The history and legacy of Farm Trails

A pair of pheasants, wings outstretched but motionless, hang mounted to the wall above Jack and Verna Krout. In the living room of their Petaluma farmhouse, they sit flipping through two maps beside their granddaughter. Both maps depict Sonoma County speckled with little numbers ascribed to farms, ranches and orchards. While one is a single, foldable page in black and white save for a bit of green trim, the other is brightly colored, glossy, a magazine of 32 bound pages. But the most striking difference, at least to Jack and Verna—both now in their 90s—is that the second map is missing #11: Krout’s Pheasant Farm.

It was 1973 when they were assigned that number, among the first to join what was then a brand new organization—a new concept, in fact. “Before Farm Trails came along,” remembers Verna, “I used to drive all the way down to the wharf in San Francisco where I’d sell our birds to a cruise company that’d take them out on their way to Hawaii. Quite an ordeal and they never paid well either.” At the time, Sonoma County’s first farmers market was still a few years away, grocery stores relied exclusively on middlemen, the term CSA had yet to be coined and, according to Verna, only two restaurants in the whole Bay Area would buy direct from farmers like them—one of which was a newcomer to the culinary scene, Chez Panisse. But they already had a source for specialty poultry, she says.

The simple yet profound idea that Farm Trails offered to farmers like the Krouts was this: let the customers come to you. “The seventies were a tough time for farmers,” remembers Tim Tesconi, who before joining the Farm Trails board served as the executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau and, before that, as an agriculture reporter for The Press Democrat. “Our reputation here as the Egg Capital of the World had declined. Most smaller poultry farmers were going out of business. And with all the new highways, refrigerated trucks and the rise of big Central Valley ag, most farms had to rely on brokers. Prices were low. It wasn’t easy to compete. Farm Trails arose to cut out the middleman and give these farmers another chance.”

The idea had been the brainchild of a new UC Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor by the name of John Smith who moved to the area from Placer County. Bringing with him a similar concept he’d seen work up in the foothills, Smith reached out to the original members who wanted to cultivate sales, farmers like Bruce Goetz of Green Valley Blueberry Farm, Bob Larsen of Larsen’s Christmas Tree Farm and, of course, to Jack and Verna, who by then were just keeping their pheasant enterprise afloat with occasional orders from local hunting clubs.

By the time Farm Trails had printed its first map in 1973, a total of 133 farms had signed on to be listed, from pumpkin patches along the 101 to West County’s apple orchards, from what was back then a thriving Christmas tree industry to what was then still a budding wine industry. Under each farm’s name, address and products was found the hours of each farm stand, most of which were fairly wide open during the harvest season, some even open year-round. It didn’t take long for the idea to catch on. “The public was waiting for something like this,” says Tesconi. “They just needed a mechanism for finding the farms.” The first round of maps sold out quicker than anyone had expected and the founders had to return for a second printing.

Sales at Krout’s Pheasant Farm picked up, especially around the holidays when locals and visitors from the city alike would swing by their farm stand to pick up dressed birds. “And it wasn’t just us,” says Jack. “One of the biggest successes to come out of Farm Trails was Kozlowski. They’d been making pies from leftover berries and apples from their property and now look at them—those pies are everywhere. Lots more folks started planting Christmas trees. It kept more than a few apple orchards alive for sure, even when that industry took a downturn. And I don’t think the blueberry farm would’ve made it without Farm Trails.”

A new map came out each year, with additional farms added to the list with every publication. National magazines wrote features on the new program. Agricultural communities elsewhere in the state and even around the country started taking note of Sonoma County’s success. Then bus tours began to arrive with visitors and school groups. Jack and Verna would lead crowds of curious customers around their farm, giving a behind-the-scenes look at where their food came from while showing off not only the 20,000 ring-necked pheasants they were known for but a number of more unique breeds, as well as turkeys, partridge and even a few swans for show.Jack and Verna answered any questions that came their way, encouraged by the public’s interest in their livelihood. But as they remember it, the true tour guide there at Krout’s was Max, the border collie. “We tried to keep all those tour groups orderly, but there’d always be some curious guy who’d wander off on his own to look at this or that,” laughs Jack. “And when Max would appear herding that stray fellow back to the tour group, the guy’s wife would yell, ‘that dog has more control over my husband than I do!’”

