The Narratives of Permaculture

By: Gabriela Estrada, Project Coordinator for Sustainable Solano

As a new member of Sustainable Solano, I have had the pleasure of interacting with different members that play key roles in advancing a message of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. While the message is clear and the work that has been put forth just as fantastic, it has been even more interesting discovering the instances and uniqueness of everyone’s relation to different aspects of sustainability and permaculture.

This month in Vacaville, while reflecting on this, I had the pleasure of learning about sustainable landscaping through presentations from local sustainable landscape experts, Jeff Barton and Kathleen Huffman.

The first of three workshops were led by Jeff Barton, whose lighthearted and authentic demeanor allowed for his audience to become engage and comfortably ask questions. During his presentation, Jeff spoke about his journey through sustainability and the tremendous impact that joining Sustainable Solano and digging his first swale had on him. This experience made him realize that “The solution to a lot of the problems is embarrassingly simple: We need to go back to basics and ask what the soil needs”.

This statement immediately allowed for people to reflect on and to firmly nod their heads. As the presentation continued, it became more of a conversation, and people voiced questions and concerns, to which Jeff did his best to answer, given his experience with similar problems. He shared that getting a pineapple sage plant, helps monitor the water of the entire garden, since it’s a plant that is very receptive to water usage, and encourage everyone to get one. I’m currently still looking for one.

While he spoke, it was clear that what he is passionate about the land and the people in it. For Jeff, it is a people first approach that will be key in making the world more sustainable. As such, we were encouraged as an audience to do just that, take care of our neighbor by sharing surpluses.

As the workshop continued, it was interesting to see how engaged people were and how responsive they were to the topic by chiming in their own ideas. While I really appreciated the level of engagement from everyone, what caught my attention the most was the level of engagement that his son (one of the youngest people in the room) had about the topic, and how full of curiosity he was. Given that he is the next generation, I see a bright future ahead of us.

For the second and third workshop, I had the pleasure of hearing from Kathleen Huffman, who proudly shared with her audience that she was from Oklahoma and that she still said things like “Ya’ll”. After a couple chuckles from the room, she shared her experiences of growing up on a farm in Oklahoma, with wind mills, and the ways that her upbringing shaped her future. Throughout her talk, we got to see pictures of how she transformed her own backyard and  learned about her design process.

She shared how everyone can become more sustainable simply by changing our way of thinking and “finding better ways to take care of the soil in ways that makee sense for our needs”. As the presentation continued, it became clear that Kathleen was passionate about creating systemic long-term solutions for the world, and that the way she approached solutions was shaped by her own lived experiences.

In both workshops, Kathleen shared tricks she learned along the way that had helped keep her garden pest free like using coffee grinds from a local coffee roaster to take care of slug problems and using worms as little workers of her yard. As I saw her audience quickly writing notes and ask questions, I realized that one of the things I appreciated most about hearing her talk was her narrative and how she approached issues by observing and doing her research.

The principles of permaculture are Earth care, People care and Fair share ,and it is exactly these principles that both Jeff and Kathleen embody in their Sustainable Landscaping classes and efforts. Though they both come from different walks of life and relate to issues differently, one thing was clear: they both authentically showcase their love for the land and their belief in mixing the old and the new in order to create present-day solutions. And, while one of the main goals of creating a sustainable landscape is to conserve water, by attending these workshops, I gained so much more than tips to reduce my water usage. I got to see how two different passionate people use their authentic narrative daily to showcase solutions and to increase the possibilities of what the future can look like.


Solano Local Food System Update: Advisory Board Meeting 3

By Stephanie Oelsligle Jordan, Local Food Program Manager

Sustainable Solano’s Local Food Advisory Board had their third meeting on September 18, 2018.  This group was formed to support Sustainable Solano’s Local Food initiative, launched in October 2017, with the help of a USDA Local Food Promotion Program planning grant (to see a full list of Advisory Board members, click here).  The meeting was graciously hosted by Solano Community Foundation in Fairfield, CA.  (Many thanks to all the SCF staff who helped with set-up, lights and technology!)  The meeting began with an overview by Elena Karoulina, Executive Director of Sustainable Solano, who stated that our original project – examining the feasibility of Community Food Centers in Solano County’s seven cities – has outgrown itself.  We have gone beyond the grant and are now envisioning a larger Solano County Local Food System, which will require an alliance among farmers and other stakeholders in the County.

