Food is Free Benicia Shares Bounty with Foodstand

By Heather Pierini, Food Forest Keeper and Food is Free Benicia

I grew up gardening. My grandparents grew a vast (to me) backyard garden with rows of peppers and tomatoes and onions and every other vegetable that I ignored because I didn’t like those as much. I would sit in the shade of the plants during the hot Central Valley summer and eat tomatoes fresh from the vine or peppers straight from the plant. The smell of hot soil, tomato leaves and humus; the sharp, sweet taste of warm vine-ripe tomatoes; the humidity of the garden are some of my most treasured memories.

My grandparents lived through the Great Depression. They were incapable of seeing anything go to waste. We made sauces and canned them. We made preserves and jams and jellies. We brined olives and ate them year round. My grandmother washed every container to come through her kitchen to reuse. Every plastic bag was washed and hung to dry on clips over the sink. To do any less was wasteful. But even with the help of grandchildren, there was inevitably too much for one family. This is where my favorite part of the summer came in.

Whenever someone walked by, my grandfather would chat with them over the fence. By the end of the conversation they would be loaded down with zucchini and tomatoes. If they were particularly nice, maybe even a jar of olives. I was graced to grow up seeing that a garden can be a gathering spot for a chat, a connection point for the neighborhood and a bounteous source of food for those who choose to share.

Now I am in the privileged position of having a large, south-facing, sun-drenched backyard with plenty of room to indulge in nostalgia and add my own twist. Several years ago I read about a garden stand with the slogan #foodisfree. I dug a little deeper and found the Food is Free Project based in Austin, Texas. From the website: “The Food is Free Project is a worldwide movement of people growing and sharing food freely. We encourage connecting with your neighbors by planting a front yard garden or sharing your harvest with a #foodisfree table.” This was the first time I had heard of people organizing how to share excess homegrown food but in a very organic, low-key way.

Heather’s Birds, Bees & Beyond garden

About five years ago, I started putting extra food on a toddler’s table at my sidewalk with a paper sign taped on that said #foodisfree. Fairly often someone would grab the food, but I was rarely there to chat or connect. Two years ago, I found a wonderful wooden display stand and decided to repurpose that as my “foodstand.” I added a chalkboard with a larger #foodisfree sign. More people came, and I got to chat with some of them.

This year has been different. I am struggling with health issues that keep me from my garden. In June I still put the garden stand up, hoping to fill it with produce that grows even without my help. Not much got put into the stand. In July I fell in the garden and ended up with a fracture in my leg. I was banished from the uneven ground of the garden and ended up sitting on my couch feeling sorry for myself. Then someone dropped off some squash and cucumbers. I was delighted. It was the most fun I’d had in days. There’s not much to be entertained by in the summer with a broken leg. I decided I would start a Facebook page for my food stand.

Food is Free Benicia was officially created! It turns out that a lovely woman, Barbara, who had enjoyed the food I shared in previous years, decided to drop off the produce. I put up some pictures and shared the link to several local groups and the page has taken off. Now the stand is fairly self-sustaining with dropoffs and pickups happening several times a day. I post what food is available, usage ideas and garden-related information. The Food is Free Benicia Facebook page now has over 200 followers. It has expanded from just produce to spices, herbs and canned goods. I met a lovely young woman interested in starting a #foodisfree stand at her apartment building. We got together and I shared some of the things I have learned and offered to help in any way. Food is Free Benicia Waterview is now open!

My leg is almost healed now and I am back in the garden with renewed energy due to the influx of visitors. My daughter helped me paint an old bench from the backyard and we moved it up by the stand. Now, when someone stops to grab an apple they can sit in the shade and enjoy the garden. I have had the chance to meet many of the garden visitors lately. One older gentleman, David, bikes past every day. I often see him stop, grab a few apples or pears, eat them and drop the cores in the compost bucket. Today I was heading out on an errand and guess who was resting on the bench? Yep, David. It turns out he bikes daily for exercise but often gets tired midway. Our stand offered a quick blood sugar boost and now a lovely spot to sit as well.

I am excited to share the foodstand with our community. It has given me much joy and happiness during a very difficult time. I can’t wait to see what the future has in store.

Food is Free Benicia Holds

Swapluck Garden Party

Food is Free Benicia will host its first Swapluck from 11 am-2 pm Sunday, Sept. 22.

Join others who are interested in sharing abundance for swapping and sharing seeds, plants, cuttings, food and whatever else you would like. No gathering is complete without food, so bring a dish to share. (You do not have to bring anything to participate.)

More details here

Heather Pierini is a food forest keeper through Sustainable Solano’s Benicia Sustainable Backyards program. Her garden, ‘Birds, Bees & Beyond,’ is on our annual tour of permaculture food forest gardens, and now home to Food is Free Benicia.