During a time when most Americans were growing more and more distanced from the source of their food and as the industry began conglomerating into the corporate behemoths that today dominate the market, Farm Trails helped keep alive family farms, laying the groundwork for a later movement towards food transparency and choice, epitomized by films like “Food, Inc.” and books like “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

“Back then, the map was how a lot of people got to know Sonoma County,” says Carmen Snyder, Farm Trails’ executive director. A relative newcomer to the area from South Carolina, it was through her job at the Farm Trails’ office—before taking over the organization’s helm in 2012—that Snyder fell in love with Sonoma County and its rich agricultural heritage. While she calls it a marketing co-op, Carmen admits that marketing and branding never really appealed to her.

“In fact, I was kinda averse to the whole concept, really. But recently, when I went back to visit my hometown, I found myself driving around the countryside and whenever I’d pass by farms, I couldn’t help wonder who they were, what they were growing—their story. Stories are powerful,” she says. “There’s a real identity and sense of place when farmers take pride in their name. Our job here is to help celebrate and spotlight our producers. We give them a platform to tell their story.”

Around the same time that the first map appeared, the Farm Trails community resurrected yet another platform for celebration and storytelling: the Gravenstein Apple Fair. Founded back in the early years of the century, the fair had been abandoned during World War II. But with the new energy surrounding the map, farmers joined forces yet again to re-establish that old tradition—showing off old tractors, pressing apples, tasting the unique flavors of the county. And since 1973, it has served as Farm Trails’ primary annual fundraiser.

“It’s an expression of community that’s pretty unusual in today’s world,” says Lou Preston of Preston Farm and Winery. “What’s going to protect agriculture is to make it personal. Farm Trails and the Apple Fair does a great job of that.”

Today, every August, thousands arrive to gather under the shade of oak trees in Sebastopol’s Ragle Ranch Regional Park. This year, the 43rd Gravenstein Apple Fair was held during the weekend of August 13 and 14.

A whole new generation of farmers and artisans have since joined the Farm Trails family. Some things remain the same, says Snyder, while others have changed. With different needs and constraints (the exorbitant cost of land most pressing among them), newer members are finding unique niche markets and value-added products to make their mark, the North Bay’s explosive specialty cheese industry the most obvious. Wool and cider are now making inroads. And innovative growing methods—such as no-till and organic agriculture—are becoming part of the draw and distinction of the region as a showcase for sustainable food production. And to many of these newer farmers hoping to demonstrate the qualities that set them apart, a resource like Farm Trails is key.

With the rise of farmers markets, farm-to-table restaurants and even a handful of grocery stores willing to buy direct from local producers, the prominence of the old farm stands has waned. Farm Trails now hosts special events throughout the year during which farms welcome visitors, but otherwise most farms are today only open by appointment.

But the role of Farm Trails goes deeper than just a map and marketing, says Snyder. “Today, when we gather the membership, there’s such a diversity in the room. Fourth-generation ranchers and apple farmers sitting beside brand new cheese-makers and diversified vegetable farmers new to the area. Farm Trails offers a bridge between these different communities. Here, we’re all under the same tent; we all want agriculture in Sonoma County to thrive,” says Snyder.

The Krouts retired from the pheasant business back in 1995, leasing out their land to other farmers. The organization, however, remains a part of their life. “We made a heck of a lot of friends through Farm Trails. The whole thing was volunteer-driven, so the people who gathered around it really cared.” Jack and Verna scan the old map beside their daughter, Andrea, who today works for the county but now sits on the board of Farm Trails. When asked what ingredients the heirs of the Farm Trails legacy must preserve to ensure that it continues into the future, Jack and Verna agree: “Generosity, hospitality and lots of cooperation.” SD