Building Community Capacity: Conversation at California Environmental Protection Agency

By Elena Karoulina, Executive Director

Sustainable Solano Executive Director Elena Karoulina, far right, shares insight on a panel at the CalEPA gathering.

Recently a few Sustainable Solano team members had the privilege of spending a day with our fellow Environmental Justice CalEPA grantees and CalEPA and other state agencies’ officials and staff in Sacramento.

We were humbled by the depth and breadth of the organizations present at the meetings. From all over California – LA, Central Valley, Northern California and Bay Area — representatives of mostly grassroots organizations described their work of fighting against unfair environmental burdens in their communities, restricting and eventually banning pesticide use in California, building green infrastructure, providing youth education and leadership skills development, and supporting healing and personal transformation for inmates using permaculture as guiding philosophy. The community wisdom in the room was palpable — we all shared our honest stories of our accomplishments, opportunities and numerous challenges to further this work, from lack of funding and policy support to the unrealistic expectations of some funders to have measurable results in a short period of time. Our impact is not always easy to measure: How do you measure hope?

California Secretary of Environmental Protection Jared Blumenfeld opened the gathering and set the tone of our inquiry for the day: What does “successful” community capacity development look like? He masterfully identified our major modern adversaries: complexity and abstraction. The issues we are dealing with are so multifaceted and complex that it becomes increasingly difficult for the majority of the population to grasp them in their totality. Related to this is the abstraction of many concepts. For example, climate change is so profound and global, yet for most of us it is not yet a dire daily reality. Secretary Blumenfeld encouraged us to keep it personal and relative to our communities, to distill the essence of the issues and translate them into the place-based needs of the communities we work in, yet remain aware of how those fit into the complexity of our global challenges.

Blumenfeld talked about the need to reform the system and posted a question to all of us: How would this reform look? How can we ensure that technological advancements are placed in low-income, high-need communities first? Overall, we all felt appreciated and supported by the top leadership of the California EPA.

Throughout the day and long after we’ve been reflecting on what community capacity means for Sustainable Solano. The first question we have to answer is “capacity to do what?”

We, at Sustainable Solano, strive toward a new model, a vision for our human society built on the principles of Earth care, people care and fair share for a world that works for everyone. This new world is emerging all around us at the grassroots level, and it was very reassuring to hear from state officials that the question of a structural change is presenting itself on their level, which opens up a conversation about what that change will look like. It will take all of us, every level and all three major sectors of our society — business, government and civic — to work together to create a more sustainable future for all. We work on the ground, rooted in our neighborhoods, inspiring, educating and empowering our community members and providing tools and space to take heart-based actions toward the good of the whole.

What kind of community capacity supports this work? What would be a crucial characteristic we all need to have? We think it’s CONNECTION – to ourselves, to each other, to the world around us and to something larger than ourselves, whatever it might be for each of us.

We see the role of Sustainable Solano in enacting and supporting these connections through meaningful, tangible work in our communities. Every time you come to our events to plant trees, establish a permaculture food forest or install a greywater system, we are doing just that — seeding these vital connections all over the county.

This is exactly how we approach our Listening Circles project in Central Solano, funded by CalEPA’s Environmental Justice grant: We would like to bring to the communities mostly affected by the environmental pressures a balanced sense of urgency and agency, knowledge about environmental issues in their backyards, and practical, achievable, community-based solutions to fix the problems or at least ease the effects of them.

Looking forward to seeing you at our next community event!

St. Patrick – St. Vincent Students Learn About Sustainability and Install Demonstration Food Forest Garden


Students at St. Patrick-St. Vincent Catholic High School are learning about sustainability this school year through a pilot sustainability curriculum and hands-on food forest garden installation. The program started in May with the construction of a cob bench made of clay, sand and straw and incorporating “bottle bricks” — plastic bottles filled with nonrecyclable plastic trash.

This month, students will learn about sustainability in class, including an introduction to permaculture and systems thinking, planetary limits and wise water use. Incorporating science and math standards, the lessons will introduce students to sustainability, where their local water sources come from and how to capture rainwater within an environment. The curriculum development is funded by a grant from the Solano Community Foundation.

