photo from Sonoma West

photo from Sonoma West

The market welcomed back Ridgeview Farm on Saturday.  The beautiful displays of lettuces and seasonal bouquets are signs that spring is really here.

This year the return is tinged with sadness because of the announcement Joel Kiff died earlier in the week.  Joel Kiff was an integral part of the farmers markets community, including serving as this market’s president.


Late last year The Healdsburg Tribune published an interview with Joel and Renee Kiff.


by Shonnie Brown | Posted: Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Joel and Renee Kiff

As I drive onto the glorious 3.6 acres of Ridgeview Farm off of Alexander Valley Road, I feel gratitude for our local farmers who continue to use this beautiful land in a way that is relevant to all of us. Boisterous greetings by CJ, a former rodeo dog, and Oliver, a gigantic black Lab and recent arrival from Minnesota, welcome me.

The interview unofficially begins as Renee takes me for a tour. In the backyard we are met by Posey the sheep with a bunch of bamboo in her mouth, and her blind buddy, Patrick, who’s been bottle-fed since day one. It’s quite a spread with hens and roosters, dogs and cats, family members in various houses and a vast array of fruits and veggies. Joel and Renee’s daughter, Sarah, is making wreathes of cut flowers from her splendid flower bed. There are fields of winter vegetables as well as summer fruit––melons, tomatoes, Asian pears, cling peaches and 80 varieties of apples. Renee tells me that half of their income comes from Panda’s Garden (Sarah’s flower business) and half from the row crops which Joel began planting when he retired from teaching. But let’s start at the beginning…

Joel hails from Ringling, Montana, where he was raised on a cattle ranch. While a student at Carroll College in Helena, he met Renee (who attended Seattle University) at a northwest Catholic College Conference. The two began a correspondence by mail, which culminated in a decision to marry. Renee, from Marin County, left college at the end of her junior year, and the two began married life in 1960 in Helena, Montana, where Joel began his career as a high school teacher and football and track coach.

After two years, they moved to the Bay Area. Joel taught first at Riordan High in San Francisco and also got a degree in math. The couple then moved to Marin County where they lived for 17 years, raising their five children while Joel loved teaching and coaching at Marin Catholic High School. The big change came in 1978 when the older boys were in their teens.

“Joel thought it was important for the boys to have chores like he did,” Renee tells me. “And after 18 years of teaching, he needed a change and Sarah wanted a horse.

“My sister-in-law, Nancy Tobener, and my brother Tim, now deceased, had moved here. Joel got to know the area while working as a carpenter for Tim during the summers. Our son, Dave, saw an ad for a place ‘with 3.6 acres, a barn, two fireplaces and a pool.’ Rick Cooper showed us this house and we moved here in 1978 when the bottom was falling out of the construction business… So Joel began teaching at Healdsburg High in 1980 and taught here for nearly 20 years.”

Renee walked into Healdsburg High with Joel Jr. and Martin, their two oldest. Dave was going into eighth, Sarah into sixth, and Tom was to begin kindergarten. The HHS registrar enrolled the two eldest in Rod Walstrum’s agriculture program. Renee now thanks the Ag program and her sons for teaching both her and Joel how to farm.

“All the kids except Tom became very active in 4-H and FFA. They raised many animals and even started a successful pig business. As each of them got older, Joel would turn more and more of the land over to farming. When we first started, we found two abandoned artichoke plants. I told the boys to divide them up with the shovel. They broke these huge things into separate pieces with roots and made rows and rows of perfect plants. Each of them took! And that’s how we got started.”

Renee began volunteering at Healdsburg Elementary––ending up as a long-term teacher’s aide in Tom’s class. She then worked as a secretary for Gary Thomson, Work Experience and Career Center Coordinator at HHS. When the career center was made separate, Renee began running that, having a satisfying career and being responsible for college scholarships for 10 years.

Joel and Renee were always vendors at the Farmers Market during the summers. In 1990, when their youngest son, Tom, graduated from HHS, Renee was asked to be the Healdsburg Farmers Market manager. She took ag classes with Paul Vossen and Leonard Diggs at SRJC and began her column on farming for the Healdsburg Tribune. Over the years, Ridgeview Farm has grown to include 13 colors of Sarah’s zinnias, rows of flower bulbs planted in large bins, plus beets, lettuce, garlic, onions, arugula and radishes.

