From Cattle to Lavender

Bob and Sharon Kahn know what it’s like to run a ranch. For 20 years, after he retired from the insurance business and she from raising money for arts programs, they owned a stunning 3,000-acre cattle ranch along Middle Fork Crazy Woman Creek near Buffalo, Wyoming. Naturally, his friends called him Buffalo Bob.

From the front porch of their log home, the Kahns could throw a stone into a trout stream or begin a hike into a conifer canyon. But the ranch was remote—45 minutes from the closest town—and two days by car from their Belvedere home. And operating it took a lot of hard work.

The Kahns wanted to get away from city life—but not so far. So they sold the ranch a year ago and found a new getaway in the serene Lovall Valley in Sonoma, less than an hour from Belvedere and only 15 minutes from the restaurants and shopping of Sonoma’s plaza.

“We weren’t looking for another ranch or even a farm,” Sharon says of their new second home, 15-acre Cypress Hill Farm. “All I wanted were chickens and a burro; that was the original plan.”

They’re both enthralled with their land. “It’s so quiet here,” Kahn says. “All you hear are great country sounds. Someone has chickens and cows across the valley and our neighbor has goats. I think of them as mine; I’ve named several of them. And at night, we hear the coyotes howl on the ridge.”

From their hilltop, the Kahns glimpse five counties, three sets of fireworks on the Fourth of July, the twinkling lights of the East Bay at dusk and the blue water of San Francisco Bay on clear days. Instead of cattle, they now tend a vineyard of petite sirah, seven varieties of olive trees (that all needed pruning) and fields of French lavender—all of it organic.

But if Bob Kahn figured he was downsizing, he soon learned otherwise. “I thought, ‘hmmm, 15 acres, this will be a piece of cake,’ but cattle ranching was so much easier,” he says. “Everybody was on the same page in Wyoming when it came to ranching advice, but with organic farming, you can ask five people and get 12 different opinions.” To do things right, he kept the existing crew and sought the wisdom of local experts. (And got a new nickname: now he’s Lavender Bob.)

The Kahns also cultivate an extensive orchard and an exuberant vegetable garden that provides an abundance of fresh produce for their kitchens in Sonoma and Marin. “There are so many tomatoes I can’t give them away,” Sharon says, so she cans them and makes jam with the plums. 

The tile-roofed house at the farm is Tuscan style with thick walls and travertine floors to keep the interior cool on hot days. Small windows frame valley views. A glass conservatory that opens onto the garden has daybeds for overnight guests and an adjacent kitchen space allows easy alfresco entertaining. A three-car garage on the ground floor houses a 1949 Chevrolet half-ton pickup truck (named Henry) that Bob drives when he takes Sharon to town for dinner or when he make small deliveries.

Upstairs, from their living room they can see, across the graveled driveway, the distillery where Bob extracts the lavender essential oil and hydrosol that he supplies to companies like St. Helena Olive Oil Company for their products. Fragrant lavender bouquets are also hand-delivered to select stores, including Paradise Market in Corte Madera.

The Kahns sell their grapes to a local vintner and send the handpicked olives to the Sonoma-based Olive Press, which features the oil in its quarterly olive club. The oil is sold at Oakville Grocery in Napa and At Home At Sweet Things in Tiburon. Cypress Hill Farm products, marketed through the farm’s website at, are also lavished on lucky lunch or dinner guests back in Belvedere.

“We’re attached to the Belvedere-Tiburon community,” Sharon says. “I didn’t want to live full time in Sonoma.” A few years ago she started the book club program at Book Passage in Corte Madera and is very active in her own local reading group. Bob, a former commodore of the San Francisco Yacht Club, raised his family in Belvedere, and his son-in-law, Stan Urban, built the Kahns’ home on one of Belvedere’s last remaining lots 10 years ago.

“We didn’t want a large house, but we did want enough space to entertain, so the whole main floor is an open plan,” says Sharon. “We can cook in the kitchen and look at the fireplace in the living room and, because the stove is in the island, we can talk to friends without turning our backs to them.”

The interior is finished in a palette of harmonious earth tones with a limited use of pattern to avoid competition with the artwork. Accents are natural: large pinecones, baskets and stones and a fireplace surround of limestone, inset with hammered steel, that reveals ancient fossils. There’s also a hint of pan-Asian influence carried from the entry garden into the lines of the living room’s cocktail table and hearth box.

“We were both married for 30 years to other people before we got married 14 years ago, so it was a challenge to blend households, but my favorite homes are always eclectic,” Sharon says. “It also means you’re always editing.”

A pair of naturally shed antlers, found on the Wyoming ranch, decorates the fireplace mantle in Bob’s cozy upstairs office; 300 more antlers are stored at the Sonoma ranch.  “This is the only room (where) Sharon will let me have them,” he says, chuckling.

She markets the farm products and writes short stories in her downstairs office near a guest room set up for visiting grandchildren. In the hallway hangs a gallery of family photos and black-and-white stills of celebrities taken with her famous father, Chet Huntley, who pioneered TV evening news broadcasting with The Huntley-Brinkley Report.

A Montana native and founder of Big Sky Resort near Bozeman, Montana, Huntley was a quintessential Westerner, and it’s from him that Sharon acquired her love of ranch life. A bronze sculptural image of her father that once overlooked “Chet’s pond” at the Wyoming ranch graces their Belvedere home. “I didn’t get to see it often there,” Sharon says. “So, it’s nice. I can see it every day now.”

And with the farm so close, she can now enjoy the ranch lifestyle more often, too. “My life centers around Belvedere, but Bob and I will always need ‘country’ in our lives.”