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Jennifer and Ignacio Laguna Farm Snail of Approval

Laguna Farm CSA: Beyond Organic

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Farming on a floodplain certainly has its challenges. Every winter without fail, even in a drought year, Laguna Farm and its fields hibernate under water for weeks at a time.  Kayaks become the mode of transportation. Yet according to Jennifer Branham, co-owner of Laguna CSA Farm, “Farming on a floodplain presents our biggest challenge and our biggest benefit.” Each flood deposits rich topsoil in the fields. Better yet, gophers don’t like the wet ground, which is always a huge plus for any farmer.

Entrance to Laguna Farm CSALaguna Farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) earned the Snail of Approval, from Slow Food of Sonoma County for producing food that is good, clean and fair. The 25 acre farm nestles in the Laguna de Santa Rosa in Sebastopol and currently serves over 400 members. The idea behind the CSA is that regular subscribers allow the farmer to have a predictable steady income all year. The farm becomes a shared venture between farmer and members.

By farming organically and using cover crop instead of tilling, Laguna Farm is making an important contribution to the health of our planet. The Green New Deal presented by the U.S. House of Representatives is a movement to address climate change. One aspect of the resolution is for the U.S. to become carbon zero by 2050. It is a bold initiative and agriculture can play a role. An important way to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is to retain it in the soil. For more information, check out the Slow Food USA article on The Green New Deal.

Fresh farm flowers

A special family heirloom

Established in the 1980’s, Laguna Farm was the brainchild of Scott Mathieson. Scott’s passion for innovation and farming inspired him to turn his family’s lush acreage into a thriving business. He established the CSA and quickly built a strong member base.

Scott grew a thriving business and helped create the Sebastopol Farmer’s market. Many of his innovations are models of sustainability. For example, using an old meat freezer as a base, he built an eco-friendly walk-in out of hay bales and cob. In addition, a solar array provides power to run the farm. Sungold tomatoes and Scott’s famous mesclun, the French-inspried salad mix are the gold standard at Farmers Markets and helped put Laguna Farm on the map.


He build a vast legacy, and in 2011 Scott was ready to sell the business. He leases the land to Jennifer Branham and Ignacio Romero (aka Nacho). Jennifer used to run the barn, CSA and farm stand, and Nacho managed the fields, planting and irrigation, so buying the business was a logical next step for them. Jennifer and her family live in Sebastopol, Nacho and his family live in Rohnert Park, but the bulk of their time is spent on the farm

Solar array

The solar array provides energy for the farm.

It’s easy to support your local farmer

Becoming a Laguna Farm CSA member is easy. Subscription choices include a weekly produce box with one of three delivery choices. Choose Farm pick-up for $20 per week, Drop-site pick-up for $25 per week, or home delivery for $29.50 per week. Each produce box contains salad mix, in-season vegetables, herbs and fruits OR a juice box specifically designed for juicing or smoothies. (Watch Jennifer’s instructional videos here on how to get the most out of your weekly produce box.) Each week brings a surprise as you open the box to reveal the bounty inside; for example, a box might include beets, radishes, gold or purple potatoes, dino kale, cucumbers and summer berries.

You can always exchange items in the produce box.

produce boxes

Weekly produces boxes in the ecological  hay bale and cob walk-in

Jennifer and Ignacio work with other local CSA’s to fill out the produce boxes all year long. In addition, they work a piece of land located on Spark’s Lane, just up the road. Because it is on higher ground, production continues year round when the Laguna floods. 

Beyond Organic: A lovely tour

Jennifer took some time out of her busy schedule to take me on a tour. First, we walked past the Grandmother Oak that provides shade for farm picnics and other events. This ancient landmark watches over the plants, trees and creatures. Across the plain, we see heritage plants such as Silver willows, various varieties of oaks, and hedgerows of wild Laguna roses.  We hear the crickets, bees and happy insects who live on the farm, too. Just a couple of years ago, a new tenant moved in; a bee hive took residence in one of the twin oaks, bringing their gift of pollination to the farm. The bees know a good location when they see one. 

