By Tara Duggan, San Francisco Chronicle
The Wine Country fires are hitting the heart of Sonoma County farm and dairy land, and many ranchers and farmers had either evacuated or were preparing to evacuate their properties on Monday. The impact on the local agricultural economy could be devastating.
Sonoma County farms house 30,000 dairy cows and 35,000 sheep and goats, according to the 2016 Sonoma County Crop Report. The report lists the value of its agriculture at close to $900 million, with livestock and poultry accounting for $178 million, and about $10 million from vegetable farms. The county also has an estimated 3,000 to 9,000 medical cannabis farmers.
Ranchers faced the immediate challenge of moving farm animals.
Around 8:30 a.m. Monday, Carleen Weirauch of Weirauch Farm & Creamery, a farmstead cheese dairy on Petaluma Hill Road in Santa Rosa, posted a photo on Facebook of her dairy herd with flames on the horizon. She wrote, “Lord please keep my animals safe.”
Just east of the fires in Rohnert Park, the farmstead was preparing for possible evacuation. There are about 200 animals on the ranch altogether, including 70 dairy sheep, and they don’t have enough trailers to move them all quickly, though some neighbors have offered to loan them. Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa and the Sebastopol Grange in Sebastopol announced on social media that they are accepting livestock for those who are evacuated.
“Right now we’re doing anything we can do to protect the animals and make sure they have water and infrastructure in case we have to leave,” said Weirauch. She said ranchers need backup generators in case the power goes out to run pumps to make sure the animals get water even if the humans have to leave, and are trying to figure out which gates they can leave open so the animals aren’t trapped if the fire comes.
They are also covering up the load of hay they just got to feed the animals. “It’s a tinderbox,” said Weirauch.
In Sonoma, several of the historic buildings of the Stornetta Dairy on Highway 12, where Laura Chenel made her famed fresh goat cheese for many years, burned down overnight. The dairy was founded in 1932 and used to be part of the dairy company Clover Stornetta Farms, which is now called Clover Sonoma.
California marijuana growers north of San Francisco were facing mandatory evacuation orders as well as potentially tens of millions of dollars in crop damage and loss amid widespread wildfires in the region.
The California Growers Association holds a regional check-in call every Monday morning, and Monday, six of their 18 regional leaders were under evacuation orders or helping neighbors who were. There might be more than 3,000 cannabis gardens in Sonoma County, according to county surveys.
“We’re expecting some pretty significant property damage,” said CGA Executive Director Hezekiah Allen. “As damage numbers emerge, it’s going to be pretty stunning on all fronts, and certainly our membership has been directly impacted.”
Produce farmers at the height of early fall harvest also have a lot to lose as the fire closes in on their fields full of end-of-season tomatoes or piles of just-harvested winter squash to sell in the coming months.
Joey Smith of Let’s Go Farm, which grows about 50 different organic vegetable crops on the northeastern side of Santa Rosa, had to evacuate with his mother, Jean, in the early morning hours.
“We had really beautiful watermelons, a lot of tomatoes, carrots, beets,” said Smith, listing off what was in the fields when he left. “Kale and chard and celery, strawberries and melons.”
Smith, who is also an adjunct sustainable agriculture instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College, doesn’t raise dairy animals but does have a pony and six sheep that they use to graze on vegetation for, ironically, fire prevention. He released them on a field with low grass where he hopes they will be safe.
Smith doesn’t have high hopes for the farm itself, which he took over in 2011 and where he has lived most of his life. The chaparral on the hills above it, which he worries about all the time as a fire hazard, was completely up in huge red flames, he said.
“I don’t think there’s anything that would stop it,” he said.
In Glen Ellen, the sheriff ordered the occupants and staff of Oak Hill Farm to evacuate at 6 a.m. when the fire was around 2,000 feet away, said farm manager David Cooper. Cooper said they had flowers in the field waiting to be harvested and around 6,000 to 7,000 pounds of harvested winter squash and onions in storage, as well as fruit ready to come off the trees.
The property is on 1,000 acres, only 24 of which are farmed. On Monday afternoon, Cooper was able to return to the farm to learn that half of the fields and farm had burned as well as one barn and one home gone; firefighters were still on the scene.
Jennifer Bice, founder of Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery in Sebastopol, closed the creamery on Monday because many employees lived in areas that had been evacuated. She was also making preparations for a possible evacuation of the 250 goats at her home farm after seeing flames on the horizon earlier that morning, though the winds had shifted in the farm’s favor. Her parents founded the farm in 1968.
“I’ve lived here since I was a kid in the ’60s, and I’ve never seen anything like this right here around us,” she said. “It’s just horrific and scary.”
San Francisco Chronicle staff writer David Downs contributed to this report.