‘We’ve Got the Food, They’ve Got the Need’: Petaluma Farm Donates Produce to Restaurants

A once-controversial farm known mostly for its cannabis program is stoking a different kind of high these days.

A once-controversial Petaluma farm known mostly for its cannabis program is stoking a different kind of high these days, doling out pounds upon pounds of free produce to Bay Area chefs.

Gardeners at the Sonoma Hills Farm planted a 3-acre produce garden earlier this summer and have started sharing tomatoes, lettuces, beets, kohlrabi, and other vegetables with chefs in San Francisco and Napa and Sonoma counties.

Dubbed Chefs’ Ranch, the program aims to help chefs and restaurateurs get through financial hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Every box of goodies is totally free.

Head farmer Aaron Keefer said the program is both an effort to give back to the industry and to introduce Sonoma Hills as a viable source of fresh produce from the North Bay.

“In times like this we have to come together as a community,” said Keefer, whose title technically is vice president of cultivation and production. “We’ve got the food. They’ve got the need. If we can provide a boost to local restaurants by giving them our produce, all of us win.”

Aaron Keefer is distributing produce from Sonoma Hills Farm to local chefs for free. The initiative’s decals are a modern take on victory garden posters. (Courtesy photo)
Victory garden poster, “Will you have a part in victory,” by James Montgomery Flagg, c.1918. (Library of Congress)

If anybody understands how to grow produce, it’s Keefer; he ran the culinary garden at The French Laundry in Yountville for 10 years before taking over at Sonoma Hills in February.

Keefer was hired because of his vision for cannabis—as he described it then, his goal was to “source the best genetics and consistently create the best cannabis.” In addition, Keefer hoped to create a 1-acre produce garden to serve local chefs who could subscribe for regular deliveries.

Then the pandemic changed everything. During initial shelter-in-place orders, Keefer heard horror stories about restaurateurs losing money on take-out and struggling to make ends meet. In recent weeks, he read statistics predicting 85 percent of all restaurants in the region could close permanently because of the pandemic.

Suddenly, it hit him: He had to help.

So Keefer and his staff of three got to work. They expanded the garden to 3 acres. They planted dozens of different types of potatoes, squash, corn, and other veggies.

Kohlrabi at Sonoma Hills Farm in Petaluma. (Courtesy photo)

By early July, their “quarantine garden” started producing in abundance. The farm began packing boxes for a select group of chef friends. Keefer himself engineered most of these deliveries, driving his personal pickup truck to restaurants all over the region. As the program became more formalized, Sonoma Hills invested in specific stickers for the boxes. These decals, a modern take on the victory garden posters of WWI and WWII, depict lady liberty as a female farmer, wearing a face covering.

Chefs certainly have been appreciative of the bounty.

Katina Connaughton, co-owner of Single Thread restaurant in Healdsburg, said she has been incorporating some of the lettuces and tomatoes into dishes the restaurant is donating to Sonoma Family Meal, a local nonprofit that gives free meals to residents in need.

Earlier this month, Connaughton said Single Thread was donating between 200 and 400 meals a day.

“We’ve created this wonderful outlet for surplus in our community and they have a surplus, so we are delighted to be able to incorporate the beautiful produce they’ve been giving us,” said Katina, who oversees operations at Single Thread’s farm in a hidden valley north of Fitch Mountain. “Having them be part of the community is a valuable addition.”

Phil Tessier, chef and partner at PRESS in St. Helena, also has received produce from Chefs’ Ranch, and has incorporated it into meals the restaurant has donated as part of a different philanthropic effort.

This program, named Feed Our Families, is a partnership with other Napa restaurants and the local Boys and Girls Club. Much like Sonoma Family Meal, this program distributes meals to residents in need. It also has raised money to support these families—at last check, the effort had raised more than $200,000.

Tessier said he also planned to use some of the Chefs Ranch produce on his regular restaurant menu.

“It allows us to elevate what we do here,” he said. “They do a lot for us just by getting better product into the restaurant.”

To be clear: Restaurant produce from Chefs’ Ranch at Sonoma Hills Farm won’t always be free. Keefer said that, eventually, he hopes to revert to the original plan and charge restaurants for access to the veggies he grows.

For now, however, there’s no timetable for that switch.

“Eventually this garden has to break even,” he said. “Until then our priority is helping chefs get through this [pandemic] as best we can.”