Lifetime Contribution to Sonoma County Agriculture: Bob and Shirley Dempel

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Lifetime Contribution to Sonoma County Agriculture: Bob and Shirley Dempel

Article by Rachel LaFranchi, Farm News Production Editor
Photos by Steven Knudsen.

Published October 1, 2015

Bob and Shirley Dempel at their vineyard in Healdsburg. Bob and Shirley are being honored by the Sonoma County Harvest Fair for their commitment to agriculture.

For Bob and Shirley Dempel, agriculture has been the essence of their life. Their livelihoods, their friends, their careers and everything in between has revolved around agriculture.

It comes as no surprise that the Sonoma County Harvest Fair presented Bob and Shirley Dempel with the award for Lifetime Contribution to Sonoma County Agriculture.

This isn’t the first time the Dempels have been recognized for their support of the local agriculture industry. They’ve been awarded the 4-H Century Award for their family’s 100 years of commitment to 4-H programs. Bob has received the Western Fair Association’s Blue Ribbon Award as well as an Honorary National FFA degree. In 2010, Shirley was awarded the 4-H Foundation of Sonoma County’s Shining Star Award for her dedication to 4-H.  

Shirley, known for her work with local 4-H programs, has always been a Sonoma County resident, growing up in Petaluma. Bob, an avid viticulturist, grew up in Mendocino County before later moving to Sonoma County.

Bob and Shirley met briefly in the summer of 1953 at a 4-H summer camp when Shirley was a camp director and Bob was touring the camp. In December of 1955, the couple was setup on a date through 4-H friends, and today they’ve been married for 56 years.
Bob started his career in the oil industry working for Chevron. He worked in a now closed department which manufactured pesticides and fertilizers. From there, he moved into the wine industry in the 1970’s.

Bob formed Dempel Farming in 1977 providing vineyard management and development services as well as private consulting. In addition this, Bob began growing premium wine grapes in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties.

In the 80’s, Bob started buying grapes for several wineries including Benzinger and the Ledbetter family. However, Bob attributes a lot of his professional growth to Beringer. He was purchasing grapes for their White Zinfandel program as the variety began to take off. 

Bob and Shirley Dempel take a look at this year's harvest.

Now, Bob farms 40 acres of grapes, 25 in Mendocino County on his family’s property and 15 in Healdsburg. Additionally, he is also growing vines at his a grapevine nursery. His vineyards are certified sustainable under the Protected Harvest Certification; only one other California Vineyard holds this certification.

In addition to growing grapes, Bob serves on two fair boards, the Elsie Allen Ag Boosters Committee, SRJC Shone Farm Viticulture Advisory Committee and the Santa Rosa School District’s Vineyard Advisory Committee. Bob also enjoys writing and has been published in both the Anderson Valley Advertiser and the Mendocino County Historical Society Journal. 

While Bob worked to launch a successful career in the wine industry, Shirley was busy building Sonoma County 4-H programs.

Her life passion was always youth and education, and Shirley started her career as a school teacher.

Shirley first become involved with 4-H as a local leader. As she spent more time in the program, she became involved at the county-wide level and then at the state level. Shirley was later hired as the 4-H coordinator for Sonoma County.

When the Sonoma County 4-H program received a trust for $250,000, Shirley played a critical role in building the 4-H Center for Sonoma County and developing the 4-H Foundation of Sonoma County. Shirley was a co-founder when the 4-H Foundation was established in 1982 and she continues to serve on the board today.

Shirley epitomizes the Sonoma County 4-H spirit. For Shirley, the programs can’t exist without volunteer leaders and she receives a great satisfaction from being a part of the program.

She said Sonoma County’s 4-H programs are extremely valuable for young people, exposing them to agriculture even if they don’t have an ag related project.

Additionally, Shirley runs the scholarships for the PEO Sisterhood local chapter and volunteers at Luther Burbank Elementary School. Shirley was a singer until twelve years ago, and she and Bob still enjoy theatre and live music.

Bob and Shirley both admit that most of their activities involve the agriculture community. Alongside family time, most of their social time is spent at local ag events.
Still, both Bob and Shirley are modest about receiving their award. They are proud and excited to be honored among many other important agricultural community leaders and families who have received the award. 

“The award from the Harvest Fair is very humbling to both of us,” said Bob.
“Ag became our livelihood by necessity,” said Shirely. “The things we’ve done for our communities were things that needed to be done and were just the right things to do. It’s about giving to the community that you live in, not just taking, and so many people in Sonoma County feel that way – that’s what makes it great.” 

Shirley and Bob agree there is something unique about Sonoma County. People support each other, something that just doesn’t happen everywhere.

“Sonoma County is a great place to live,” said Shirley. “Why would you want to live anywhere else?”

Bob and Shirley Dempel were recognized at the Harvest Fair Awards Dinner on September 27th at the Wells Fargo Center. The Harvest Fair is October 2-4th and tickets are available online at HarvestFair.org.

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