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Where miracles happen

Nov./Dec. 2007 California Country magazine

St. Anthony's Farm offers a place to heal mind, body and spirit.



Dairy farm offers a place to heal mind, body and spirit

As Jamey Howell pulls his pickup truck around to the barn at St. Anthony's Farm, he can tell it's going to be one of those days. The morning has barely begun and already he has endured unseasonably cold temperatures as he dished out breakfast to more than 200 hungry cows, moved a couple hundred bales of hay, had a newborn calf poop on him--and now he's chasing a wayward cow through the dairy.


Recovered addict Jamey Howell now works full time at St. Anthony's Farm, which provides a stable environment for him and his daughter as well as program participants such as Reuben Bnavente, left.

"Make sure she doesn't run up into the tumbleweed on the side of the hill," Howell yells to the other workers. "She's a runner."

After nearly an hour spent wrangling the surprisingly quick and nimble cow, a weary Howell is left to ponder what the rest of the day will bring.

"Just another day on the farm," he says under his breath, with a slight smile that indicates more amusement than annoyance. It's an unusual display of patience from a man who was anything but in the 40 years that preceded this one.

"In my life, I was always looking for the next hit, the next high, the next anything," Howell recalls.

A musician, Howell lived in San Francisco, floating from one gig to the next. Between shows, he began drinking. Then he started using marijuana. Soon his drug habit progressed into cocaine, heroin and whatever else he could get his hands on.

"You name it and I probably did it," he admits.

Howell lost his job, his house and custody of his daughter within months. Homeless and living on the streets in one of San Francisco's toughest neighborhoods, he finally recognized he needed help and a change.

After asking around for a good recovery program, Howell stumbled upon the St. Anthony Foundation in San Francisco. The foundation was begun in 1950 by Franciscan Friar Alfred Boeddker to give hope to his hungry and homeless neighbors. People now come to St. Anthony Foundation not only to share in a meal, but also for clothing, housing and rehabilitation. It has become a place to heal mind, body and spirit.

At the center of that healing is a 315-acre dairy farm outside of Petaluma that also doubles as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. While the dairy is the focal point of the farm, there also is a 1-acre garden that provides fresh vegetables and fruit for farm residents, the foundation's other residential programs in San Francisco and customers who receive a share of the harvest on a subscription basis.


The holistic approach to healing at St. Anthony's Farm involves residents working in the organic garden and packing up a variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs that it sells to customers on a subscription basis.

"I went down to the center and asked about their programs," Howell said. "They told me about the farm they helped run and it actually sounded like exactly what I needed. But they said it would take three or four weeks to get me in there, and I said, 'I don't have that time. If I leave today, I will go out there and use again and probably die.'"

The St. Anthony's staff ended up being able to get Howell into the program right away, and before he even set foot on the farm, his life began to change.

"I remember feeling a sense of hope when I got on the bus that would take me from San Francisco to the farm," Howell said. "That was the first time in my whole life I had really felt hopeful about anything. And almost immediately, I felt at home."

Howell slowly eased into life on the farm--working 35 hours a week at the dairy, seeing a counselor regularly and going to 12-step meetings. Through a routine that consists of work, recreation, education, solitude and peer feedback, participants like Howell are both challenged and supported to take personal responsibility for their lives. Program participants work in the organic garden, on the grounds crew, in the facility's kitchen or in the commercial dairy.

"The only time I had ever touched a cow was when I was eating it. I didn't know what was going to happen here and I certainly didn't expect what did happen," Howell said.

Today, nearly five years clean and sober, Howell's life is a far cry from what it once was. Instead of going back to the city, he settled into country life, regained custody of his daughter and found a permanent and stable job--working full-time at the dairy. He says farm life has taught him more than he could ever have imagined about life in general.

"It kind of structures you into working again and being responsible for your actions--understanding that most of your actions are caused by you and not by the people around you," Howell said. "It also teaches you a lot of patience. When you're trying to move a 1,500-pound animal and she doesn't want to budge, you learn real quick that you need to relax, take a step back, let them do what they want and it'll get done."

