Preserving a way of life – Oakhill Farm and Sonoma Land Trust
By Nicole Na, Sonoma Land Trust
In Sonoma County, it’s all about the land. Like the county itself, Sonoma Land Trust is rooted in agriculture. Since its founding 41 years ago, Sonoma Land Trust has fostered the connection between well-managed agricultural lands and healthy natural lands. This intersection is both our heritage and our future. From Ellen Stuart to Luther Burbank to our young farmers, food, fiber and vines have put Sonoma County on the map.
It was Otto Teller, devoted land preservationist and farmer, who first gathered together Sonoma Land Trust’s founders in the mid-’70s. Soon after, he donated his 300-acre Secret Pasture property, seeding our conservation efforts and blazing a trail for our work. Otto believed in respecting the heritage of Sonoma County – as well as looking toward the future. Similarly, we are using our properties’ natural systems to inform a sustainable approach to agriculture, preserving our lands’ unique histories, keeping them productive and managing them responsibly for future generations.
Farming hand in hand with nature at Oak Hill Farm In 1977, Otto Teller met Anne, his future wife, and the two of them began cultivating a life dedicated to farming – and land preservation. They donated a conservation easement over their 677-acre Oak Hill Farm, nestled in Sonoma Valley, in 1985. Otto had purchased this property 20 years earlier, converting it from a dairy and pasture to a farm growing “back greens,” the foliage found in flower arrangements. Anne has kept their vision going strong since his passing 19 years ago.
“In a nutshell,” Anne says, “my husband was a devoted environmentalist. Like a terrier, he wouldn’t let go of the concept. He planted cover crops to restore the soil and we conserved water.” Remarkably, thanks to Otto’s values, herbicides and pesticides have never been used on the property, and it was a natural step for the Tellers to donate an easement over the farm. “We were already practicing what you call sustainable agriculture,” says Anne. “We didn’t want to subdivide our property anyway, or build new buildings or roads, so the easement worked just fine – we didn’t have to change our farming style.”
As years passed, the Tellers began to grow flowers and, eventually, vegetables. Today, Anne grows 200 types of fruits, vegetables and flowers, some of which are sold on Saturdays at the Red Barn on Highway 12. The rest goes to San Francisco businesses and restaurants, and their new flower operation in Sebastopol.
The conservation easement covers the entirety of the property, but roughly only 10 percent of it is cultivated – the remaining portion is forested, attracting all kinds of wildlife. “An important part of this farm is its forests,” Anne says. “They bring clouds, which bring rain, and keep our streams viable and our aquifer healthier.” Oak Hill Farm, Secret Pasture, Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Bouverie Preserve and Glen Oaks Ranch are all connected to one another, creating a wildlife-friendly neighborhood that sustains deer, mountain lions and myriad other native species.
Anne seeks to maintain an equilibrium with nature at Oak Hill Farm. ”I think it’s a question of how we strike a balance with nature.” Anne cites the pair of rattlesnakes that inhabit the barn. “Do I kill them? Other people would. They can be a danger to me and my dogs. But the rattlesnakes do so much good and provide so much service. In exchange, we give them shade and protection. They’re part of the system.”
It’s this system – a harmonious relationship between farm and nature – that the Tellers sought to protect. “The conservation easement connects me to a wonderful organization. And it connects me to wonderful friends,” says Anne. “The easement volunteers scan the grounds for me and help me preserve the property. It’s the best way I know to support what I believe in – a healthy Earth – and it’s close to home. What could be better than that?”
Reprinted with permission from the Sonoma Land Trust Summer 2017 Newsletter.