The USDA working group studied existing demand segments in the County:  charity food, retailers, prepared food businesses (i.e. restaurants), and institutional customers.  To get a better sense of the supply – and really understand the needs of our local farmers – we reached out to over 50 local farmers in the County and conducted interviews.  We have at least 12 farmers who are interested and willing to work on the vision of a sustainable, local food system in Solano County.  Another area of study was successful business models, which we could use as a springboard for our own business plan.  These groups included Ceres Community Project (Sebastopol), Three Stone Hearth (Berkeley), Fresh Approach (Concord), Capay Valley Farm Shop (Esparto) and Sierra Harvest (Nevada City).

Next, Kristin Kiesel of UC Davis provided a summary of the data collection process.  Her team has been working to map out the supply in Solano County as accurately as possible.  They used data from aggregated data sources, including the 2012 Ag Census and 2017 Solano Crop Report.  Disaggregated data (farm-level data) was available via the interviews by the working group, and Certified Producer Certificates, which farmers acquire so they can sell at farmers markets in Solano County.  Her next step was to see where these data sources all connect and to identify the overlap.  Also, she and her team have formal requests in to the U.S. government, to acquire more detailed and current Census data.  All of this data, and the resulting findings, will go into the feasibility study for the project.

Following this report was an open discussion around what type of business plan makes sense, for our next step.  Simone Hardy, Solano County Agricultural Commissioner, also provided a brief history of Solano Grown, and where it stands now.  Greg Morrison and myself summarized a 6-week pilot, where he organized logistics of getting local farm products to a kitchen, I cooked dinners (using local product availability as the base for my menus), and then those dinners got delivered to the participants.

Conclusions and findings are as follows:

  • We need to strengthen the infrastructure of Solano’s agricultural community – perhaps in the form of a farmer’s collective/co-op.
  • Farmers need the most assistance with marketing and distribution of products.
  • We need to build community awareness and education around the value of local food, and the system that would support it.
  • We are considering partnering with Economic Development departments in Solano’s cities.
  • We should connect farmers to institutions first (as opposed to end consumers), to ensure consistent demand.
  • We need sustainable relationships between farmers and their customers.
  • We need strong partnerships with organizations and stakeholders, within the local food system.
  • When considering food access, our best efforts will be in “farm to school” program implementation.
  • Our planning process needs to include as diverse a group as possible (i.e. minority farmers, diverse community members).

The meeting ended with everyone listing on paper the values of a local food system.  We will compile these values and let that guide us forward.

Creating Community Through Edible Landscapes in Vacaville

Since the launch of its Sustainable Backyard program in 2014, Sustainable Solano has created 15 food-producing, self-sustaining demonstration “food forest” gardens across Solano County on both public and private land. These gardens are primarily irrigated by secondary water sources (diverted roofwater, laundry-to-landscape greywater systems). The food forests are designed based on a permaculture design system of food production that utilizes the wisdom inherent in natural woodlands and the understanding of beneficial relationships between plants to create and support landscapes that grow food for human use.

The program officially expanded to Vacaville in mid-August. Since the launch, sustainable landscape classes have been offered to Vacaville residents covering sustainable landscape design, wise-water practices and permaculture.

On Saturday, October 13th, residents will have a hands-on opportunity to help create Vacaville’s first private demonstration food forest garden, alongside their community, by attending the first demonstration installation workshop. The selected homeowner is a long-time Vacaville resident with a vision to transform his front yard from barren, dead grass to an oasis of edible and beneficial trees and plants. This demonstration food forest garden will be named “Healthy Futures” with the goal of providing nourishment and serve as a community asset to learn about sustainable landscaping.

