North Bay farms may struggle to stay afloat after wildfires


Agriculture, worth almost $900 million dollars in Sonoma County, suffered significant  damage in this month's devastating fires.


And some of the smaller farm operations may struggle to stay afloat.  

"We understand the scope of this disaster, " California Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross told KTVU on Monday, outside a meeting of rural fire victims and assistance agencies.


"There's no way we can feel the same personal tragedy," Ross continued,"but we are mindful that we need to support this community, and it is a strong community."


Ross spoke at the event, sponsored by the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.


Earlier in the day, she visited some of the ag properties damaged by fire, including Bee-Well Farms in Glen Ellen. 


"She grabbed her wedding ring, a photo album, the business records," recalled Austin Lely, who owns Bee-Well with wife Mellissa.


They fled the burning property the night of the firestorm, but returned the next morning, with flames still visible, to search for their animals.


They were gratified to find their cattle, goats, and chickens somehow still alive, but the home and ranch they poured two years of work into, was destroyed.  


"Structures, we lost all the tools and equipment, vehicles, fence lines," recounted Melissa Lely, "plus irrigation, power, wells, everything's gone." 


At the Monday evening gathering, various agencies including FEMA, the USDA, and the SBA staffed tables to answer questions and provide guidance. 


"We're not victims, we're going to be survivors of this fire, and we're going to move forward together," reassured one speaker. 


"We can loan you working capital dollars to pay your bills, right now, until you get back to normal," encouraged another.   


Sonoma County's Agriculture Commissioner estimates fire losses at tens of millions of dollars to plants and crops, hundreds of millions if infrastructure is included. 


"It is fortunate that the fire happened so late in the season, most of our crops had already been harvested at that point," explained Tony Linegar, "and our larger, more established ranches will be able to weather this better than the smaller growers who were just getting by paycheck to paycheck so to speak."


And Linegar notes, some damage won't be apparent until later.


"A lot of grape vines were burned and we won't really know until Spring, whether some of those need to be replanted."


Late harvest grapes, such as Cabernet, were still on the vine when the fire hit. Some fried, others are too smoke-damaged to be viable. 


Marijuana crops in the region were also destroyed by fire, or tainted by smoke. 


"We'll figure it out here, because we're fairly established," Erich Pearson of Sparc Dispensaries told KTVU, surveying his growing operation in Glen Ellen, alongside Bee-Well Farms. 


"But I know a lot of smaller farmers put everything they could into the season, especially in light of regulations coming on," explained Pearson, "and so this is a pretty devastating thing for folks who stepped up their game this year."     


Sonoma County has instituted a permitting process and tax structure for cannabis businesses.

In light of the fire, those that suffered losses, will have their tax reduced or waived. 


Marijuana-related agriculture does not qualify for traditional federal aid.


"We did have a lot of cannabis farms that were really starting to sprout up and become established," declared Ag Commissioner Linegar, "so right as they're starting to become financially stable, it's too bad this happens."  


Wine grapes lead the way in Sonoma County's agricultural value. 

Four wineries in the county were damaged by fire, and one, Shadow Ridge, near Fountain

Grove, was destroyed.


The owners have said they will rebuild. 


The Lelys, committed to their farm, and holistic land practices, say they will rebuild as well. 


"It's part of a global change that needs to occur," exclaimed Melissa Lely, "so that's the only option for us- working towards our goals and a more sustainable future."


Farm Bureau officials urged the crowd to spread the word, that Sonoma County's wineries and other agriculture, popular with tourists, are open for business and need public support.   







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