Grandmother oak on Laguna Farm

Grandmother Oak keeps watch over the farm

Ignacio Romero: co-owner and organic farming expert

After twenty-seven years at Laguna Farm, Ignacio Romero can tell us a thing or two about organic farming. When I met with Ignacio on the warm June afternoon, he was getting ready to plant rows of cucumber in a large prepared plot of soil. He carried his simple seeding machine and a sack of seeds. He plopped his materials down on the verdant soil and adjusted his baseball cap as he answered my questions. We talked about the pros and cons of the heavy rains this past season. The overly wet soil postponed much of his spring planting, but he was glad for the rich topsoil brought in and the chance for some of his fields to rest and be replenished. 

Laguna Farm Ignacio Romero

Co-owner and master farmer, Ignacio Romero

Pest control that works with nature

Laguna farm works with mother nature to control pests and keep plants healthy. Hoop houses are used to keep warmth and moisture in and deer out. Other pest control methods include Ag-fabric over new seedlings to keep out the beetles and provide protection from the sun. Raccoons can reek havoc on rows of corn, so Jennifer might put in some fencing if the problem gets out of hand. In addition, they use natural predators such as ladybugs and praying mantis.

Ignacio and Jennifer know that healthy plants grown in healthy soil are naturally pest resistant. They like to pride themselves on clean, nice looking fruits and vegetables, but every now and then there might be a nibble in a piece of lettuce. We really don’t mind sharing a bit with the local farm dwellers to keep everything in harmony.

Laguna Farm organic

Ag fabric protects new plants

Working at Laguna Farm CSA

An important aspect of the Snail of Approval is the work environment for the employees. Are they paid a living wage? Is the work environment safe and positive? Laguna Farm earns an A+ in this category. At Laguna Farm the employees are treated like family. One of the many benefits of working at the farm is the opportunity to grow and market their own produce. Of course, a huge perk is getting to take home free produce that the workers grow themselves. This is truly a win, win situation.

Helping those in need

Jennifer smiled when she told me about how Laguna Farm gives back to the community. Each week Food For Thought Food Bank and Ceres Project nonprofits come to the farm and get free produce. Both of these organizations benefit those facing health challenges. By eating foods grown in such nutrient-rich soil, each recipient has huge benefits.

After unused produce is past expiration, Jennifer donates it to the Wildlife Refuge to feed the birds and other animals.

In addition, there are four families who come to the farm weekly and get a produce box donated by other CSA members. Thank you Jennifer and Ignacio for your generosity. 

farm hours

You don’t have to be a member to shop at the farm store!

Laguna Farm is located at 1764 Cooper Road in Sebastopol. To learn more about subscribing, visit their website here. If you are in the neighborhood, stop by and pick up a few fruits and veggies to bring home. Take some time to look around, sit under Grandmother oak and listen to the sound of nature.

For more information about Community Supported Agriculture: USDA website on CSA’s
To find CSA and farms near you, search by zip code at Local Harvest

flowers at Laguna Farm

Handline Fish Market Ceviche

It’s No Fish Story: Handline Coastal California Offers Fish Market

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It’s a cold and dark June morning at 4:00. The sky is cerulean. At Pier 45 in San Francisco Bay, a fisherman unloads halibut caught with a hook and line. The crew at TwoXSea packs the fish in ice, loads it into the truck and sets off for Handline Coastal California in Sebastopol.

Head Chef Sam Ehrlich arrives at Handline at 8:00 a.m. to greet the day’s catch. He sets aside some fish for ceviche or the fish burger then cuts fillets for his fish market customers.

At 9:00 a.m., the social media blast on Instagram alerts the community. Come to Handline and pick up your fresh halibut fillets caught just this morning.

Fish does not get any fresher than that, unless you catch it yourself.

Welcome to Handline’s Fish Market.