Students will gain a deeper understanding of what they’ve been learning in class through the installation of a demonstration permaculture food forest garden on campus. This part of the program is supported through Solano Sustainable Backyards, which is funded by the Solano County Water Agency.

“This collaboration with Sustainable Solano is a valuable learning opportunity for our students,” science teacher Summer Ragosta said. “They are able to get hands-on experience with environmental science concepts, including practical ways to protect topsoil, one of our most valuable natural resources, from erosion and degradation. This has implications that go beyond the garden, and help students gain insight into lessons on climate change, waste management, and biodiversity. I am honored to be a part of this great program.”

The food forest project will demonstrate sustainable urban agriculture and water conservation. Through the installation, students will gain hands-on, practical experience in creating guilds of fruit trees and plants that work together, building earthworks to capture rainwater, build a rainwater collection system and learn about greywater.

The school community is enthusiastic about this exciting program and the connected projects, raising additional funds to build more reinforced and secured seating terraces. The food forest will be at the top of the new amphitheater, creating a welcoming, nourishing space for students and campus gatherings.

“I have imagined this space for many years, as I would be working in the garden at the top of the hill,” said Rick Rodgers, a teacher on campus for 32 years and 1977 St. Patrick alumnus. “Both students and adults will value the serenity of the space. Being tucked away in that back corner creates a sense of privacy and the trees and gardens are beautiful and will become more beautiful each year.”

This demonstration food forest project is supported by a grant from the Solano County Water Agency. The pilot curriculum program and cob bench construction are supported by an ED Plus grant from the Solano Community Foundation.

Photo/interview opportunities:

  • Monday, Oct. 14: In-class introduction to permaculture lesson
  • Monday, Oct. 21: Food Forest installation (planting trees and sheet mulching)
  • Wednesday, Oct. 23: Food Forest installation (planting tree guild understory and drip irrigation)
  • Thursday, Oct. 24: In-class introduction to water harvesting (with hands-on soil erosion lab)
  • Monday, Oct. 28: Water harvesting math lesson (a representative of curriculum funder Solano Community Foundation will be attending the first class period)

Students will be involved in these lessons during the following class periods most days:

    • 9:14-10:07 a.m.
    • 11:23 a.m.-12:16 p.m.
    • 1:57-2:50 p.m.

Oct. 24 class times differ: 

    • 9:50-10:36 a.m.
    • 11:46 a.m.-12:32 p.m.
    • 2:04-2:50 p.m.



Jaime Kim

Director of Development

St. Patrick-St. Vincent

707.644.4425 x452

Nicole Newell

Sustainable Landscaping Program Manager

Sustainable Solano


Allison Nagel

Workforce Development and Communications Manager

Sustainable Solano



About Sustainable Solano

Sustainable Solano is a countywide nonprofit organization that is dedicated to “Nurturing Initiatives for the Good of the Whole.” The organization brings together programs that support and sustain one another and the Solano County community. Initiatives include sustainable landscaping, local food, resilient neighborhoods, sustaining conversations and community gardens. 

For more information about Sustainable Solano, email or visit


About St. Patrick-St. Vincent School

St. Patrick – St. Vincent Catholic High School is the only diocesan Catholic college preparatory high school in Solano County with a century-long tradition of education that supports the success of 465 students every school year.

For more information about St. Patrick – St. Vincent Catholic High School, please visit our website at

Residents Turn Out in Rio Vista to Build Edible Food Forest Garden, Greywater Workshop This Weekend


Around 20 people gathered at a Rio Vista home on Saturday, Oct. 5, to learn about what goes into creating a sustainable, edible, water-wise yard, starting with laying the foundation to capture rainwater in the ground and nourish plants while limiting runoff from the property.

“The first day was filled with community magic,” said Nicole Newell, sustainable landscaping program manager at Sustainable Solano, the organization behind the workshop and garden. “Residents of Rio Vista and surrounding counties came together to meet like-minded people, learn about permaculture and see it in action!”

Newell said participants ranged in age from teenagers to seniors. The homeowners made a taco meal with meat and vegan options.

“One Rio Vista resident said it was truly beautiful to see everyone working together as one,” she recalled.

