For more than a decade, Lee Romero and Cory Vandergeld have delighted visitors of Lovepatch Farms, their miniature horse haven located in rural Sonoma County.
But now, their business and livelihood could be destroyed at any second. If the couple can't quickly come up with $500,000 to purchase back their property from a local company, Vandergeld and Romero -- and their dozens of miniature horses -- will face eviction.
"I'm just at my wits end," Romero told The Huffington Post. "We're between a rock and a hard place."
Romero purchased the two-and-a-half acre property more than 30 years ago, and she had always taken care of horses on the site. In 1998, she and Vandergeld came across a ranch that specialized only in miniature horses. They decided to build a business breeding and showing the small animals.
"They're so darling," Romero explained. "As big as a stuffed toy."
Their operation expanded to include farm tours, a gift shop and online store. Romero especially prides herself on the benefits her tours provide to at-risk children, senior citizens and other special needs individuals. "Group leaders and caretakers have often remarked to that the behavioral changes in their clients have been most remarkable," the organization's website reads. "Almost immediately, restless and autistic children have reached out to the minis and been rewarded with gentle affection and quiet acceptance."
Like many property owners, Romero and Vandergeld fell victim to the housing market's implosion in 2008. Monthly payments on their farm tripled and they struggled to make ends meet. After three unsuccessful attempts at a loan modification, a family friend and fellow miniature horse enthusiast named Ray Kaliski offered to purchase their home on a short sale and lease it back to them.
"We didn't have any reason not to trust him, so we went ahead with everything," Romero said.
The couple continued to struggle to make their rent payments to their new landlord, so Kaliski further reduced their monthly fees. Romero attributed their lack of income to an extensive remodel the Kaliski family began on their house, which prevented tour groups from coming through.
In a statement send to HuffPost, Kaliski addressed the remodel:
We agreed that the house needed some repairs to make it livable and the Kaliski Family agreed to make those repairs. We discussed the need to remove the trashed vehicles from the property to make it presentable for miniature horse tours. We agreed to assist them in removing several debris boxes full of accumulated junk.
Kaliski added that Romero was "rude" to his building staff throughout the process. "None of our staff, including our Building Manager, will go back due to the treatment they received," he said. According to Kaliski, the couple also consistently missed rent payments and stopped paying their water bill -- a claim Romero refuted.
Romero and Vandergeld eventually received a notice from Kaliski to vacate the property, sent to their home last November. They have paid their monthly rent in full since then.
Romero called the eviction notice unfounded and said it came without warning or explanation. "We didn't understand," she said. "We're running scared. They haven't given us any reason for the eviction."
In an effort to save their property, Romero and Vandergeld posted a petition on Change.org and have sought angel investors to drum up the $500,000 they need to purchase their farm back from Kaliski. Romero noted their situation is particularly dire as they can't find a suitable alternative location for all their animals and local rescue organizations are full.
Kaliski told HuffPost that he has urged the couple to sell their horses. "Lee and Cory are not willing to face the reality that the miniature horse business is not coming back anytime soon and they do not have the resources to continue in that business," he said. "We are willing to work with the local animal control to keep the horses on the property so they can be properly cared for and homes found for them all."
But Romero isn't ready to give up the business she built. "If we parcel our horses out, we won't be able to do the tours. That's our main income stream," she said. "We believe that the world needs more facilities like Lovepatch."
Take a look at images from the farm below. Click here to donate to Lovepatch's cause.