Help Students Build Skills While Building Your Resilient Community

By Allison Nagel, Workforce Development Manager

Volunteers work on a lawn conversion in Vallejo’s first Resilient Neighborhood

Sustainable Solano is entering an exciting new phase this school year with our latest area of focus — workforce development — which is creating new opportunities for students and Benicia residents.

This year, our Land and Water Caretakers program for high school students will launch at Liberty High School in Benicia. Students at Liberty High will have a chance in the coming months to listen to engaging speakers and attend field trips to some of our Benicia Sustainable Backyards to learn about permaculture and food forests and build interest in sustainable landscaping.

Then, starting in January, students who join the Land and Water Caretakers internship training will have the opportunity to learn about what goes into creating and maintaining sustainable landscapes, building life and leadership skills with a strong hands-on component.

We are able to offer this program in Benicia thanks to a generous stream of funding. The program fits into our long-term vision of creating a sustainability curriculum for youth that helps them think about the effects their actions have upon the environment and society and how that perspective fits into work in landscaping, water conservation, the food system and energy.

As the new workforce development manager, I am excited about where we are headed with this vision and what the creation of this year’s program will bring to students and the community. We are already in conversation about growing the program.

Students who successfully complete the Land and Water Caretakers program this spring in Benicia will have increased insight into how systems work, better understanding of a range of green careers and have employable skills in sustainable landscaping. They will be eligible for a summer Permaculture Design Course (PDC) free of charge and the chance to earn a weekly stipend for assisting with that course, building financial literacy along with new skills. Those who finish the summer PDC will have an internationally recognized certification.

One of the benefits of the Land and Water Caretakers program is it not only gives students new knowledge, but can also help to make Benicia neighborhoods more sustainable. As part of their hands-on lessons, students will create edible permaculture food forest gardens at local homes that are fed by rainwater capture and greywater systems. We’re looking for those homes now.

The Living and Learning demonstration food forest in Benicia

We’re hoping to find Benicia residents who want to change to a sustainable yard, moving away from water-hungry lawns and chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And we would like to find neighbors interested in creating something beyond a single sustainable yard — similar to our Resilient Neighborhoods communities in Vallejo that bring together several neighbors on the same street. Benicia properties will be selected for the Land and Water Caretakers program, which runs from January through April, and the PDC, which will be during the summer months. Property owners commit to the program as well as participating in future annual tours to let others see how sustainable landscaping techniques were incorporated into the garden.

If you’re a Benicia resident interested in this program, please fill out our Sustainable Landscaping Interest Form to find out if you might be a candidate. All forms should be submitted by Oct. 18 for consideration for this year’s program. Submissions after that date will be considered for future programs.

 

Sustainable Solano Brings Edible Food Forest Garden to Rio Vista

Rio Vista residents interested in learning sustainable ways of building and maintaining an edible, water-wise yard will get that chance in a series of three workshops at one Rio Vista residence. This marks the expansion of Sustainable Solano’s Sustainable Backyards program into Rio Vista.

The series of workshops, over three weekends in October, will create “Fortune’s Garden.” The yard will show what can be created from the blank slate of an empty yard in a new development to use water wisely while creating an ecosystem that is both beautiful and functional.

The Sustainable Backyard Program introduces the concept and practice of permaculture to Solano County. Permaculture is a sustainable design system stressing the harmonious interrelationship of humans, plants, animals and the earth. The core of permaculture is design and the working relationships and connections between all living things.

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. 5, 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 SustainableSolano.org/events

(More details and direct registration links included below)

DAY 1: Saturday, Oct. 5 – Laying the Foundation

We will be laying down the foundation of this edible garden: digging on-contour swales, making berms, diverting the roof water and planting trees. Break ground with friends and neighbors and learn how to use water wisely while creating an environment where life-supporting plants thrive. This installation day includes a short lecture from Lauren Bennett, owner of Bay Wise Gardens, on how to build a food forest. 

DAY 2: 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.

DAY 3: 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 info@sustainablesolano.org or visit sustainablesolano.org

Alliance Advances Conversation Around Creating Local Food System

By Allison Nagel, Communications Manager

Solano Local Food System Alliance members discuss the need to build community awareness about local food.

The Solano Local Food System Alliance held its first official meeting at the end of August to discuss how to foster a strong local food system within the county.

Though the Alliance is a new entity, its work grows out of the efforts of many Alliance members during the past two years as the Local Food Advisory Board. In that capacity, the group of leaders, including farmers, and those in private businesses, public agencies and local organizations, shaped the foundation of the tasks the Alliance will take on and address during quarterly meetings.

The advisory board’s work supported the vision to diversify, expand and safeguard a local, healthy food economy that will preserve farmland, its integrity and biodiversity in the county, and ensure food access for all our communities. The mission set before the Alliance is to do the work needed across stakeholders, organizations and agencies to create an environmentally sustainable, economically viable, socially just and equitable local food system in Solano County.

