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A fresh way to feed the needy

Friday, February 15th, 2013 | Posted by

Eddie Gelsman feeds free range chickens at WHOA Farm, the nonprofit he created on Petaluma Hill Road. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

By NICK WALDEN / Rohnert Park Correspondent

Guests who dine at St. Vincent de Paul in Santa Rosa this week are likely to find organic carrots, leek, kale, beets and lettuce on the menu. So are clients at Petaluma Kitchen and the West County Health Centers.

Thanks to a three-year-old nonprofit called WHOA Farm, these and other agencies supplement their pantries with regular shipments of seasonal fruits and vegetables grown on 15 acres bordering Petaluma Hill Road.

“It is beyond words what it means to us,” said Dave Meyer, an assistant manager at St. Vincent de Paul.

Eddie Gelsman, 60, and his wife Wendy Mardigian, 49, are the forces behind WHOA Farm, which stands for Work Horse Organic Agriculture. Gelsman is co-owner of Wine Library in Petaluma and has for many years been a proponent of organic produce.

Although the couple grows a two-acre home garden, “we just couldn’t sit on the sidelines anymore,” Gelsman said. “Too many people are going hungry. We wanted to start the fight locally.”

They started by purchasing a 5-acre parcel on Petaluma Hill Road and using its raised beds to grow a modest amount of food, all of which was donated to nonprofit agencies. When a second 10-acre parcel became available almost next door, they bought it, too, significantly expanding the operation.

Last year they grew, and gave away, 15,000 pounds of produce.

Gelsman had horses on the East Coast and liked the idea of using them to farm his land. He got acquainted with Elli Rose, 28, and Balyn Rose, 30,who were farming Wild Rose Ranch on Sonoma Mountain, and asked them to operate WHOA.

“It was a unique opportunity to try and accomplish the same idea we had with Wild Rose, but on a larger scale,” said Elli Rose.

The Roses met at UC-Santa Cruz while studying agriculture, and moved to the Sonoma Mountain property four years ago. They agreed to move to WHOA Farm as paid employees.

“We want to grow the most amount of food possible while being responsible,” said Balyn Rose. They also embraced the idea of lessening the farm’s carbon footprint by replacing their tractor with draft horses.

They now plow the 15 acres using horsepower. WHOA Farm had five, three of which they use on the Petaluma Hill property — a pair of haflingers donated by a man in Sebastopol and a white Patron donated by a friend of Gelman’s who breeds horses.

The other two were donated to Ryan Power and Adam Davidoff of New Family Farm in Sebastopol. In turn, the New Family farmers donate food in WHOA’s name when they are able and work with Balyn and the horses at both locations.

Along with between 40 and 50 types of crops that are rotated each year, the farm produces honey, hay, fruit and even Gravenstein apples grown on a few ancient trees that Balyn Rose has been able to nurture back into production.

The Roses supplement their effort by working with interns and by holding regular volunteer workdays. Every other week, people are invited to the farm to do chores like pulling weeds and managing compost piles.

In the process, participants also learn about sustainable farming. The next work day is tentatively scheduled for Saturday. For more information, visit Whoafarm.org.

“(WHOA) is a real boon for that whole section of wellness and education,” said Michael Di Rosario, who manages the Forestville Wellness Center.

Balyn Rose picks collards at WHOA Farm. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

In addition to providing clients with groceries, the center offers nutrition classes that teach them how to manage blood sugar, boost immunity and control weight by managing their food choices.

WHOA Farm provides the clients with individually packaged bags filled with the fresh organic foods they have studied about in class.

Food kitchens such as St. Vincent de Paul’s receive a constant supply of fresh produce they can incorporate into their menus.

“Everything they bring us is top notch. Everything they bring in we use here,” said Dave Meyer.

Gelsman is the primary donor to WHOA Farm, but he has plans to ensure the nonprofit’s future by growing it slowly and developing connections.

“Some day I’m going to want to retire, so I want to be able to pass this on to people and keep the idea going,” he said.

He started by developing partnerships with a friend and a neighbor. Crane Melon Barn, which owns the property between his two parcels, has offered to lease that property and its pinot noir grapevines to WHOAFarm. And winemaker Guy Davis of Davis Family Vineyards, a long-time associate of Gelsman’s, is donating his time to help develop a WHOA Farm pinot noir. They expect to grow enough grapes to produce and sell 600 to 800 cases per year, with all of the profits returning to the farm.

“It is about organic food distribution to the disenfranchised community,” Gelsman said, summarizing his vision. “What we do is profoundly different.

“What we are about that separates us is that we harvest fresh food in the morning and deliver it that day.

“We grow the best food money can’t buy.”




  • Karen P

    I think this is absolutley wonderfull. Would be so beneficial for everyone if we did this across the country.

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Nick Walden is our Rohnert Park + Cotati correspondent.
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