The day-long workshop was the first of three that will install Sustainable Solano’s first food forest in Rio Vista through the Solano Sustainable Backyards program. Called “Fortune’s Garden,” the food forest will show what can be created from the blank slate of an empty yard in a new development.

Participants Saturday learned about the concept of permaculture, a sustainable design system stressing the harmonious interrelationship of humans, plants, animals and the earth. Designer Lauren Bennett of Bay Wise Gardens talked with the group about food forest gardens and then led them in digging water-capturing swales, moving wood chips onto the site to build healthy soil and hold rainwater and planting trees.

The next workshop will be this Saturday, Oct. 12. Participants will learn how to install a laundry-to-landscape greywater system that diverts water used in each load of laundry to mulch basins around trees and plants in the yard, saving water costs for the homeowner while keeping water on-site and creating a vibrant garden.

The program and the series of installations in Rio Vista are made possible by the generous support of the Solano County Water Agency.

Rio Vista Demonstration Food Forest Installation

10 am-4 pm on Oct. 12 and 19

The address will be available to participants upon registering. Lunch will be provided by the homeowner at each workshop. Please bring hats, gloves, reusable water bottle and sunblock. 

For more information and to register, visit

(More details and direct registration links included below)

Saturday, Oct. 12 – Laundry-to-landscape greywater system

Greywater Action will be leading the workshop to teach hands-on how to install a simple laundry-to-landscape system in your own home. You will learn how to install a simple three-way valve in your laundry room, connect the pipe from your washing machine to your landscape, and how to prepare your landscape to receive the greywater. This installation day begins with a lecture about greywater.

Saturday, Oct. 19 – Learn to install a water-efficient in-line drip irrigation system and plants

We will add plants to the ecosystem as well as drip irrigation, and have an opportunity to see a dead, barren backyard transformed into a customized food forest based on permaculture design principles. This installation includes a short lecture from Lauren Bennett, owner of Bay Wise Gardens, on selecting plants and creating a custom design. 

Topics Covered:

  • Planting a community of plants with multiple functions that support a healthy, diverse ecosystem.
  • Surface drip irrigation installation: adding irrigation for young plants and water conservation.
  • Covering the food forest with free woodchips (mulch) to prevent water evaporation and improve soil health.

About Sustainable Solano

Sustainable Solano is a countywide nonprofit organization that is dedicated to “Nurturing Initiatives for the Good of the Whole.” The organization, now in its second decade, brings together programs that support and sustain one another and the Solano County community. Initiatives include sustainable landscaping, local food, resilient neighborhoods, sustaining conversations and community gardens. 

For more information, email or visit


Photos below should be credited as courtesy of Sustainable Solano. Larger files available upon request.

CSA Farm Spotlight: Riverdog Farm

By Sustainable Solano

This is an ongoing series profiling local farms that have Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) available in Solano County. CSAs create a way for community members to buy a share of the harvest directly from local farmers. Customers pay a set amount and receive a box of seasonal produce or other farm products in return. Such arrangements help farmers receive a greater share of the money paid, bring customers fresh, local produce and promote health, community and the local economy.

Riverdog Farm chickens forage in the farm’s organic pasture


Riverdog Farm owners Tim Mueller and Trini Campbell started the farm on two acres in Napa in 1990 before moving to Capay Valley a few years later.

The certified-organic farm grows vegetables, fruit, nuts and chickens and pigs. It uses a systems approach to farming with compost, crop rotation, cover cropping, hedgerows and integrating animals into the system, providing natural fertilizer for the orchards and fields.

“[Tim and Trini] hoped to provide a stable livelihood for themselves and their employees while practicing good land stewardship and producing high quality food for their community,” Riverdog CSA Manager Lola Quasebarth said.

The farm began offering a CSA a few years after it started and was one of the first organic farms at the Berkeley farmers markets.

Below is a Q&A with Lola about Riverdog Farm:


  • Riverdog Farm
  • Capay Valley
  • 450 acres
  • Established 1990


When did you start offering a CSA? Why was it important to offer?

We first started offering a CSA in Napa in 1994. The Napa farmers markets would close for the winter and many of our customers wanted to keep getting our produce, so we started delivering veggie boxes to the home of one of our longest-running customers (who still hosts a pick-up site at her house now, 25 years later). These days the CSA is central to leveling out the ups and downs in veggie production. The consistent customer base provides year-round stability for our core crew of 50 employees, and allows us to provide healthcare for them. 

