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Burbank’s biggest fan

Volunteer finds her niche at site where famed horticulturist developed thousands of plants

By MELODY KARPINSKI
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Have you ever been pegged as a groupie? Erin Sheffield has.

“I’ve been accused of being a Luther Burbank groupie,” said Sheffield, the chairwoman of the Luther Burbank Experiment Farm committee. “The more I found out about the man, the more I was interested.”

The Sebastopol farm, better known as Gold Ridge, was where Burbank developed thousands of new hybrid plants.


Erin Sheffield, shown Wednesday at the Luther Burbank Experiment Farm in Sebastopol, is chairman of the committee that runs the farm. She also serves as liaison between the farm and the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens in Santa Rosa. (KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat)

Sheffield, 73, began volunteering with the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens in Santa Rosa in the spring of 2009. A Sebastopol resident, she discovered Gold Ridge later that year and began volunteering at the farm in the fall.

“I saw there were very few volunteers here (at Gold Ridge), and nobody was doing what I saw needed to be done,” Sheffield said. “It took me until my 70s to find my perfect job, but I found it.”

She now serves as the liaison between the two Burbank locations, just one of the many hats she wears at the farm.

“I’d always loved gardening, and I have my B.A. from Cal Poly-Pomona in horticulture and landscape architecture,” Sheffield said. “My only regret is I don’t garden at the farm.”

Despite finding little time to garden, Sheffield trains new volunteers, plans events, gives community lectures about the farm and provides public-relations assistance.

“Erin transformed the way the farm was organized almost single-handedly,” said Steve Fowler, the former curator of Gold Ridge.

“She brought us into the 21st century,” he said.

A New York transplant, Sheffield moved to California in the late 1960s. After obtaining her bachelor’s degree, she was inspired to take a video production class at Moorpark College in Ventura County.

A call for interns at the local TV station led her to become involved in the producing world, a skill she put to use at Gold Ridge when she produced two short informational videos about the farm.

“Burbank had a particular brand of genius,” Sheffield said. “He was pals with Henry Ford and Thomas Edison — because genius recognizes itself.”

Fowler noted that Sheffield was the first to bring a laptop to the farm. “She introduced a lot of innovations to us and brought a lot of new energy,” Fowler said. “She’s helped us set priorities and fundraising goals.”

Sheffield’s newest project is grant writing, and she recently gave a presentation at the Sonoma County Landmarks Commission seeking funding for the farm.

For Sheffield, her work at the farm allows her to use her variety of skills to pursue her passion.

“Working at the farm allows me to bring together so much of my education and work experience,” she said. “This place is such a precious gem.”

You can reach Staff Writer Melody Karpinski at 521-5205 or melody.karpinski@pressdemocrat.com.