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Rustic Relics: Tierra preserves landmark barn

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Photos by KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat

Text by ANN HUTCHINSON / Santa Rosa Correspondent

Tierra Vegetables’ philosophy is sustainability and re-use, so it seems fitting that owners also found a way to preserve a landmark barn.

“Everything we do, we think about that,” said co-owner Wayne James, 58, Santa Rosa. In this case, however, following through took two years and cost an estimated $250,000, more expensive than building a new one.

James and his sister, Lee James, started Tierra Vegetables 34 years ago and have been farming in Healdsburg, Windsor and Santa Rosa ever since. When he learned in 2009 that a barn at the new Sutter Hospital site off Mark West Springs Road was available for free if he tore it down and hauled it away, James found a contractor with just two weeks to spare before the construction crews were scheduled to demolish the barn. The cost of disassembling, removing and delivering the pieces was $40,000.

He had the pieces delivered to a Tierra’s farm off Airport Boulevard and had them stacked in the parking lot of a tent being used as a farm stand. The barn pieces, including one board with “1924” engraved on it, arrived in December 2009 and remained untouched until spring 2010.

As with any renovation of an old building, unforeseen problems arose. The pier block foundation and narrow staircase had to be re-engineered and rebuilt to code. The upper level wasn’t supported enough to handle the weight of the farm’s bounty. A commercial kitchen and a mill were added to process corn meal and make jams. The original $104,000 bid to rebuild the barn soon grew to more than $250,000.

“A big chunk of that (cost) was financed by customer donations and loans, and loans from family,” James said. Most of the customer loans have been repaid, but repaying family loans while maintaining and upgrading the barn in an ongoing project.

Customer Patti Buttitta, a Santa Rosa-based graphic designer, suggested selling discount cards to help fund the barn. Customers pay $100 for the “barn cards” and each time they spend more than $20, they get $5 back. Over time they are repaid.

Buttitta’s interest was personal. She grew up on the barn’s original Mark West Springs site, moving there with her parents in 1954 when it was an 85-acre grape and prune farm, the barn filled with horse stalls. She said she remembers playing store in the hayloft with her sister.

Like cosmic bookends, Tierra Vegetables gained a barn from construction of Sutter Hospital only to suffer from the impact of freeway construction at Airport Boulevard. Access to the farm stand was impeded for nearly two years while Caltrans built new on- and off-ramps, stalling business that had just begun to recover from the Great Recession.

“Now, it’s easy to get on and off, but it was prettier with the redwood trees there,” James said as he gazed out at the freeway just beyond his farm.

The Tierra Vegetables Farm Stand, 651 Airport Blvd., is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. 544-6141, tierravegetables.com.

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