At the August meeting, Alliance members started the conversation and set goals toward accomplishing that mission. They discussed the challenge farmers face from the fees involved in selling their food at different venues, reviving marketing efforts around promoting food grown in Solano County, the need to gather better data about food grown and bought in the county and planning events that help promote local food, such as Bounty of Solano County, an event that would be held at the Solano County Fairgrounds to promote local growers and restaurants.

The Alliance received updates on ongoing efforts and discussed next steps.

Alliance members enjoyed seasonal items from local farms during their meeting.

Sustainable Solano continues its efforts to build a network of institutional customers, whether healthcare providers, schools or other institutions, that will source more of their food from local farmers. Part of that project aims to educate the public on where the food is coming from — building stronger community awareness of local food and offering experiences that help build consumer preferences for local food. There was discussion of promoting a “5 by ’25” approach, which would encourage that institutional customers and individuals seek to spend 5% of their food spending on local food items.

In October, Alliance members will meet with each other and key community stakeholders and policymakers for intensive listening sessions. Those sessions are supported by tribal funding that targets systems change, allowing time to work together to suss out the vital components of creating change in the local food system. More direction and action items will come out of those meetings.

Action items to be revisited at the January Alliance meeting include:

  • Determining the fees farmers pay and analysis of what is driving those fees.
  • Revitalizing marketing efforts for food grown in the county.
  • Informing Sustainable Solano of new retail and restaurants that source locally.
  • Moving Bounty of Solano County forward for 2020.
  • Starting a conversation around policy.

August’s Alliance meeting included a presentation on best practices from Greenbelt Alliance’s Amy Hartman, who also sits on the Solano Local Food System Alliance.

She discussed the value of encouraging policy change, such as urging Solano County cities to allow urban agriculture (Vallejo is the only one that permits urban farms at the moment). She talked about framing such conversations around new uses, such as San Francisco’s classification of “neighborhood agriculture” and focusing on the benefits to public health and activating vacant lots.

Curious about the Solano Local Food System Alliance? Learn more about the USDA grant that led to the creation of the Alliance and find out more about the group’s work here.

CSA Farm Spotlight: Terra Firma 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.

Paul Underhill, Paul Holmes and Hector Melendez of Terra Firma Farm

 

Terra Firma Farm is a certified-organic farm that has been growing fruits, nuts and vegetables year-round for more than 25 years and supports dozens of employees.

The farm started in 1984 when Paul Holmes and his friends started farming a few acres in the hills west of Winters under the name Sky High Farms. Paul was one of the founding members of the Davis and Berkeley Farmers Markets.

Eventually the farm name became Terra Firma, as Paul Underhill and Hector Melendez became co-owners. The acreage grew over the years as demand for local, high quality, organic produce rose, CSA Manager Alicia Baddorf said.

“The owners recognized the desire of city folks to reconnect with local farms and know more about the source of the food that they and their families were consuming,” she said.

The farm has offered a CSA for more than 15 years.

Below is a Q&A with Alicia about Terra Firma Farm:

 

  • Terra Firma Farm
  • Winters
  • 200 acres
  • Established 1984

 

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

We started offering a CSA in 1994 at a single site in San Francisco’s Mission District. We were one of the earlier farms to offer a CSA program, feeling that it was important to bridge the gap between urban folks and the food chain.

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

CSA members get to enjoy fresh, seasonal and local produce every week. Subscribers who pay a larger amount up front receive a bonus, and those who refer their friends receive a referral credit. People tend to subscribe because they are looking for a good source of fresh, local, quality fruits and vegetables. Many people also want to support a small farm that uses organic practices that align with their values.

What’s something that makes your farm stand out?

We are committed to providing sustainable employment and encouraging local economic development. We provide full-time, year-round employment for our workers. We employ roughly 10 times as many people per acre as most farms in our region. By selling, packing and delivering our products ourselves (adding value) we are able to offer a range of jobs that allow employees to move vertically as their careers progress.

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

We are always adjusting our crop plan and working on a feedback loop. This year we have been working with Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms, who is trialing a mix of his tomato varieties on one of our properties. He develops wacky and beautiful looking tomato varieties, so it has been exciting for us to learn about and harvest new varieties of tomatoes that add some flair to our mixes.

Anything else you’d like to add?

We are always looking to offer fruits and vegetables to more households in Solano County. If anyone is interested in hosting a pick-up site in exchange for a weekly box of produce, please contact me for more information: csa@terrafirmafarm.com

Terra Firma Farm has Solano County CSA drop sites at the Benicia CSA Center and near Orlando Court in Vacaville. Learn more about how to sign up here.

Find out more about local CSAs here.