Longtime Sonoma County residents Richard and Saralee Kunde planted seeds for a legacy that will support our community for generations to come. The couple, both from North Bay farming families, made a lasting impact on Sonoma County’s agricultural heritage through their tireless work championing our local farms and farmers.

“I don’t know if there’s been anyone ever that’s had such an influence or such a desire, really, to keep agriculture and this way of life a part of Sonoma County. They both valued it so much,” says Tim Tesconi, a longtime friend of the Kundes who met Saralee in high school when she was a 4-H member and Tesconi was a member of Future Farmers of America. “They were dear friends and such an inspiration to me and everyone who came into their orbit.”

Richard became widely known for being the nation’s largest seller of grapevine rootstock and a force in the local wine world, while Saralee was known for her infectious love of Sonoma County’s agriculture, primarily through her work with the Sonoma County Fairgrounds where she served as a director of the Sonoma County Fair and the Harvest Fair. She was the driving force in establishing the 4-H Foundation, Russian River Valley Winegrowers and other agricultural groups. Both Richard and Saralee are inductees in the Sonoma County Farm Bureau Hall of Fame for their wide-reaching and substantial impact.

An unstoppable pair who promoted all things farms, fairs and agriculture—particularly for youth—Richard and Saralee raised millions of dollars over the course of at least fifty years to ensure that farmers would have a future in Sonoma County. They hosted numerous fundraising events for organizations like the 4-H Foundation, Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association, Farm Bureau and Sonoma County Fair.

“They totally believed that agriculture, farm youth and the fairs were Sonoma County’s identity, and they channeled their energy and resources to support them,” says Tesconi, a former Executive Director at the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and former longtime agriculture writer for The Press Democrat.

Today, their legacy lives on in numerous ways. One is through the 12,000 square foot ‘Saralee & Richard’s Barn’ at The Sonoma County Fairgrounds, which first opened its doors in 2016, the 80th year of the Sonoma County Fair. The barn is, and will continue to be, a gathering place and a site for agriculture education and meetings for agricultural organizations.

Another tremendous part of their legacy are the funds the Kundes established at Community Foundation Sonoma County. They opened the funds in 1995, and at their request and through guidance from loved ones that manage the fund in their names, Community Foundation makes grants to organizations focusing on missions related to education in agriculture, and to support the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, focusing on fostering the next generation in the industry.

“The Kunde Fund is having a tremendous impact,” says Tesconi. “This is an endowment that will go on forever generating funds that will enhance agricultural education and showcase Sonoma County’s rich farming heritage.”

Through the Kunde’s fund with Community Foundation, the agriculture department at Santa Rosa Junior College was recently gifted $500,000. The funds are earmarked for internships, something Richard was a big advocate for: “getting young people on farms so they can learn how to farm, how to maneuver in agriculture,” says Tesconi. Funding for interns ensures that students don’t have to work multiple jobs while pursuing their education and don’t have to miss out on opportunities to get hands-on experience.

Kunde Family Winery, Kenwood, California, June 20, 2023. Photo by: Erik Castro

Additionally, during the early portion of the Covid pandemic, the Youth Ag & Leadership Foundation of Sonoma County (formerly called the 4-H Foundation, which Saralee helped found in the 1980’s), was struggling financially because of their inability to rent the site for in-person events. Through the Kunde’s fund at Community Foundation, the foundation received a grant to keep them afloat.

Through their generous giving and their encouragement and support of local agriculture, Sonoma County’s farming community will continue to thrive for generations to come.

“Rich and Saralee used their unfettered passion and resources to shape Sonoma County as California’s premier wine and food region,” said Tesconi. “Now that they are gone, their endowment continues the mission that defined their lives.”

Story by Dani Burlison

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