Are there special perks for CSA members? Why do people tend to subscribe?

Through surveying and talking with our CSA members, we’ve realized that a huge amount of our customers have been members for quite a long time. They’ve been to the farm for our annual Pumpkin Party in October, come visit us at our farmers markets in Berkeley and Sacramento, and many follow the farm day-to-day on Instagram. Members of our CSA have the opportunity to directly support the many families who work to grow, harvest, pack and deliver high-quality Riverdog meat and eggs, and produce. In addition, our CSA customers can add pastured meat and eggs to their weekly veggie box delivery, and we even partner with a fruit farm to offer their weekly fruit CSA boxes to our customers.

What’s something that makes your farm stand out?

One thing that makes Riverdog so special is our dedication to integrating animals into our cropping system. We farm 450 acres but only 90 acres or so is in vegetables at any given time. We give our land much-needed recuperation time, rotating vegetables with grain and pasture for our animals. Even our orchards get chickens running through them at least every couple of years, helping relieve pest pressure and adding nutrients that our trees will utilize for years. By carefully managing animals on our land, we keep the soil healthy and get to provide incredibly nutritious, delicious pastured meat and eggs to our customers. We’re excited to be offering pork shares so that our customers can get our delicious pork cuts and sausage in bulk. The pork share is a variety of pork cuts, cured meat (bacon!) and sausages, perfect for stocking the freezer.

Anything exciting on the horizon? What do you see happening and what do you want to see happen with interest in local food?

We’re excited to continue selling at our favorite farmers markets in Sacramento and Berkeley and love for our customers to come visit us there. We’ve also been happy to see restaurants in Sacramento and the Bay Area buy more and more from local farms, so now you can find Riverdog produce at many restaurants. You can find a full list of grocers and restaurants who carry our products at:

Anything else you’d like to add?

Customers can find more information about our markets and CSA and sign up at 

Riverdog Farm has Solano County CSA drop sites in Benicia, Vallejo and Vacaville. Learn more about how to sign up here.

Find out more about local CSAs here.

Garden Tools: A Resource for Building Community

By Nicole Newell, Sustainable Landscaping Program Manager

One of the things we love to see in the neighborhoods where we have projects and programs are our community partners each contributing their own efforts to strengthen and grow these communities.

And when there are ways we can support other organizations with goals that complement ours toward building a just, equitable and sustainable environment, we are happy for the opportunity to do so. One such opportunity arose this summer.

Richard Fisher serves on the Vallejo Commission for the Future and Sustainable Solano’s Resilient Neighborhoods Advisory Board. He contacted us about a beautification project that he has spearheaded on the corner of Curtola Parkway and Solano Avenue. This corner has become a dumping ground for trash, furniture and other items, which gives a poor first impression of Vallejo.

Faith Food Fridays is located on this corner and provides an important service to the Vallejo community. The organization supplies food, clothes, household supplies and so much more to families in need. Beautifying this area would create a significant positive impact by giving a new face to Vallejo for people driving into the city and for the hundreds of families that visit Faith Food Fridays.

The vision of this project is to create an open-air art gallery and native plant garden to tell a positive story about the culture and love of the Vallejo community. The first part of the project was to clean up the corner and begin to rehab the soil by adding mulch. That’s where we were able to help.

Generous funding from the Solano County Water Agency and PG&E has allowed us to purchase garden tools used in various workshops and installations. When we are not using them for our own projects, rather than have those tools sit unused, we’re happy to offer them to community organizations as a resource.

Richard approached us about borrowing the tools for this beautification project so a large group of volunteers could get the work done in less time with more tools available. Angel’s Tree Care dropped off a load of free wood chips, and volunteers showed up with energy to clean up the corner and spread wood chips. The next step for the corner is still in the planning stages. Anyone from the community that has ideas or is willing to donate art, please contact Richard Fisher at:

As we enter into our busy season of landscaping projects and planting gardens, our tools will go back into regular use for our projects. But we still want to be a resource for community projects when those tools aren’t in use. If you are part of a community organization planning a project that needs garden tools, check with us for availability!