Handline Fish Market

Fresh Halibut from the Fish Market

What is sustainable fishing?

Handline Coastal California in Sebastopol, CA, received the Slow Food Snail of Approval in January 2019. Their dedication to sustainability is the primary reason. What does it mean to fish sustainably? As indicated in the name Handline, it refers to a fishing method that eliminates what is called “bycatch.”

I sat down in the shady outdoor seating with Sam Ehrlich, head chef at Handline, and he explained it to me. “The name of the game is NO BYCATCH. When you are fishing with hook and line (fishing rod and reel), if you catch a fish you don’t want, you put him back. It’s about fishing in a manner that allows you release the things you are not targeting,” said Sam.

Sam Ehrlich Handline staff

Sam Ehrlich (in yellow T-shirt) and his crew

Sam Ehrlich, 33, grew up in Florida with a fishing pole in his hand. In his dad’s boat, father and son spent many pleasurable days fishing along the Florida Coast. Sam remembers, “You park your car, take off your shoes and walk out to the water. Looking over the flat, you can see the fish tails poking out. That is the type of fishing I hope to share with my boys when they are big enough.” Oh, did I mention that Sam is the proud father of 6-week-old twin boys? He returned to work last week, and somehow keeps his motor running.

Sam learns the ropes in San Francisco

After high school in 2007, Sam moved west and honed his cooking skills in San Francisco, working for Mission Rock Resort, near the SF Giants’ ballpark. It was fast and furious. When he and his wife decided to start a family, they moved north. A year and a half ago, Sam landed the job as head chef at Handline. He loves working for owners Natalie Goble and Lowell Sheldon. Sam appreciates the care that goes into every aspect of the business. “I want to inspire the next group of chefs and to be able to inject some of what makes this area very special.” said Sam.

Handline Menu

On the menu

Fish Purveyors

Handline’s purveyors are passionate about sustainable fishing and are stewards of the sea. In other words, they reduce habitat destruction and leave enough fish for future generation. In addition, they pay fishermen/women a fair wage and fish as locally as possible. Mostly, they fish with a rod and hook to eliminate bycatch.

Handline fish Market

Water 2 Table operates from April to October to bring the best seasonally available hook and line fish to restaurants. Some of their products include halibut, king salmon, Dungeness crab, oysters, and black cod. The seafood comes from Bay Area and Half Moon Bay hook and line fishing fleets.

TwoXSea out of Sausalito also lives the ethos. On their website, they say, “Our goal is to alter the way seafood is farmed, caught and handled from fishery to plate.” Their products include halibut, clams, mussels and oysters. The peak is from early spring through late summer. 

Handline fish Market

Freshly shucked oysters

Red – Algae Feed from UC Davis

Sam and Handline’s owners want to keep delicious fish on the menu throughout the year and support businesses that are doing everything right by the environment. An important year-round supplier for Handline is McFarland Springs Trout Farm in Susanville, CA. The trout eat a red-algae based food that was carefully designed at UC Davis. McFarland Springs Trout Farm uses a very thoughtful approach with a product that restaurant owners can rely on. The good news – because the trout eat a vegetarian diet, they never accumulate mercury, thus providing a super healthy product. 

Handline uses McFarland Springs trout in their in-house smoked trout salad. Thanks to the trout farm, when salmon is out of season, you can still enjoy the signature fish burger.

Handline’s Goals

Sam sells and handles fresh fish that are caught with care, with conservation and sustainability in mind. He connects that line to the community. Sometimes Sam buys crab and salmon directly from commercial fishermen. When he meets the local suppliers, Sam feels even more connected to the food in Northern California.

In addition to serving delicious dishes made with their fish, Handline wishes to share the abundance with customers. They want support companies like Water2Table, TwoXSea and all the fishermen and women who value sustainably caught seafood and who don’t just pay lip service to these ideals, but live them each and every time they go out to sea.

The Handline fish market offers halibut and salmon. If you want the oysters and other delectable treats, you’ll just have to come into Handline and work your way through the menu.

