 varieties of produce & flowers.
Especially in the face of current economic challenges and threat of natural disasters, we must work even harder to establish resilience and to maintain our unique agricultural heritage. Community support is what has preserved our farmland and traditions for decades. Such support has secured access to responsibly grown food procured at the peak of its ripeness and flavor. And one year after the fires, community support is still what is required to keep Sonoma County farm strong and usher our way of life forward for future generations.
Please show your support and join us during our extended tour Holidays Along the Farm Trails from Nov. 14 -Jan. 1. Shop from the farmstands, purcahse handmade gifts, learn about the process of growing food, sign up for a CSA box, gather in the fields with the community to dance, and maybe even hug a baby goat... or a farmer! (RSVP is required.)
To directly help those most impacted by the fires, please consider supporting the following:
Backyard Restaurant (closed their restaurant for weeks to feed thousands of meals to first responders and fire victims in shelters): Dine at their restaurant or purchase a gift Certificate.
Farmer’s Wife (family lost their home in fire): Purchase one of their famous seasonal grilled cheese sandwiches at the Ferry Building Farmers Market, or at their new cafe at The Barlow in Sebastopol opening Fall 2018.
Old World Winery (damaged in fires): Visit them for a tasting of natural wines.
Tierra Vegetables (loss of majority of customer base from loss of nearby neighborhoods/homes): Visit the White Barn Weds-Sunday to purchase produce, chile jam, hot sauce, and so much more.
The reality is that all businesses in Sonoma County have been impacted by the fires. With tourism visits well below average for the year, businesses are experiencing a loss. Ethan Brown with the Economic Development Board tells us,“Many long-term factors contribute to an overall estimate of economic impact, making a concrete number difficult to determine, especially as we continue to learn in recovery. To date, the Small Business Administration has approved over $19 million in business loan applications, which include physical damage as well as “economic injury”. There is good news – a survey deployed by the Economic Development Board in fall of 2017 revealed that 81% of business owners here were still optimistic about economic growth in Sonoma County.” And we are optimistic, too! Though there are still miles to go, the long road to recovery is in progress. We continue to be heartened and inspired by the dedication, generosity, and courage of our community and neighbors like you. Our farms, ranches, restaurants, wineries, and hotels are open for business and need your support. Thank you for visiting and patronizing our local producers!
If you or perhaps a company you know is looking for more ways to help, look to Matrix Precise as an example. The Farm Trails office was contacted by Stefi Zerfus of Matrix Precise looking for ways that their company could help Sonoma County's recovery leading up to the one year anniversary of the wildfires. They concluded to not only promote Sonoma County Farm Trails events, but also visited several farms that were damaged or destroyed in the fires to meet the farmers and purchase products for their annual company event. They are also sharing resources on their "Mission Sonoma" philanthrophy page on their website which launched this month.