All are invited to help transform this lawn into a thriving ecosystem fed by secondary water sources. The garden will take three full days to complete and each public installation workshop will be hands-on.

This first workshop will focus on digging swales, diverting roofwater, planting fruit trees and sheet mulching to increase water-holding capacity and improve soil health. On Saturday, October 20th, with the guidance of Greywater Action, attendees will learn about greywater use and how to install a laundry-to-landscape system that diverts water from your washing machine to your garden reducing the need for potable water irrigation. Day three, Saturday, October 27th,, will wrap up the project with attendees planting a community of plants with multiple functions that support a healthy, diverse ecosystem, installation of water efficient in-line drip system.

The selection process for these sites are based on criteria such as yard access, greywater feasibility and sun orientation. Sites are assessed and selected by Sustainable Solano’s Advisory Board made up of dedicated Solano County residents aiming to raise sustainability awareness in Solano County.

There will be yearly ongoing workshops and tours of these demonstration food forest gardens on private and public land in each city.  This project is made possible by funding and support of the Solano County Water Agency.

Regenerate Culture: from the Women of Abundance Gathering

By Marlen Otten, Board Secretary, Sustainable Solano

A new movement is emerging throughout the Bay Area where women are connecting to collaborate and embrace their visions for a sustainable and regenerative future for all. Conversations arise about the concepts of abundance, sustainability and what it means to be “regenerative”.

To explore these concepts more deeply, Alexis Koefoed of Soul Food Farm had envisioned for a long time to host a special event at her Soul Food Farm on the outskirts of Vacaville. On Saturday, September 22, 2018, this vision became a reality when women and men gathered at her farm for the first-ever “Women of Abundance: Women Entrepreneurs in the Regenerative Culture, Economy, and Community” event.

The key theme of this gathering was the exploration of the meaning of “regenerative”. It was proposed that “regenerative” is defined as a “living, evolving and naturally functioning environment where abundance and resilience are recurring outcomes of its underlying health”. This idea is closely linked to wide-ranging economic factors throughout our communities in Solano County and the Bay Area. To create regenerative local economies, awareness and education help strengthen the relationship with local food producers and consumers towards an ecologically balanced system. “Regeneration” is also the central theme of the work at Sustainable Solano. Our interest in and commitment to regeneration is at the heart of what we do as we continue to work on our vision for an environmentally and economically sustainable and socially just local food system in our county.

At this unique gathering, a panel of six successful Bay Area women entrepreneurs and farmers was led in discussion by Erin Walkenshaw, who is part of a new movement of spirited women in the Bay Area who are breaking new ground in the world of farming. The panel included Kelly D. Carlisle of Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project, in Oakland, Elisabeth Prueitt, co-founder of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, Nicolette Hahn Niman of Niman Ranch in Bolinas, Rebecca Burgess, Executive Director of Fibershed and Chair of the Board for Carbon Cycle Institute, Helena Sylvester, co-owner and lady farmer at Happy Acre Farm and Jessica Prentice, co-founder of Three Stone Hearth, the nation’s first Community Supported kitchen.

The panel of women leaders shared in one word about the stage where they are at currently, which ranged from transitioning to transformation, surrendering and doing less, highlighting how there is an ebb and flow in life while maintaining a sense of abundance. The participants explored their individual meaning of abundance and their vision for a regenerative agriculture – how to build and shape the traits that give women the strength and empowerment to lift themselves up to continue their work.

The panelists also revealed lessons women can use to reaffirm the support they have historically shared with one another to become successful and what they would do when things get tough, including the need to be in communication with each other. They examined the abundance model versus the competition model, the role of money and power as well as the meaning of equality versus fairness, or the lack thereof, in today’s society. All agreed the need for policies that would support healthy soils as part of a healthy ecology.

