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St. Anthony’s Farm near Petaluma fed the hungry and fought substance abuse for 53 years

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From 1955 to 2008, St. Anthony Farm sat just outside of Petaluma on Valley Ford Road. It helped hundreds find sobriety while also providing millions of meals for those in need.

Its origins date back to 1906, when half of San Francisco’s 400,000 residents were left homeless following the devastating earthquake. St. Boniface Catholic Church quickly launched a bread line to feed the hungry, which eventually grew into a 10,000-square-foot dining room. It was named for St. Anthony, the patron saint of the poor.

It became clear that certain ingredients were more expensive and difficult to obtain, specifically dairy products and meat. Rev. Alfred Boeddeker noticed how many indigent and addicted people were on the streets of San Francisco, and got an idea.

Working with a committee of donors and supporters, he launched St. Anthony Farms in 1955. They scooped up well over 100 acres dotted between Petaluma and Cotati. That included 65 acres on Valley Ford Road, just outside Petaluma’s city limits. That land was purchased for $36,000 from Mr. and Mrs. John Messer, which included a down payment of $20,000, followed by 100 monthly payments of $150, with zero interest.

The vision was to create a working farm to provide food for the St. Anthony’s Dining Room. People in need of work, housing and substance abuse treatment were invited to work the farms in exchange for room and board. They learned a trade, something that could help them find a path out of poverty.

The Valley Ford property was home to the main residence, along with an operational dairy and cattle ranch, greenhouse and egg production facility. In its first 15 years, 900 men passed through the farm. The food raised and harvested in Petaluma was taken to St. Anthony’s Dining Room, which provided millions of free meals in San Francisco during those decades.

It never took a dime of government funding. It was always supported by donations, many of which were collected by the Sonoma County-based St. Anthony Auxillary.

“Mayor (Helen) Putnam said that Petalumans are proud to have St. Anthony Farm as a neighbor — for it is a good neighbor,” at 1970 Argus-Courier editorial stated.

Petaluma always supported the work of the farm. After new argicultural wastewater treatment regulations were created, Boeddeker announced in 1976 that the farm would have to sell off its 180 Holstein cows, since it could not afford to upgrade facilities to meet the new standards. The community rallied support from all over the state and raised $160,000 to build a pollution mitigation system.

But beyond the charitable work, the farm also saw commercial success. When Clover Stornetta launched its first organic milk line in the 1990s, its major supplier was St. Anthony’s Farms. By that point, the facility had 28 beds for men, and 14 for women. Residents stayed three to four months on average, spending their days working the farm and their evenings in counseling or learning how to socialize without substances.

In 2008, the Catholic Church made plans to sell the farm. The land laid dormant until 2012, when dairy farmers Kathy and Joe Tresch bought the 160 acres. They got together with land broker T.J. Nelson, Dr. Wayne Thurston and a handful of other local investors to create Sonoma Recovery Services. They opened Olympia House, an addiction center, on the site.