Beloved rancher, who died March 27, remembered for his dedication to family, Farm Bureau, fair and farm youth
Steve M. Reese, a Sonoma County cattle rancher and grape grower who was a familiar and beloved fixture in the agriculture community and a stalwart volunteer at Farm Bureau and the Sonoma County Fair, died unexpectedly on March 27, 2020, at the family ranch in west Santa Rosa. He was 70. He will be posthumously inducted into the SonomaCounty Farm Bureau Hall of Fame for his dedication to our organization and to the agriculture industry
Steve and his wife of 50 years, Kathy Denner Reese, were devoted partners in life and on the family ranch, a sprawling spread along the Laguna de Santa Rosa, that has been in Kathy’s family for more than a century. For decades, Steve and Kathy have been active leaders on the county’s farm front, recognized for their work in building community and educating the next generation about agriculture in Sonoma County. Both Steve and Kathy were recipients of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board’s Spirit of Sonoma County Award, given to citizens who are making a difference in their communities.
Cattle rancher Terry Lindley, who leases grazing land on the Denner Ranch, said the partnership between Steve and Kathy – in life, on the ranch and in their advocacy and volunteer work to support agriculture – was amazing to behold.
“Steve and Kathy were a wonderful team and such strong and vocal advocates for agriculture, whether 4-H and FFA programs or Farm Bureau and the Sonoma County Fair. That partnership was something very special that many of us greatly admired,” said Lindley.
Steve’s sudden and unexpected death, while working on the family ranch, sent shock waves through the farming community where he was known for his willingness to always lend a hand at agriculture events and fund-raising barbecues or if a friend or neighbor needed help.
“Steve was the guy that was always there and ready to help out from barbequing at countless events over the years to pitching in at so many Farm Bureau and community events. We spent so many fun times around the BBQ together talking and laughing. That’s the thing that I’ll miss the most,” said Santa Rosa dairy rancher Doug Beretta, a director and past president of Sonoma County Farm Bureau.
Beretta and others who considered Steve a close friend said he was admired and respected for his work ethic, friendly demeanor, generous spirit and his dedication to working on many levels to preserve and protect agriculture in Sonoma County. Along with Kathy he took a lead role in staging Farm Bureau’s annual Ag Days where each spring some 5,000 city kids get a taste of farm life.
At Ag Days, Steve took great pleasure in watching city kids cuddle a piglet or Jersey calf for the first time or climb aboard a shiny John Deere tractor. For his part, Steve believed community involvement was just part of farming. “When you stop and think about it, few people are as engaged in their own communities like agriculturalists are,” he said in a Farm Bureau profile about his volunteer work.
Born July 31, 1949 in Oakland, Steve was raised in Lake County where he was a member of the 4-H Club, raising hogs and lambs that he showed at local fairs and the Cow Palace’s Junior Grand National Livestock Exposition in San Francisco.
Kathy Denner and Steve Reese met at Santa Rosa Junior College where Steve was studying law enforcement. They married in 1970, moved to the Denner Ranch in 1982, and in partnership took over the ranch’s day to day operations in 1994. After they were married, Steve served in the Army from 1970 to 1973, stationed in Korea for part of his military service. For 17 years Steve commuted to Marin County, working in the San Rafael Public Works Department, devoting nights and weekends to helping on the ranch. Kathy said Steve could fix anything on the ranch, which made them a great team.
When not working or volunteering, Kathy said, Steve loved parties and get-togethers, savoring fine red wine and riding his beloved mule, “Biskit,” with the tight bond between man and beast the subject of many fond memories for his family.
Steve also loved mentoring young people, always patient when teaching ranching or welding skills.
Gabe Castaneda, 26, whose family farms vegetables on part of the Denner Ranch, has known Steve all his life and considered him a friend and mentor.
“Steve was always willing to help us out with anything we needed. He was a hardworking guy and always very helpful,” said Gabe. “A week before he passed away, he came out on his quad and told my dad that if we needed help he was there for us. He was a good guy and I have nothing but respect for him.”
In addition to his work with Farm Bureau, Steve was involved in the Laguna Foundation, worked with the Sonoma County Water Agency on different projects, served on and helped with the Sonoma County Fair Beef Advisory Committee and the Russian River Watershed Committee. Recently, he took over water quality testing for dairies in Sonoma and Marin counties.
For decades Steve served on the Sonoma County Fair’s Farmers Day Committee where his skills were always put to good use to showcase the ways of the Old West.
“Steve brought energy and dedication to the Sonoma County Fair Farmer’s Day event. He was never one to shy away from hard work and he was always one of the first to pitch in whenever needed,” said Sheila Quince, the fair’s retired exhibits supervisor and livestock manager. “He always had an upbeat attitude and can-do spirit.”
Always social and gregarious, Steve was a member of the Fulton 500, a men’s group that met monthly for lunch, wine and banter. Additionally, Steve and Kathy were part of a close-knit group of friends called the End of the Road Gang. The group gathered for friendship, food and wine while raising money to fund an annual $2,000 agriculture scholarship.
Steve also was active in the politics of farming, being one of the top members of the California Farm Bureau’s “Farm Team” which communicates with legislators, providing Farm Bureau’s position on pending legislation. He would get up at 5 a.m. to get on his computer to begin communicating with legislators up and down the state. He also loved to email his buddies around the country, keeping in close contact with the many friends he had made over the years.
In addition to his wife Kathy, he is survived by his daughter, Renee Larson of Santa Rosa; his sisters, Debbie (Howard) Stricker of Kelseyville, Jamie (Jerry) Wheeler of Alturas, Becky (Ken) Ornellas of Lakeport, and Nickie (Dean) Duff of Caldwell, Idaho; his brother, Tim Rodgers of Kelseyville; his granddaughter, Shae Hopkins of Windsor, and grandson Aaron Hopkins, a member of the USMC stationed at Camp Pendleton.
Memorial services will be held at a later date.
The family suggests memorial contributions to the Farm Bureau Foundation of Sonoma County. With the contributions, the foundation will dedicate the Technology Corner of Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Traveling Ag Education Exhibit to Steve Reese. This dedication will honor Steve’s commitment and love for agriculture, education, and technology. To make contributions, please make checks payable to Farm Bureau Foundation of Sonoma County and mail to 3589 Westwind Blvd., Santa Rosa, CA 95403.