In the heart of Sonoma County, nestled in the rich soil of Armstrong Valley Farm, a story unfolds every Saturday at the Santa Rosa Original Farmers Market. Meet Farmer Tom, also known as “the Potato Man,” a seasoned grower with over 19 years of dedication to the soil. His vendor stall boasts not just the ordinary but the extraordinary—especially when it comes to the revered Bodega Red Heirloom Potato.
Farmer Tom’s journey with the Bodega Red began as a guardian of tradition. In 2006, Slow Food Sonoma County North took on the task of rescuing this Chilean transplant from the brink of oblivion. The Bodega Red, once the backbone of local farms around Bodega and Tomales Bay in the 1840s, had almost faded into the annals of forgotten crops. Neglected and nearly lost until the Slow Food Movement handed it out to trusted farmers to bring this heirloom potato back to life. Tom is one of those farmers.
Farmer Tom facilitated the collaboration between Slow Food Sonoma County North and Zuckerman’s Family Farm, a prominent California potato grower, to scale up the production of the Bodega Red. Since then, he has also been cultivating certified Bodega Red potatoes, playing a crucial role in the Slow Food movement’s mission to revive this unique variety. Each year, Tom plants around 500 pounds of certified Bodega Red potatoes, which is a third of his potato crops, contributing to the preservation of a piece of agricultural history.
Engaging with Farmer Tom is not just about purchasing produce; it’s about stepping into a living history lesson. With passion in his voice, Tom recounts the tale of the Bodega Red—its journey from Chile to the Sonoma County coast and its pivotal role in sustaining Gold Rush miners. He shares the thrill of rediscovery and the joy of reviving a potato variety once on the brink of extinction. It’s something to be excited about; The Bodega Red, with its pink-red skin, creamy texture, and rich flavor, steals the spotlight of any dish.
Tom believes in the spirit of old-fashioned farming; he meticulously plants them by hand, one by one, and harvests the tubers with care, one bucket at a time, preserving the essence of traditional, hands-on cultivation. He feels the richness of the soil is enhanced by the proximity to Armstrong Redwoods, which imparts a distinctive flavor to his potatoes.
Tom has been a proud member of the Santa Rosa Original Farmers Market since 2008 and has become an integral part of the community. Visitors to the market quickly learn that Tom is almost always present, except for the occasional fishing expedition—a passion he nurtures when the call of the sea beckons. Alongside fishing, Tom enjoys dirt biking and foraging wild mushrooms.
Farmer Tom offers more than just a variety of heirloom potatoes to explore each week. Ask about his fishing adventures, dirt biking escapades, and foraging tales, and you’ll quickly understand why he’s not just a vendor but a beloved figure in the Santa Rosa community. Farmer Tom’s story, interwoven with the tale of the Bodega Red, is a celebration of heritage, resilience, and the vibrant spirit of the local farming community. That is why Armstrong Valley Farm is this month’s ‘SROCFM Vendor of the Month’.
Sonoma County lost a cherished treasure and a dear friend to our Sonoma County Farmers’ Markets in early August. Paula Downing sadly passed away, at the age of 82 in her Sebastopol home, overlooking the Laguna de Santa Rosa. Paula’s influence on our community’s farmers markets was nothing short of transformational, and her legacy continues to thrive in the heart of our community.
In the early 1990s, Paula played a pivotal role in the creation of the Sebastopol Farmers’ Market. For the first two years, she was a vendor and served as a board member for the market. Then, when the original market manager had to leave due to family obligations, Paula’s 25 year tenure as the manager of the market began, where she brought to fruition the vision of the market organization: transforming it into a community based event, one where people would come not just for the sake of buying produce, but as a way to pass the time and connect with others.
Paula’s journey as a market manager continued with the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market, located in the east parking lot of the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building. Under her guidance, this market evolved into a vibrant hub for locals and visitors of Sonoma County.
Paula’s commitment to small farmers was unwavering. She always went the extra mile for each member farm, providing assistance personally or by connecting them with the resources they needed. Her deep understanding and love for farmers made her a beloved figure among the farming community. Her impact was felt far and wide.
Pegi Ball, the current market manager, fondly remembers Paula as an unwavering source of support and wisdom. She shared, “Paula was incredibly supportive and knowledgeable. She reached out to me when I was just starting, answering my questions and offering unwavering support. Her mentorship was invaluable, and many vendors owe their success to her guidance.” Despite her unique personality that sometimes led to friendly disputes, Paula’s dedication to farmers and agriculture was unquestionable, earning immense gratitude from all who crossed her path.
Paula’s markets were not just places to buy fresh produce; they were vibrant community centers. She organized special events throughout the year, from tomato tastings with guest chefs to customer appreciation days and holiday-themed festivities. Paula also made a significant contribution by advocating for fair compensation for farmers, putting an end to the practice of endless requests for donations.
In addition to her market work, Paula was a passionate advocate for the environment, clean air and water, local foods, and the preservation of biodiversity. She was an integral part of Slow Food Russian River and played a crucial role in efforts to save the Gravenstein Apple. Her impact extended beyond markets, as she tirelessly worked to protect headwaters, combat the use of DDT, and save old-growth trees in Oregon.
Paula’s sister, Barbara, highlighted the remarkable dedication Paula displayed in taking on all these demanding roles. She remarked, “Paula willingly dedicated herself to this challenging work out of her love for the community and her sense of duty.”
Paula’s infectious energy and dedication to her passions were felt by all who knew her. She leaves behind a legacy that will forever shape the landscape of Sonoma County’s farmers markets. While we mourn her loss, we also celebrate a life well lived—a life filled with love, advocacy, and a profound impact on our community. Paula, you will be deeply missed, and your spirit will forever inspire us.