This conversation about regeneration and abundance was topped off with culinary delights by local Solano County producers. Attendees we able to explore the goodness of local olive oil and farm eggs, honey by Pleasants Valley Honey Co., fragrant lavender products by Girl on the Hill and they were able to enjoy local oven-baked pizza by Bella Fiamma and local organic cream by Documentary and portrait photographer Paige Green of Petaluma shared her inspiring exhibition of panelist portraits under the big olive tree, where attendees shared inspiring paper notes with their interpretation of the meaning of abundance.

We are grateful for Alexis Koefoed’s vision and taking the initiative to make this inspiring event happen. Events like this bring together the hearts and minds within the community and empower participants to take part in the creation of a sustainable and regenerative future we strive for, and we look forward to the next event.

Resilient Neighborhoods. Stronger Communities: A Vision For the Future

Richard Fisher, of the Vallejo for the Future Commission, reflects on the state of the world and talks about our shared vision for our Resilient Neighborhoods project we plan to pilot in Vallejo next year. 

Understanding Biomimicry

Biomimicry, as Richard describes it, is the practice of emulating biological forms, processes, and systems to address human challenges. He is particularly keen on applying this innovation to enable cities to function like ecosystems. For example, parts of cities—including buildings, streets, parks, industry, community programs, etc.—can be induced to perform ecological functions that serve the larger whole. This includes filtering water, cycling nutrients, cleaning the air, fostering biodiversity, storing water, building healthy soil, and regulating local temperatures like local native ecosystems.

Companies have begun to understand the economic value of the services that ecosystems provide—“how much would it cost a company to purify water, like a watershed would, for free?” Puma and other future-facing companies are conducting environmental profit and loss (EP&L) reports on the impacts of doing business. The environmental loss is readily understood—Puma is measuring exactly how much clean water, a gift from the watershed, it uses or pollutes to create a shoe. Richard is working on how to enhance the environmental profit side of the equation—“How much clean water can a product, company or city create for its watershed?”

Richard explains, “By challenging cities to meet or exceed the ecological performance of local native ecosystems, cities can become generous contributors of conditions that foster a safer, healthier and more resilient world. Not only do our local native ecosystems provide metrics for resilience, they also provide a model for how to get there. In addition to ecological performance, a city can set social performance standards based on community values like those of Vallejo’s recent General Plan Update Guiding Principles. Strategies for addressing these social aspirations can be sourced from native ecosystems as well as nature is teeming with models of anything from coordinating housing, to cycling resources, to cultivating community.”

With these social and ecological performance standards, cities can evaluate decisions based on the extent to which they positively or negatively affect progress toward their social and environmental goals. This degree of transparency would empower communities with tools to hold decision-makers accountable and gives them the information they need to push for policies that align with community values. Perhaps most exciting is that achieving ecological performance can provide a means for achieving social performance and vice versa.

As an example, Richard ties the two together by asking, “How can filtering water, sequestering carbon, supporting biodiversity, etc. create meaningful jobs, increase access to healthy food, and lift people out of poverty?”

With this type of thinking, meeting these aspirational goals in Vallejo provides a pathway for social innovation, new jobs, and more social engagement. These benefits can also help promote more sustainable culture, lift people out of poverty, and enhance the community’s quality of life as a whole. Richard is currently working with Sustainable Solano on a resilient neighborhood project to pilot these concepts.

This work in biomimicry is closely related to Greenbelt Alliance’s work to create sustainable and resilient communities—“Cities that are conducive to life,” as Richard would say. Through biomimicry, he asks “How can we leverage the genius of native ecosystems to inspire socio-ecological standards in our city?”

As Greenbelt Alliance promotes sustainable infill development throughout the Bay Area, we can frame the creation of our cities and towns through this biomimicry-inspired lens. By turning them into sustainable ecosystems, we can help our cities and towns meet the demands of more individuals. Doing so also helps prevent the need to sprawl outward into suburban and rural areas where the lands simply aren’t equipped with the resources to create a thriving urban ecosystem.

