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Wildfires Destroy the 157-Year-Old Farmhouse at Pie Ranch

The beloved nonprofit farm looks to rebuild, even as the CZU Lightning Complex fire continues to spread

CZU Lightning Complex Damages in San Mateo County
Jered Lawson, co-founder of Pie Ranch, surveys the ruins of the historic 157-year old farmhouse
Photo by Karl Mondon/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

The central California coast has lost one of its real gems in the wildfires that have consumed wide swaths of Northern California this past week: The 157-year-old farmhouse at Pie Ranch, a beloved nonprofit educational farm in Pescadero, burned to the ground on Friday, as the SF Chronicle first reported after Pie Ranch co-founder Nancy Vail shared a video on Facebook of the building engulfed in flames.

“I thought we were in the clear, but an ember fell on the Pie Ranch historic farmhouse built in 1863 and it is gone,” Vail wrote in the post.

I thought we were in the clear, but an ember fell on the Pie Ranch historic farmhouse built in 1863 and it is gone. May this be the beginning of transformation, may we resolve to bring back indigenous knowledge, heal the damage done since colonization, bring justice to the lands and the people, build resilient homes for all people, practice climate friendly everything, feed people, love more ❤️ #phoenixrising #pieranch

Posted by Nancy Vail on Friday, August 21, 2020

Pie Ranch is just one of the many Bay Area farms that have been impacted by wildfires that have already burned more than 1.1 million acres of land across California as of Monday morning. The largest of these, the LNU Lightning Complex fire, has torn through large stretches of wine country and the North Bay, threatening vineyards and, as the Chron reports, hitting small farms in areas like Vacaville in Solano County particularly hard. Meanwhile, the CZU Lightning Complex fire is what officials are calling the wildfire that has swept through the Santa Cruz mountains, hitting many of the farms and residences on the Central Coast — that’s the fire that swept through the Pescadero area over the weekend.

Pie Ranch, which is named after the triangular shape of the 14-acre property, was founded in 2004 and probably best known for its educational programs — partnerships with San Francisco’s Mission High and other local schools, helping students understand the complexities of the food system and giving them the opportunity to have first-hand experience on a working farm. Its farmstand, which sold — yes — pies as well as strawberries and other produce in season, was a popular stop for sightseers traveling along the coast on Highway 1.

The farmhouse that was destroyed, also known as the Steele Family Home, was used primarily for housing — as a post on the Pie Ranch website notes, “in addition to the current team members who have lost their home, the old house has sheltered countless other staff members, emerging farmers, been the site of youth meetings and camp outs and hosted weddings, birthdays and other meaningful events. We mourn with all of you who have passed through this space over the last 15 years.”

A subsequent Facebook post by Vail offered a few silver linings: While the farmhouse is a total loss, and there are still spot fires on the property that need to be put out, other parts of the farm remain intact — including the barn where, prior to COVID-19, the farm would host monthly dances that were open to the general public.

The farm is currently soliciting donations both to assist its staff as well as to pay for what will likely be a long rebuilding process. “Although we won’t have a final number on the losses sustained by our staff or damages to Pie and Cascade [a neighboring incubator farm, also run by Pie Ranch] for several weeks, we know the need will be great,” a statement on the Pie Ranch website reads.

Meanwhile, the Pescadero area on the Central California Coast is home to several farms that are especially well loved by Bay Area food lovers. In addition to the Pie Ranch farm stand, the Harley Farms Goat Dairy and the Swanton Berry Farm U-Pick are two of the area’s other top attractions, especially for families — looking at cute baby goats and picking strawberries are both exceedingly kid-friendly activities, after all.

So far, anyway, there’s good news on both fronts. On Instagram, Swanton Berry Farm posted that its farmstand, farmworker housing, and fields were all “untouched by fire” as of Saturday evening — though all were still “under threat.” And on Facebook, Harley Farms posted an update for supporters concerned about the fate of the farm: “Thank you for offering help. We are calm and safe here on the farm. It is the safest place to be right now.”

For those looking to help, Swanton notes that its workers will be the beneficiaries of a GoFundMe campaign, started by a former employee — funds that will mostly go directly into the hands of farm employees “to compensate for lost wages & possibly to re-locate if the need arises,” according to a post on Swanton’s Instagram account. And Harley encourages its supporters to donate to Puente, a local nonprofit that offers support to farms throughout the Pescadero area.

View this post on Instagram

As of writing this (Saturday at 7:45pm), the farmstand in Davenport, our farmworker housing, associated buildings & fields are all untouched by the fire. They are still however under threat. Our fields at Coastways Ranch are also safe at the time of writing, though fire just burned up to the fence line & is smoldering. The #czulightningcomplex fire has recently devastated our very close community, including other nearby farms as well as the homes of members of our staff. As we write this, our county is continuing to be ravaged by one of the worst fires in the state. Our hearts are breaking for the over 77,000 people evacuated from their homes, some who will return to nothing. We know this community is one of the strongest, most resilient out there & we know we will get through this indescribable loss together, holding each other up. Please note: There is a GoFundMe page that was set up by a past employee, if you have the means & feel the need to donate. (Linked in bio). Our plan is to use the money raised to put cash in the hands of our employees, as a way to compensate for lost wages & possibly to re-locate if the need arises. We want to thank each and everyone who has supported another member of their community during this, and to our fire crews (two past employees especially) for tirelessly working to contain this fire. Our hearts are torn wide open; together we will adapt and rebuild. Repost from @ddolatschkophoto - I have never seen sky colors like this. No filter. Raw soot. This terrifying wildfire hopefully will teach us to listen to Mother Nature and think more about climate change in the future. It’s real. It’s here and it hurts. Stay safe everybody #staystrong #santacruz #santacruzmountains #davenport #santacruzfire #cityofsantacruz #yoursantacruz

A post shared by Swanton Berry Farm (@swantonberryfarm) on