Handline outdoor seating

Handline outdoor seating

Bring the whole family and sit outside under the oak trees. Kids (and adults) can play ping-pong and finish off the meal with a soft serve ice cream, reminiscent of Foster’s Freeze Drive-in.

Handline and Fosters Freeze

The new meets the old: Handline restaurant and Soft Serve.

Here’s how to get Handline’s fish market alerts:

The first step is to follow Handline on Instagram (handline.sebastopol) and look for the Fish Market icon. If you don’t use Instagram, be sure to subscribe to the Handline newsletter. When in doubt, call the restaurant and find out the current offerings (707-827-3744). Open 11 – 10 daily.

Need some recipe ideas?


Check out Local Food Matters, the blog for Handline Coastal California, Lowell’s and Fern Bar for recipes, collaborations and fun facts.

Sam’s favorite is ceviche (click here for his own recipe). He told me, “It’s hard to go wrong with fresh fish cured in a little bit of lime juice. I’m the kind of guy that loves to steam it up, shuck it, send it out; give me all the dipping sauces and the butter, and I’ll just put on the bib and dip, dip, dip.”
Thanks for the tip, Sam!

Try it at home!

Last Friday afternoon, my husband and I headed for Handline after checking Instagram. We brought our dog, sat outside in the shady patio, and after enjoying some local beer, we took home a 12-oz halibut fillet, packed in ice for the ride home.

As we watched our dinner sizzling in the oven, we felt proud to support hook and line fishing. In the same way that locally grown produce tastes so incredible, our halibut fillet tasted of the ocean and each bite had the integrity of hard-working conservators of the sea.

Fresh Halibut

Halibut for dinner

Breaking New Ground: Lantern Farm wins Snail of Approval

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Rebecca Bozzelli, owner of Lantern Farm, dreamed of starting a farm and knew that growing good food and building community would make her happy. She was head farmer at Preston Farm and Winery where she practiced biodynamic and organic growing methods. All the while, the idea of owning her own farm percolated in the back of her mind. Her dream was realized in 2017 when Lantern Farm opened, and, in 2018, Slow Food chapters in Russian River and Sonoma County North awarded Lantern Farm with the Snail of Approval for producing food that is Good, Clean, and Fair. The Snail of Approval award recently expanded to include local farmers and producers and Rebecca was one of the first recipients. Rebecca says about her farm,” I am fortunate to have found an old farm down the road from where I live, and I have big plans to make it the best little farm in Cloverdale.”

mustard flowers Lantern Farm

Among the Mustard Flowers

Lantern Farm sits in Asti Valley among the wooded hills of Cloverdale, California. I visited Rebecca on her beautiful three-acre farm located on River Road. I drove down the dirt road leading to the farm and spied Rebecca as she pulled her large wheelbarrow along neat and tidy rows of winter crops: kale, broccoli, and fennel. In the distance, I saw green vineyards and caught the fragrance of fresh mustard flowers.

Rebecca greeted me with a large bunch of spigariello, a leafy green from Italy. It’s in the Brassica family along with broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Rebecca learned about spigariello from Tucker Taylor when she took a tour of his farm. She loves to grow innovative and unusual veggies. It’s a fun way to open conversation and connect with her customers.

Lantern Farm Rebecca Bozzelli

Building the Soil and Community

Rebecca starts each day thinking about the soil. She cares about the dirt, and she knows that happy soil contributes to vibrant food that nurtures the whole community. Her core beliefs center around biodiversity and growing without the use of chemicals. She says, “For me this means building soil the good old fashioned way using compost and cover crop, selling my goods locally, supporting local businesses, using organic growing methods, paying fair wages, and creating community at my local farmers markets.”

Beneficial Insects

I asked Rebecca about some of her favorite sustainable farming methods. First, she told me about her perennial insectary, which is a “permanent area with plants that attract beneficial insects and predators.” She uses rosemary, salvia, cardoons and native trees and grasses. Thank you, Rebecca, for using nature’s very own wisdom to control those unwanted guests!