Turning Potential into Action

From Richard’s perspective, one of Vallejo’s main challenges is that it has limited resources to address community needs. It is a city that is trying to stay afloat after bankruptcy with a backlog of basic services waiting to be met. Adding to the scarcity of resources is the lack of external funding for community non-profits—Solano County has by far the lowest per capita giving in the Bay Area, at about $3. Too often, this lack of resources results in Vallejo missing out on opportunities and applying band-aid solutions rather than solving problems at the roots.

Richard elaborates, “Vallejo has the capacity within it to solve its challenges but needs bold leadership to nurture a culture of possibility and resource innovation. Look at how ecosystems deal with scarce resources. By drawing upon biological inspiration for cycling nutrients in closed loops and cultivating cooperative relationships, we can identify more effective ways to leverage Vallejo’s existing talents and resources.

I am currently working with multiple organizations on initiatives to foster greater connectivity between community needs and assets. One of the community assets I believe is underutilized are Vallejo’s anchor institutions—the medical and educational institutions that are the largest employers in the city. The employment, purchasing, and investment power of these institutions, along with those of the city government, as potential assets that can be utilized multi-functionally to more effectively meet community needs.

I am currently organizing a summit to bring community leaders together to constellate community needs with these assets. The goal is to leverage the capacity of anchor institutions for local training, hiring, investment, and procurement to catalyze policies and programs that achieve shared community performance values. While adopting an Anchor Mission represents a huge lever for changing the way Vallejo thinks about its resources, I believe that tapping into human capital on a small scale can also have major impacts.”

The people of Vallejo are caring, friendly, and hold a lot of pride for their city. In Richard’s view, Vallejo’s residents should be empowered to use their talents and passions to improve their home. This belief led him to start a microgranting potluck dedicated to celebrating and empowering community projects in Vallejo.

Taking Stock of Vallejo SOUP

Richard’s love for his city is perhaps most visible in an event he brought to the city earlier this year, Vallejo SOUP. Originally held in Detroit, Michigan in 2010, SOUP events invite community members to gather together and crowdfund support for local projects, all while eating “soup,” which attendees bring for a large potluck community dinner. Recognizing his neighbors’ passionate desire to better their city, Fisher was confident Vallejo SOUP would be a success. But the results immediately exceeded his expectations.

Richard expected a crowd of around 30 for Vallejo SOUP’s first gathering back in April. Instead, he was thrilled to see 65 people show up, more than doubling his expectations. Over the course of the evening, the attendees watched as four project groups each presented a proposal to improve Vallejo. The crowd was treated to proposals on mental health, youth theater, homelessness, and a city bike plan.

“Vallejo’s greatest strength is its people, who care deeply about making their city a better place.”—Richard Fisher

During the evening, the generous and enthusiastic crowd donated $1,500, which was awarded to the four project groups as prize money. After this initial success, Fisher hopes to organize another event every few months. That way, he can keep nurturing residents’ interest in local activism and community participation.

Richard’s efforts are an excellent example of how just one resident can drastically improve his community by strengthening the social fabric to create greater resilience. One individual’s actions can be a catalyst for much-needed social change, especially when backed by other inspired community members. Greenbelt Alliance’s Development Endorsement Program functions similarly, but on an organizational level. It is a way to promote community health and environmental sustainability within cities and to inspire more smart growth by leading with individual examples.Richard’s sustainability-focused efforts also remind us to look to nature for solutions to our modern problems.

Richard Fisher is a Vallejo local applying the principles of biomimicry to community building. Richard’s background in engineering and education in biomimicry trained him to think at the systems level—to see how all of the interrelated and interconnected components of a city, like Vallejo, can be leveraged to create a cohesive sense of place and a thriving city. He has spent the last two years studying unique ecosystems—from the Canadian Rockies to the rainforests of Costa Rica—with an interdisciplinary team, seeking innovative solutions to the social challenges of our time.

If you or someone you know is doing exciting and innovative smart growth or conservation work, email Solano County Regional Representative, Amy Hartman at