“Paul Vossen asked us to be a test orchard for U.C.,” Renee recalls. “They set us up with two each of 63 varieties of apple trees which began bearing fruit in three years. U.C. monitored us for several years until the Sebastopol test site tilled their orchard under, thus ending the grant. But we grew all these apples until Joel got sick and they became too much to handle, and then we took down half of the trees.”

Renee tells me that all the winter crops (broccoli, cucumbers, lettuce, arugula, etc.) are all started from seed. In the greenhouse, she shows me how to plant a flat of vegetable seeds with loving care. She remarks that Ridgeview Farms is not special this way, but that all our local farmers take such care as they guide their food from seed to the consumer’s table. Renee sadly informs me that food raised in this manner is only reaching 1 percent of the population.

“This is what you’re supporting when you buy at our local Farmers Market,” Renee tells me. “We need this diversity for the health of the land, but for each of us it’s a personal decision as to where you put your dollar.”

I feel educated and informed by Renee as we begin winding down. When I ask her what else she would like to tell me, she wants to talk about Joel, who she holds personally responsible for gently pushing her into the modern era.

“I’m a stick-in-the mud,” she says. “Joel made a trip to Montana happen. He made seeing John Denver happen. I still can’t do computers. I can’t switch from DVD to TV. I would have remained in the dark ages, waiting for the phone operator to say, ‘Number, please…’ if not for Joel. He’s the one responsible for making so much in our life happen.”

Shonnie Brown is a local author and memoirist who is interested in fostering connections between people and their community. Shonnie writes personal and family histories through her business, Sonoma LifeStories, and is also a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She can be reached by e-mail at or on the web at

About Joel by Michael Haran

After reading Shonnie Brown’s article about Joel and Renee Kiff I just have to comment on what Joel Kiff means to me. We moved to Healdsburg in September of 2006. I was helping out with the HFM annual pumpkin race when someone called my name. I turn to see an older gentleman who I didn’t recognize staring at me. I took a closer look and then said “Mr. Kiff?” He gave me a broad smile as I was coming out of my initial shock. It was not only fifty years since I had seen him how could he not only remember me but also recognize me after having taught hundreds, if not thousands, of students.

Joel Kiff was my algebra teacher and football/track coach at Marin Catholic High school from 1962 to 1965. I am the oldest boy in what was a very dysfunctional family of ten kids. Back then ADD was treated with corporal punishment and I became chubby using food to compensate for my lack of proper family support. I couldn’t even make the freshman basketball team I was so fat.

My grades were terrible and I was in danger of becoming one of the 36 boys in my class that either left the school or were kicked out. Most teachers didn’t have the time or inclination to work with marginal students. I remember Joel as one of the few teachers I had who would put in extra time with a failing student. I think it was more his calm demeanor and personal attention that had the biggest impact on me. Under his instruction the light went on and I “got it.” It was such a contrast from my family life and other teachers at the school.

Back in those days Catholic school football teams were hardly the juggernauts that they are today. We had 300 boys compared to the public school’s 1000. We consistently got trounced by the much bigger public schools. I remember Joel telling us that life isn’t necessarily about winning it’s about trying and the sheer joy of overcoming the odds against you. It made the game so much more fun for us even in losing. But you know what, we started winning a few games and it’s something I’ll never forget.

He talked to us about physical conditioning and how it was more than just getting in shape to play sports. He explained that good physical conditioning was important for a good life and that being in shape helps with the concentration you need to get good grades. To this day I can’t be sure that Joel’s attention, insights and kindness to me are what allowed me to go on and play for a USAF command basketball team or get a business degree from SSU but I think it was.

Joel and Renee have meant a lot to our Healdsburg community. Joel is in failing health now so whenever I see him I try to think of the high school experiences that we shared as student – teacher/coach and reminisce. If you know Joel you might want to send him a card. Thanks, Joel. This is what you mean to me.

Michael Haran is a Healdsburg resident.