St. Anthony's dairy manager Jim Kehoe, a third-generation dairy producer from nearby Inverness, took Howell under his wing almost immediately. He echoes his prized pupil's thoughts.

"Some people need the motivation to work. Some people come here and they're not motivated to work but once they start taking care of the animals or working in the garden, they realize there's something else out there for them. They see the big picture," Kehoe said.

With fewer than 300 milking cows, the dairy is considered to be a relatively small operation. But keeping the dairy small and also transitioning to an organic operation were pragmatic moves.

"The thought process was, milk prices were really low, we're a small dairy and we thought, 'How could we possibly compete?'" Kehoe said.

That's when fate stepped in. The farm had always sold milk to Petaluma-based Clover Stornetta, and when the company became interested in converting some of its dairies to organic, it seemed like a natural step for St. Anthony's to go organic, too. So in 2002 they became Clover Stornetta's first organic dairy, now producing more than 1,800 gallons of milk a year.

It didn't take long for Clover Stornetta to see what a unique partner they had in St. Anthony's; they now refer to the farm's dairy products as "the milk of human kindness."

"What they have done for us is amazing," said Clover Stornetta President Marcus Benedetti. "But what they have done for the community and the people that work at the farm is even more amazing."

Going organic was also in keeping with a general trend at the farm toward the twin goals of sustainable farming and sustainable recovery. As part of their sustainable farming, they recently completed the construction of an on-site methane digester. It will turn the gases from cow manure into electricity. That in turn will feed the power grid, offsetting the costs of running the dairy. And soon they hope to be marketing organic Clover Stornetta butter made on the premises--yet another step toward self-sufficiency.

As for sustainable recovery, the staff at the farm structures the workload at the farm to be demanding, but not enough to take away from the real goal: to have residents focus on taming their addictions. The staff at St. Anthony's believes the work on the farm uniquely complements the work of recovery. Physical labor, sweating and drinking water assists in detoxification. Behaviorally, the structure helps residents learn to deal with authority and the rigors of everyday employment. And then there is the spiritual side--discovering how to care for others while learning to do the same for yourself.

"I think animals really have a grounding effect on people," Kehoe said. "Cows can poop on you, you can wash it off, you don't have to carry that around with you. And you take care of them, feed them, house them and they'll give good milk and live a long time. It's the circle of life, really."

Taking care of others is something 24-year-old Reuben Bnavente knew little about. Living in Santa Rosa, he was in and out of trouble for most of his life and said the only one he focused on was himself.

"I was acting like a fool," Bnavente said. "There's no doubt in my mind, if things continued on, I would be in jail right now. I didn't care about anyone or anything."

Like Howell, he knew his life wasn't healthy, but unlike Howell, he felt uncomfortable in his new surroundings at the farm.

"It smelled. I hated that smell every morning when I came to work," Bnavente said.

But somewhere during his rotation at the farm and dairy, something changed. Bnavente found a niche, working closely with the newborn calves in the nursery--and soon he began to care about something other than himself.

"I like the calves a lot. I like feeding them and taking care of them. They need you for everything. It feels nice just to be needed," Bnavente said.

And today, whenever Kehoe is looking for his newest dairy worker, he knows where to find him--up at the nursery. Whether cleaning the calves or teaching them how to drink out of a bottle, Bnavente has found a home and a purpose.

"It makes me feel good. Like a member of society. Like a person who belongs in society, not someone who needs to be locked up," he said.

People helping people. The circle of life. Getting a new lease on life. These are clichés to some, but for Jamey Howell, Reuben Bnavente and hundreds of others, they are proof that miracles can happen—even on a small, secluded dairy farm in the hills of Sonoma County.

"There's a lot of good that happens at this place," Howell said. "A lot of amazing things happen every day here. I see it. And for the people who start to get it, you can see it in their eyes. A light comes on and their soul comes back."

Editor's note, March 2011: Due to the changing economy and other factors, the St. Anthony Foundation has closed the residential treatment facility at St. Anthony's Farm.

Tracy Sellers is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation and the popular weekly television program "California Country." She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or tsellers@cfbf.com.


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