Lantern Farm flower blossoms and insectaryNext, she talked about her seeds and favorite varieties. She starts with seeds sourced from reputable companies that supply non-GMO seeds grown in organic conditions. She loves growing Slow Food Ark of Taste foods such as Bodega Red Potato, Sheepnose pimento, and Italian Purple Basil which she discovered in Italy at the Terra Madre Salone del Gusto food festival. In addition, Rebecca loves to support humane farming practices; she buys an organic compost made from the manure of chickens living a free range lifestyle.

Why Lantern Farm? 

Rebecca wanted to find a perfect name for her farm. It was a family affair. One night, Bea, Rebecca’s six year old daughter, Lantern Farmwatched the movie Rapunzel and loved the magical lanterns sent up to the sky at the end of the film. Soon after, while the family was out looking for land, they spotted two old lanterns hanging on the wall in an old barn that would later become the current Lantern Farm location. That seemed like a sign and the number of lanterns has been growing there ever since.

At this year’s Snail of Approval award ceremony, Rebecca told the crowd, “Staying tuned to the environment is the right thing to do. That’s what the Snail represents. That means not always taking the easy road. It means growing varieties that might not grow as much yield as other varieties, but they taste better. You have to grow your soil, and that takes longer, but it feels better. It makes your body feel good, it make the soil better, and it makes me feel good. So I’m proud to be one of the first farms to earn the Snail.”

Rebecca and her fresh produce and flowers can be found on Tuesdays at the Cloverdale Farmers’ Market, and on Saturdays at the Santa Rosa Farmers’ Market at LBC. Her produce is featured in Diavola Pizzeria, Brass Rabbit, and FEED Sonoma. She sells flowers to Single Thread.

Next time you are at the Farmers’ market, stop by and say hello. She would love to meet you!

Handline Coastal California Seafood Eatery sustainable wins Snail of Approval Slow Food

Catch of the Day: Handline Coastal California Receives Snail of Approval

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It is with great pride that Snail of Approval – Slow Food in Sonoma County, a joint project of Slow Food Russian River and Slow Food Sonoma County North, has presented the Snail of Approval to Handline Coastal California. This seafood eatery is located at 935 Gravenstein Hwy. South in Sebastopol, in what used to be the Foster’s Freeze drive-in. Handline offers farm-to-table food that is good, clean, and fair. Handlining is one of the oldest forms of fishing and oriented towards sustainability: in the words of the restaurant, “fishing by hand while thinking long-term.”

Dynamic Sebastopol Couple

This represents the second Snail of Approval for the wife and husband team, Natalie Goble and Lowell Sheldon, Sebastopol locals. When they are not spending time with their two sons, ages one and three, they run two restaurants with 80 employees in total. In 2007 Sheldon had a dream to open a sustainable organic restaurant in his hometown, and Lowell’s opened that same year. It quickly gained popularity with an all-organic menu that fuses Italian traditions with local West County fare. Lowell’s earned the Snail of Approval in February of 2018, and with Sheldon’s steadfast commitment to sustainability, it is no coincidence that Handline receives the same high praise. In keeping with their commitment to community building, Lowell and Natalie have created their West Sonoma County Field Guide, a collection of local wineries, scenic trails, spas, and other favorite spots along the Sonoma Coast.

West Sonoma County Field Guide

Destined to be a chef

At Handline’s wine and beer bar, Natalie Goble and I sat down to talk about her life and how she became a chef. During our visit, I learned that Natalie began developing her skills at age 21 while working with Daniel Kedan, owner of Backyard (another Snail of Approval recipient). She radiated an inner peace, a solid grounding and a confidence that comes from living out your core beliefs and keeping the important things in life in balance.

