Long before our hills were covered with grape vines, other crops and agricultural products drove the county’s economy
Russian settlers were the first to grow crops in Sonoma County, when they established their settlement at Fort Ross in 1812. Among their plantings were wheat, various fruit trees and wine grapes. It is believed that they planted the two original Gravenstein apple trees that would found the apple industry that would spring up around Sebastopol.
The first wine grapes planted by the Russians came from Peruvian stock, but it wasn’t until irrigation was introduced in the mid 1800s that commercial wine grape production took off. In 1857 Hungarian nobleman Count Agoston Haraszthy brought cuttings of European varietal grape vines to Sonoma.
The industry took a hit when an outbreak of phylloxera, a root destroying insect, hit in the 1870s, but it had rebounded to 250 wineries in the 1920s, with grape acreage climbing from 21,000 to 42,000 between 1900 and 1920, with 250 wineries, but Prohibition undermines this boom. By the time it was repealed in 1933, the number of wineries had shrunk to 50 throughout the county.
In 1858, Green Valley rancher Amasa Bushnell brought the first hop vines to county. They were fully introduced by the 1870s and thrived in places like Windsor. By 1899 Sonoma County led the world in hops production, with Wohler Ranch and other hop kilns processing crops grown at 10 or more local hop ranches in 1900. By 1930 the annual total of hops grown rose to 3 million pounds. But, Prohibition, changes in taste and an outbreak of downy mildew in the 1960 effectively ended hop production in Sonoma County.
In 1875, Charles Juilliard planted the first commercial orchard of prunes and shortly the north end of the county was the land of prunes in the early days of agriculture, with production climbing from 4,000 acres in 1900 to 6,900 acres in 1910 and 21,5000 acres in 1920. It would remain the dominant crop into the 1970s when declining sales and a burgeoning interest in wine saw grape vines replacing plum trees.
Nathaniel A. Griffith planted first commercial Gravenstein apple orchard in 1890 in the Vine Hill area near Sebastopol. The dominance of the Gravenstein apple waned as it was replaced nationally by varieties far more able to stand up to the rigors of shipping and refrigeration, and at the latter part of the 20th century the extensive orchards began to be replaced by grape vines.
In 1915, the greatest acreage of agricultural land in Sonoma County was devoted to prunes with 768,750 bearing acres and 300,425 nonbearing. Apples ranked next with 350,500 bearing, and 264,036 nonbearing.
In 1875, innovative horticulturalist Luther Burbank arrived and created his experimental gardens in Santa Rosa. Major finds included spineless prickly pear cactus (which was in turn used as forage for cattle in an experiment headed by Jack London), Santa Rosa plums, the Shasta daisy and the Burbank potato.
In 1888, there were 500 orange trees in the general Cloverdale area, and by 1892, production had grown to the point the Cloverdale Citrus Fair was founded to celebrate the crop.
By 1898 Windsor was responsible for growing much of the county’s hay on fields, covering 39,850 acres.
Jewish migrants and Eastern European refugees in the 1910s founded much of the poultry industry in the county. In 1940, almost 30 million dozen eggs were shipped out of the county, with the peak coming in 1945 at 51 million dozen. The switch to wire cages and automatic processing in 1948 undercut the “family-farm” industry, and that year’s eggs production of 48 million dozen eggs represents the final peak for the industry locally.
By the 1920s, expanded farm exports to Europe saw Sonoma County ranked eighth in the nation in farm production. Crops include wine, eggs, prunes, hops, apples, dairy and livestock.
Sonoma County farms total 5,700 in 1920, and increase to 6,500 in 1930. The number of chickens rises from 3 million in 1920 up to 4.3 million in 1930.
Wine grapes took over as the leading farm commodity in 1987, with a crop worth
$68 million, replacing milk production in second with $64 million, which had been the leading product after eggs were dethroned in 1950. Twenty years later, the total agricultural output value in Sonoma County hits a record $639 million and wine grapes, valued at $417 million, remain the leading crop. By 2008, the dairy industry, once the leader in Sonoma County agriculture, drops to about 70 working dairies still in operation.
Research for this article has been gathered from the Sonoma County Historical Society, the Cloverdale historical society, the Master Gardeners Association and the Sonoma County Library System.