Steve Reese, Champion for Agriculture, Honored with Farm Bureau’s Hall of Fame Award

Written By: Tim Tesconi
Published: April 11, 2022

With his cowboy hat, big smile and friendly, easygoing manner, the late Steve Reese cut a familiar figure at Farm Bureau events and at the fairs and farm events where agricultural folks gather to build community and coalitions.

If there was an ag event in Sonoma County, Reese was probably there helping out.  He was always part of the barbecue crew preparing tri tip for events like Love of the Land or the dinner for buyers at the Sonoma County Fair’s steer auction.  Not one to sit and ponder ag policy issues in board meetings, Reese preferred to be outside doing something – like staging the fairgrounds for Ag Days or prepping the Chris Beck Arena for Farmers Day. He was the kind of guy who could fix and do almost anything. And he did for many years, to the benefit of Farm Bureau, the fair and farm youth groups as well as his friend and neighbors.

A man of the land, Reese, who was 70 when he died unexpectedly on March 27, 2020 at the family ranch in west Santa Rosa, believed agriculture was the heart and soul of Sonoma County. And to that end he worked diligently to protect and promote it. He had an abiding pioneer spirit and Old West sensibility when it came to right and wrong. He made his opinions known to politicians and bureaucrats – always in a respectful way and without rancor.

Farm Bureau leaders say Reese’s lifelong contributions to agriculture will be honored – and celebrated – 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, dairyman-lawyer Art LaFranchi, Larry Bertolini and many more renowned agriculture leaders who made a lasting difference.

“Steve’s death left a big hole for a lot of us at Farm Bureau because in many ways he was what Farm Bureau is all about – working together. I think we all felt the loss getting ready for the Crab Feed this year. Steve would have been there helping to set up the Main Pavilion, move tables and do whatever needed to be done. He is missed,” said Santa Rosa dairy rancher Jennifer Beretta, president of Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

For more than 20 years, Beretta, who brought her baby calves to Ag Days, remembers Reese being a key part of planning and setting up the event. Once the kids arrived, he would continuously walk around the fairgrounds to make sure all was running smoothly and check in with exhibitors.

“He did it all with a smile and made it fun for everyone. Ag Days won’t be the same without him” Beretta said.

Reese’s wife, Kathy Denner Reese, a longtime director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau, will be presented the award at Farm Bureau’s Love of the Land celebration.  She said her husband would be proud to be recognized by the organization that he devoted so much of his life to.

“Steve has earned the privilege to be inducted into the Farm Bureau’s Hall of Fame. It’s an honor for both of us,” said Kathy Reese, his wife of 50 years. The couple 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.

“Steve loved Farm Bureau and being part of the agriculture community. He really was an advocate for agriculture and worked in so many ways to keep it strong while always being there to support the next generation who were in 4-H and FFA,” said Kathy Reese.  For decades, Steve and Kathy have been active leaders on the county’s farm front, recognized for their work in helping with fund-raising events 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.

Farm Bureau leaders said Reese is dearly missed not only for the contributions he made but for the fun and friendly banter he brought to anything he did.

“Steve always had a smile. He was always so happy to help out. When he took on a project he did it 110 percent,” said Kathy.

Reese was admired and respected for his work ethic, outgoing demeanor, generous spirit and his dedication to working on many levels to keep agriculture strong and viable. 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, Reese took great pleasure in watching kids cuddle a piglet or Jersey calf for the first time or climb aboard a shiny John Deere tractor. For his part, Reese believed rolling up your sleeves to be actively involved in the community 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, Reese 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 he was studying law enforcement, following in the path of his father who was a California Highway Patrol officer. 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, Reese served in the Army from 1971 to 1973, stationed in Korea for part of his military service. For 17 years he commuted to Marin County, working in the San Rafael Public Works Department, devoting nights and weekends to helping on the ranch. Kathy said her husband could fix anything on the ranch, which made them a great team.

When not working or volunteering, Kathy said, Steve Reese loved parties and get-togethers, savoring fine red wine – pinot noir his favorite – and riding his beloved mule, “Biskit,” with the tight bond between man and beast the fodder of many fond memories for his family.

Reese also loved mentoring young people, always patient when teaching ranching or welding skills. One of those he took under his wing was Gabe Castaneda, whose family – and now him – farm vegetables on a portion of the Denner Ranch. Gabe knew Reese all his life and considered him a friend, role model 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.

In addition to his work with Farm Bureau, Reese was involved in the Laguna Foundation, worked with the Sonoma County Water Agency on different projects as well as the Russian River Watershed Committee. At the time of his death, Reese was doing the 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. Fair officials said he brought energy and dedication to the Farmer’s Day event, always one of the first to pitch in to do whatever was needed.

Always social and gregarious, Reese was a member of the Fulton 500, a men’s group that met monthly for lunch, wine and banter. Additionally, Steve and Kathy Reese 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 at Farm Bureau.

Reese 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.

Gary Sack, field representative for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said Reese was one of the most loyal and prolific letter writers on the Farm Team.

“Steve responded to 75 Farm Team alerts—writing letters to explain Farm Bureau positions and farm concerns regarding particular legislation on key agricultural issues,” said Sack. “I sincerely appreciated Steve’s participation, inspiration and enthusiasm in supporting California’s farmers and ranchers.”

Meanwhile, Reese’s friends and family remember his wit and wisdom and the old adages he crafted following his decades working the land.

One of his familiar sayings was “Never walk behind a cow that has been grazing on green grass up to her belly.”

His many friends say thanks for the memories.

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