On Friday afternoon, Apr. 19, dozens of children, their parents and other community members were able to meet the many animals on the Veronda/Falletti Ranch near downtown Cotati during Farmster’s monthly open farm event. Corkscrew-tailed piglets, fluffy lambs, gardening projects and a sheep shearing demonstration enthralled young and old alike. Farmster has been managing the property since the fall of 2018, when it signed a 3-year license agreement with the City of Cotati to provide stewardship of the Veronda-Falletti Ranch, and serve the general public and visitors as a demonstration of preservation, regeneration, and collaboration.
“Our mission is to grow food and farm skills while preserving the history on-site,” says Dustin DeMatteo, Director of Farmster. “It’s a live operation – that’s one of the most rewarding aspects of it, is that it is a very real project. People know it and want to participate in it and want their kids to have some exposure.”
The Veronda/Falletti Ranch, located at 175 West Sierra Avenue in Cotati, sits on part of what was once the 17,000-acre ranch owned by Dr. Thomas Stokes Page, before the City of Cotati was created by him and his heirs in the 1890s. In 1938 the Veronda family purchased the 4.37-acre property and raised up to 3,000 chickens. One of the Veronda daughters, Jennie, married Al Falletti in 1948 and together they built the Spanish Colonial-style home on what is now a separate parcel north of the original farmhouse. The ranch evolved under their stewardship to include fruit trees, flower gardens and sheep for meat and wool. In 2008 the land was purchased and protected as public open space in a partnership between the City of Cotati and the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.
Finally in 2018 the City of Cotati chose Farmster to take the property to its next step of education and stewardship. Farmster was started by a group of Sonoma State University alumni in 2016 to grow useful skills and share needed resources in Sonoma County for those interested in community farming and working with livestock. Their idea transpired while still at school.
“Myself and a few others were very close to graduating from Sonoma State University and we all were involved in different factions of sustainability,” says DeMatteo. “I was more focused on the food system, the culinary services sustainability ambassador, and helped bridge a relationship between a small group of student organic growers and the culinary services. That was the first instance where people were able to do some SPIN [Small Plot Intensive] farming in the local community and actually have it get back to the students’ mouths. With that idea, once we graduated, we decided to try and find some opportunities to bring more agriculture and programming to Sonoma State.”
The organization first started with five acres at SOMO Village in Rohnert Park but decided to move to the Veronda/Falletti Ranch after a year to expand program offerings to the public.
“Cotati is our current headquarters,” says DeMatteo. “There are a few more development projects with some buildings and it’s just outside of downtown – our other site was fairly isolated. So we decided to pick up shop and move over to Cotati. It’s been a perfect type of business relationship with the city and being able to work with the community has been phenomenal. Finding this Cotati opportunity has been a match made in heaven.”
Some of the recent improvements made to the Veronda/Falletti Ranch include walkways, picnic tables, a water fountain and interpretive signage about the agricultural heritage of the site. Farmster hosts open farm days every third Fri. of the month with educational and entertaining activities, projects, and hands-on demonstrations of all the seasonal maintenance the livestock needs such as goat vaccinations, sheep shearing and hoof trimming, and plans to hold more tours, talks and workshops. Every open farm day is followed up with a Dine and Donate fundraising event at Sally Tomatoes in Rohnert Park. Other priority items include renovating the farmhouse and water tower, which the City of Cotati has agreed to complete, retrofitting the large barn, building their volunteer program, and hosting their 2nd annual Farmster Festival, scheduled for July 20, also at Sally Tomatoes.
Other future plans Farmster hopes to accomplish in the next couple of years include restoring the chicken shed on-site, selling fruits, nuts and vegetables, hosting a farm-to-table dinner and creating rain storage and harvesting features.
Currently the organization, which is a fiscally sponsored project of MarinLink, a California nonprofit corporation, has up to a dozen volunteers, but are actively seeking more help. DeMatteo handles the programming and the development aspects, as well as the daily chores on the ranch; Nancy Preblich, a multi-generational rancher from the Bodega area, acts as a management consultant and coordinator and oversees the livestock care and Megan Berlin, a master gardener, oversees the gardening.
“We are definitely looking for more volunteers,” says DeMatteo. “Either to join in on those open farm Fri. workdays as well as those people that have entrepreneurship qualities and have their own ideas…It’s great having people that are super passionate and knowledgeable.”
While Farmster aims to educate the general community as it preserves the historical site, it is especially focused on bringing in youth this year and is hoping that will have a ripple effect over the next several years. To that end, it plans to start summer camps for children this July.
“We’re going to have a Junior Farmster summer camp on-site, beginning July 29,” says DeMatteo. “It will be for five through twelve year olds and will be an opportunity for younger kids to get a full week and parents to get a break or join in on the fun. It’s an extension of what we do on our open farm Fri., beginning with soil and worms, to particular plants, to animals and the land, etc. It will be a great program and a fun partnership with the City of Cotati.”