Home’s where the garden is

Harlan Osborne's column Toolin' Around Town appears every two weeks in the Petaluma Argus-Courier. (SCOTT MANCHESTER/ARGUS-COURIER STAFF)
Harlan Osborne's column Toolin' Around Town appears every two weeks in the Petaluma Argus-Courier. (SCOTT MANCHESTER/ARGUS-COURIER STAFF)

At a time when he would normally be planning extensive road trips and vacations, the coronavirus notwithstanding, Steve Farley is content to meander about his yard contemplating which variety of annuals, perennials or edibles to plant.

It’s only been nine months since the former environmental consultant retired from a 36 year career investigating soil and groundwater contamination, a job that required long commutes. So staying close to home is both comfortable and rewarding for the 67-year-old, fifth-generation descendant of pioneer Petaluma rancher Carlos Martinoia, on his mother’s side, and Kate Farley Brown, whose home at 920 D Street was built in the 1890s, on his father’s.

“It’s been so relaxing,” he said. “With consulting, every day felt like I was one day behind. Now, I sit outside and watch the finches and hummingbirds. I’m living a retiree’s dream.”

For many years Farley adhered to a demanding schedule of commuting to work at heavily polluted former military facilities such as Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard, Fort Ord Army Base, Alameda Naval Air Station and Mare Island, where he analyzed soil contamination for an environmental engineering firm rehabilitating the sites.

Also a talented professional photographer, he traveled on most weekends to major cities in the United States and around the world photographing popular marathons, triathlons, 10Ks and Ironman events.

“It wasn’t like working. It was mostly fun, but it became draining over time,” he said of the hectic schedule he stuck with for more than 20 years, shooting races in Chicago, New York, Mexico City and Vancouver. “It was almost like ’Groundhog Day.’ I’d rise at 3 a.m. to stake out prime locations like Governor’s Park during the Boston Marathon and the Tower Bridge in London.”

He and his wife Sandra have been married for 44 years. He credits her strength and tenacity for keeping the family together.

“It was like ‘Leave it to Beaver,’” he joked. “She worked incredibly hard and never complained while raising our kids, going to school and teaching third grade at St. Vincent Elementary for 22 years.”

A 1971 graduate of Petaluma High, Farley acknowledges having a carefree spirit before settling into a career. One of his earliest jobs was pumping gas for Stan Greenhagen at Stan’s Union Service.

“One of he nicest men I’ve ever met,” said Farley.

He and Ken Rider opened Petaluma Speed and Marine in 1974, performing basic automotive and marine tune-ups and engine repair. The business lasted for three years.

“It became clear really fast that it was something I didn’t want to do,” said Farley.

A year after marrying, he enrolled at Sonoma State, earning his bachelor’s degree in geology, before heading to Kansas State University for his master’s degree.

“I hit the job market at just the right time when lots of environmental concerns were being examined,” said Farley. “I started doing field work, writing reports and working with different agencies. Most problems existed underground. I was at Mare Island for almost 10 years.”

His overlapping career in photography came along by happenstance.

“For me, photography started one morning while we were camping in Death Valley,” Farley explained. “When I opened up the tent and saw nothing but a brilliant orange sky, that was the beginning. My first professional shoot was the 1985 Bay to Breakers race. I sat in a cherry picker with my wife, who busily loaded my three film cameras. I shot for hours and hours, taking thousands of pictures.”

Farley then began shooting big-time marathon races in glamorous cities.

“But there was a catch,” he said. “I was obligated to shoot graduation day at Stanford and Cal Berkeley. I didn’t really like that, especially listening to all the speeches beforehand. I worked about 25 events a year for more than 20 years, shooting about 30,000 digital images at a time. The important thing was to frame the runner’s face and bib number, so they could later purchase a souvenir action photo of themselves.”

He began shooting St. Vincent’s sports when his sons Lucas and Tim began playing, and daughter Allison was a cheerleader. It was then that Argus-Courier sports editor John Jackson enlisted him to provide game action photos for the paper. He’s also photographed the San Francisco Flyway Festival, which celebrates the return of more than 1 million shorebirds and hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and butterflies that migrate or winter in the Bay Area.

“To this day, I still enjoy photography,” admitted Farley. “The fun is in the hunt, looking for that unique and special shot. My favorite subjects are landscapes, industrial sites and nature shots. My latest endeavor is shooting the comet NEOWISE, in the night sky.”

While the pandemic has kept the Farleys close to home, they do have plans to get away once life returns to normal.

“Sandra and I are looking forward to traveling,” said Farley. “But for now, life at home is simple and relaxing.”

(’Toolin’ Around Town runs every other week in the Argus-Courier. You can reach Harlan Osborne at

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