Driving through the cold winter rain on Highway 12 between Sebastopol and Santa Rosa, local residents have looked longingly at the closed strawberry stand just west of Llano Road, waiting for spring and the "Open" sign to appear. Finally, at the end of April, the sight of baskets of red berries brightening the small wooden farm stand appeared, and those who made the much-anticipated turn off the highway found they were not alone. It's not unusual for 10 or more cars to fill the lot, with customers eagerly awaiting their turn to taste some of the sweetest and most healthful strawberries in Sonoma County.
The farm stand, owned and operated by Lao Saetern, is largely a one-man operation, open seven days a week, "when there are berries," he tells me, between customers. "Most of the time, I work by myself. From 6 to 9am I pick, then sell berries or maintain the farm."
Saetern describes an extremely difficult life of poverty in his native Thailand, where even clothing and shoes were hard to obtain. "My life is farming," he says. "Since I was young, I farmed. My parents were farmers and needed my help, so I took over what they did." Sponsored by his brother who had immigrated earlier, Saetern and his wife moved to Sacramento and raised five children. After five years in Sacramento, Saetern established his farm on five rented acres in the Santa Rosa area to take advantage of the better weather and longer growing season for berries.
A neighbor of Saetern's pulls into the stand. They chat about the flock of wild turkeys that destroyed the berries on the farmland bordering her home. "Even fencing won't keep them out," she rues. "They just fly over it."
In halting English, Saetern discusses the hardships of farming. "During strawberry season, I live near my fields. When I have time, I go home, but now there is no time. I try to be like the olden days, so I don't use any pesticides or chemicals, but it's hard to control insects; they destroy your plants by eating the leaves and fruits and sucking out all the juices."
Spider mites appear when it gets hot, usually at the beginning of June, and Saetern waits out their natural life cycle until it is over and the leaves grow back on the plants. "That takes a couple of months, and I don't have any profit. I only use black plastic between the rows to keep the weeds down, heat in and moisture in the soil."
Saetern also grows a variety of vegetables to augment his income, but it's the strawberries that draw customers off the road. In less than 10 minutes, the 30 baskets for sale have disappeared, three at a time. As more customers pull in, Saetern asks them to wait a few minutes so he can replenish the stand. He hops into his small blue pickup, heading into the back fields to pick a fresh supply. "I only pick enough to sell one day at a time," he explains. "I don't keep them for the next day. They're not good for tomorrow. They should be fresh."
Sonoma County Strawberry Farm, 5556 Hwy. 12, Santa Rosa. Open 9am-7pm, seven days a week when berries are available; closed when none available.