With his Stetson and signature suspenders, the late Al Gerhardt was a familiar figure at fairs and fund-raisers, never missing one of the 4-H or FFA events held throughout Sonoma County.
A man of the land, Gerhardt, who was 79 when he died last fall, believed in agriculture in the way he practiced his Catholic faith – resolute and committed. He was always ready to help others and give-back to the community, whether handing out apples to kids at AG Days or delivering food to needy farmworkers in rural Sonoma County. Described by his family as “the last of the cowboys,” he had an abiding pioneer spirit and Old West sensibility when it came to right and wrong.
“That’s just not right,” he told a Press Democrat editor when the newspaper dropped the weekly “Ag Briefs” column, something Gerhardt read religiously to keep up with the events and people in the agriculture community he loved.
He didn’t pull any punches with politicians either, giving them hell if he thought they were wrong or didn’t do enough to support an agriculture issue.
Gerhardt, who lived on a family ranch in Occidental, served as a director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau for 16 years and was involved in many other organizations related to agriculture and conservation. He generously gave his time, attending meetings and volunteering on behalf of Farm Bureau.
Indeed, he was on his way to a Natural Resources Committee meeting on Nov. 21, 2017 when he suffered a heart attack and died in his pickup truck near the Farm Bureau office in Santa Rosa. His unexpected death left a void at Farm Bureau where he was a staunch and vocal supporter of farmers and ranchers and a mentor to 4-H and FFA members.
“We lost the quintessential agricultural statesman the day Al Gerhardt died,” said Farm Advisor Stephanie Larson, who heads the UC Cooperative Extension in Sonoma County.
Farm Bureau leaders say Gerhardt’s lifelong contributions to agriculture will be honored with his posthumous induction into the Sonoma County Farm Bureau Hall of Fame. The prestigious award recognizes individuals who have made a real and lasting difference in preserving and protecting Sonoma County’s agriculture industry and the county’s 500,000 acres of farmland. Past recipients include the late Saralee and Richard Kunde, vintner Jess Jackson, Larry Bertolini and many more renowned agriculture leaders.
Gerhardt’s family will be presented the award at Farm Bureau’s Love of the Land celebration on July 12 at Richard’s Grove and Saralee’s Vineyard in Windsor. Other honorees this year are the DeBernardi Dairy family of Petaluma named the Farm Family of the Year and Doug McIlroy, director of winemaking at Rodney Strong Vineyards, who is the recipient of the Luther Burbank Conservation Award for his leadership in water issues.
Jan Gerhardt said her husband would have been incredibly honored by the Hall of Fame award because he so believed in Farm Bureau’s mission to keep agriculture viable and farmers on the land.
Gerry Gerhardt said his father lived for fairs, Farm Bureau and the farm kids that he believed were the future of agriculture in Sonoma County. He said his father also loved to share information to advance agriculture.
“My Dad loved farming and ranching his whole life and he was always on the quest for knowledge and innovation for things that would help farmers,” said Gerry Gerhardt. “He would scan through magazines, newspapers for anything and everything he could pass on to others.”
Larson, the UC farm advisor, was a close friend of Al and Jan Gerhardt for many years. She respected Gerhardt’s unwavering dedication to all things agriculture.
“From a young age to the day he died, Al Gerhardt championed agriculture,” Larson said. “He was well informed on issues, attending every meeting that pertained to local agriculture. Al was the constant questioner of decisions that could impact agriculture, to the delight and frustration of many.”
Gerhardt’s dedication to detail was legendary at Farm Bureau where he served on many committees including ag education, membership and water during his 16 year tenure. He seldom missed a meeting and always came ready to discuss and debate the issues. As the elder statesman, he also provided historical perspective to younger directors.
“Many of us joked that Al was the one board member who would actually read the board packet cover-to-cover. He was always prepared and always ready to ask questions,” said Steve Dutton, a Graton winegrape and apple grower who is president of Sonoma County Farm Bureau.
Dutton said Gerhardt’s empty seat on the Farm Bureau board reminds directors of the role that Gerhardt played, not only at meetings but out in the community where he served as a goodwill ambassador for Farm Bureau. “Al was a consistent fixture in Sonoma County and his leadership is surely missed,” Dutton said.
Gerhardt had deep roots in Sonoma County where his family has farmed for nearly 150 years. The Gerhardt Ranch was honored by the California State Fair’s Heritage Club for its 100 year and 125 year milestones as continuing family ranches.
Born in 1938 to Albert E. Gerhardt and Kathleen Nielsen Gerhardt, he was raised in Sebastopol, attending the old Green Valley School. He graduated from Analy High school where he was a member of the FFA.
Because of the financial challenges of agriculture, Gerhardt, like many ranchers, had a day job to provide for his family. He worked for more than 30 years as a machinist for OCLI while ranching nights and weekends. When he retired from OCLI, he fulfilled his life-long dream to live and work full time on the family ranch.
In 1963 Gerhardt married Pat Jesse and moved to Petaluma where the couple raised their four children, Kathe, Gerry, Diana and the late Anna Marie. Following Pat’s death, Gerhardt married Jan Smith in 2000. Together they realized Gerhardt’s dream of living on the family ranch near Occidental, raising hay and beef cattle.
The Gerhardts became active members of St. Phillip’s Catholic Church in Occidental. Gerhardt diligently helped maintain the historic church and was a dedicated volunteer for the church’s Rural Food Program.
In addition to his many years as a Farm Bureau director, Gerhardt was a founder and director of the North Coast Livestock Protective Association. He was a member of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association and the Sonoma County Trailblazers.
“Everywhere I go I run into people who knew my Dad and remember him as someone who was not only involved in the community but who was kind and caring,” said Gerry Gerhardt. “He was a true original.”