Natalie is a local gal, raised on 24 acres on Green Valley Road in Sebastopol. Her father purchased their home in the 1980’s during the “back to the land” movement. They raised apples, kiwi, and persimmons. Through her home garden, Natalie developed a connection to nature and an understanding of sustainable food systems. After earning a degree in philosophy from UC Santa Cruz and with some world travels under her belt, Natalie returned home to Sebastopol and started working at Lowell’s as a cook. It turned out to be an excellent match. Lowell and Natalie fit like a glove and found that they worked side by side in perfect harmony.

Natalie and Lowell owners of Handline Sustainable fish Eatery in Sebastopl

Natalie and Lowell

Local, sustainable sourcing

During our visit, the waiter brought Natalie one of her L.A.-inspired creations: the mighty salmon burger, which stood several inches high with its generous slab of local salmon. It reminded me of one of those juicy California burgers where the special sauce oozes out, runs down your arms and drips in puddles on the plate below. I realized that this fabulous burger personified the farm-to-table, seasonal, and collaborative principles that Natalie and Lowell bring to their restaurants:

Handline’s concept embraces Slow Food principles.

During the Snail of Approval process, Lowell shared some important background. He stated, “The trout we source comes from McFarland Springs, which is the world’s first deliberate collaboration to responsibly farm sustainable fish. The result is a sustainable and wonderful artisanal product.” Handline now offers a fish market where customers can buy fresh fish in season and learn where their food comes from. For example, their San Francisco purveyor for halibut is Water 2 Table, focusing on hook-and-line fishing.

In addition, Natalie and Lowells’ stewardship of the land and connection to the community is at the center of their ethos. They participate in “Dining Out for Life,” the annual dining fundraising event to raise money for AIDS service organizations. This year they took part in the “Dine and Donate” program, with 30% of each purchase going to support Sebastopol Charter School.

Handline Local Oysters Sustainable Fishing Snail of Approval

Sustainably farmed oysters

Sustainability in practice

Connection to the farming community is robust. Their family farm, named Two Belly Acres (a play on “two bellyachers”), provides 60% of the produce for their restaurants. In addition, as Lowell will tell you, “We work directly with no fewer than two dozen farmers and producers.”

Light years away from the typical L.A. burger after which it is modeled, the beef in the Handline’s burgers are “sourced from local Mindful Meats/Marin Sun Farms. Their cows live long and healthy lives as pasture-raised dairy cows. One cow alone provides over 80,000 pounds of food in her six year lifetime, in the form of milk, butter, cream, cheese, ice cream, and beef.”

Their respect for the environment extends all the way to the parking lot. When the large driveway in front of Foster’s Freeze was torn up, they used the discarded chunks of concrete to build a lovely Gabion wall around the restaurant, which keeps out the sound from passing cars and adds to the rustic yet new-age feel of the place.

Two Belly Acres Handline Family Farm

Seasonal favorites from Natalie and Lowell’s family farm

The story continues with cocktails

The dynamic couple is not stopping there. December 20, 2018, saw the grand opening of their third establishment, the Fern Bar. located in the historic Barlow district, once home to Sebastopol’s apple canning industry. The Fern Bar serves cocktails and share plates in the style of a modern American bar with a garden-to-glass focus. Perhaps you remember the term “fern bar” used in the 1970’s to refer to a trendy tavern. When entering the Fern Bar, customers find themselves inside a lush greenhouse. There are several cozy spaces lined with soft green couches, hanging plants, and sunny window seats.

Fern Bar Barlow Sebastopol

Enjoy a locally inspired cocktail in the Fern Bar

Natalie said their fern-bar idea had always been on the back burner, and she is happy to see it come to fruition. Much like Foster’s Freeze embodied the cultural history of California burger drive-ins, Natalie is firmly grounded in Sebastopol’s apple history. Now she is coming full circle. The Slow Food chapters give a big thank you to Lowell and Natalie for their passion and commitment to food that is good, clean and fair. After I try one of those enormous salmon burgers, I will be stopping by the Fern Bar for a cocktail. Want to join me?