Caretaking of Nature and Community: A Conversation Between Wendell Berry and Helena Norberg-Hodge

By Sustainable Solano

We’ve been doing a lot of thinking on the need to move to an economy that is informed by the indigenous ways of caring for both our local communities and our environment. So imagine our delight when we read a discussion between local economy advocates Helena Norberg-Hodge and Wendell Berry that ranges across human nature, technology, experiential knowledge, agriculture policy, happiness, wildness and local food systems.

Helena Norberg-Hodge is the founder and director of Local Futures, which works to renew ecological, social and spiritual well-being by promoting a systemic shift toward economic localization through decentralized, regional economies. Wendell Berry, poet, author and activist, is known for his advocacy for ecology, rural life and small-scale farming.

With permission from Helena Norberg-Hodge, who first recorded the conversation for her Local Futures podcast, we are reprinting a short excerpt below from the version that ran in Orion Magazine:


Norberg-Hodge: It’s also important to realize that the real problem is not human nature, but what I think of as an inhuman system. One of the biggest problems we’re facing is that the system has become so big that we can’t see what we’re doing and what we’re contributing to. Our economic system is of such an inhuman scale that it has become like a giant machine — a global juggernaut that’s pushing us all into fear and a terrible sense of scarcity.

Berry: What one has to say to begin with is that, as humans, we are limited in intelligence and we really have no reliable foresight. So none of us will come up with answers to the whole great problem. What we can do is judge our behavior, our history, and our present situation by a better standard than “efficiency” or “profit,” or those measures that we’re still using to determine economic decisions. The standard that I always come back to is the health of the world, which is the same as our own personal health. We can’t distinguish our health from the health of everything else. And we know enough from the ecologists now to know that health is a very complex and un-understandable complexity of relationships that makes the world whole.

Norberg-Hodge: Rather than those economic measures you referred to, the goal needs to be human and ecological well-being. And when people are more dependent on the living community around them — both the human and the nonhuman — then it becomes obvious that their well-being is connected to the well-being of the other.

Berry: It seems to me that it all depends upon our ability to accept limits. And the present economic system doesn’t even acknowledge limits. It is “develop[ing] resources” — which is to say, turning resources into riches (which is to say, money) — which leads almost inevitably to destruction. Money is an abstraction. Goods are particular, and always available within limits — natural limits, and the rightful limits of our consumption.

Norberg-Hodge: And in order for us to see those limits, we need a more human-scale, localized economy.

Berry: It would mean even more if we said a community economy, and we meant by economy the original sense of “household management” or “housekeeping.” That would imply taking the best possible care of the life supports of, first, the household economy, then the neighborhood economy, then the community economy. And we can go on from there on the principle of community, if we take it in the sense of “what we all have in common,” and an obligation to take care of all of it. But it will only be manageable locally, and within limits — the limits, among other things, of our own intelligence and our own capacity to act responsibly.


For the full conversation, which delves more richly into the interplay of the economy, the environment and the shift from global to local, listen to the podcast here or read the full transcript here.

New CSA in Benicia!

By Stephanie Oelsligle Jordan, Local Food Program Manager

Photo of the contents of an Eatwell Farm CSA box, courtesy of Eatwell


Hey local food fans! We are excited to announce that Eatwell Farm in Dixon is planning to distribute their CSA boxes in Benicia!

Eatwell grows all organic vegetables and fruit, and also offers essential oils, flavored salts and pasture-raised chicken eggs. Eatwell has been supplying the Bay Area with their wonderful farm-fresh products for over 20 years, and they are now the first Solano County-based farm distributing in Benicia.

Not familiar with CSAs? CSA stands for community-supported agriculture and is a vital part of building a local food system. Participants commit to buying regular boxes of seasonal produce and other farm products directly from local farmers. This gives subscribers the freshest local, healthy produce, while also supporting a local food system. With a CSA, local farmers can retain a greater share of the money paid for the food they produce and there are the environmental benefits of not shipping food over great distances.

Located near Military and East Second Street, Sustainable Solano’s CSA site in Benicia features both a central location for pick-up as well as complementary products from other farms (meat, eggs, fish, pantry items, etc.).  It’s one-stop shopping for truly local food!

Let’s support our local food economy and eat healthy food at the same time! If interested in subscribing to Eatwell’s weekly box, please contact Noelle at or 707-999-1150 or create a log-in account and sign up for Eatwell Farm here.

Sustainable Solano Celebrates Our Beginnings At ‘Our Benicia Roots & Soil’

By Sustainable Solano

It’s been 20 years since the organization that would become Sustainable Solano put down roots through the creation of the first community garden in Benicia, and on Saturday, we recognized the most important element in making that happen: the people.

More than 50 people gathered at Harvest Presbyterian Church, the place where so many seeds of Sustainable Solano’s growth have been planted, to celebrate their involvement with the organization.

Special guests Dr. Erik Swenson and his son, Kai, attended in honor of Dr. Ed Swenson, the force behind the creation of Benicia Community Gardens, starting with the garden at Heritage Presbyterian that now bears his name.

“Dad loved this town a lot. He loved all the people,” said Erik Swenson, Ed Swenson’s son. “I wish he were here. He truly would have enjoyed this.”

Marilyn Bardet, Erik Swenson and Kai Swenson at the celebration

Board Chairwoman Marilyn Bardet spoke about the years of work that led to the 1999 groundbreaking of the intergenerational community garden at the church led by Dr. Ed Swenson and the Healthy Benicia Task Force as a way to encourage healthy food and community sustainability. She talked about incorporating that vision into the Benicia General Plan, which created a public-private partnership around the endeavor.

An important part of the celebration was to recognize the many volunteers, community partners, past board members and advocates who have helped to shape Sustainable Solano and given it the strong foundation needed to grow and flourish over the past 20 years.

“We’ve been very fortunate in the kinds of help we’ve received and the types of responses we’ve gotten,” Marilyn said.

Bits of history adorned the walls as participants nibbled on breakfast items from local shops and farms and discussed their roles with Sustainable Solano over the years. A slideshow traced the progression from Benicia Community Gardens through the creation of the orchard, numerous sustainable backyard food forest gardens and more.

Kathleen Huffman and Elena Karoulina at the celebration

As Sustainable Solano grew, it maintained its vision around local food, extending that concept from intergenerational gardening to community food access. This manifested into new programs: the CSA program; the Benicia Community Orchard, also at Heritage Presbyterian; and, with new attention to the tenets of permaculture, Benicia Sustainable Backyard.

Through such programs, the seeds were planted for the growth of programs in Benicia and throughout the county, Executive Director Elena Karoulina said, once again focusing on the people who made such things possible, including those volunteers who helped launch the programs and later made their way onto the organization’s advisory boards and board. She also discussed designers who have helped grow the reach of permaculture, such as David Mudge, who launched Benicia Sustainable Backyard, and Kathleen Huffman, who went through permaculture design training and then became the designer and contractor for Solano Sustainable Backyard that brought the concept to other cities in the county. The program now has 19 gardens and counting, has 1.2 million gallons of annual positive water impact, and thousands of people have been educated through the hands-on installation workshops. Kathleen is leaving in July to return to Oklahoma, where she plans to foster similar permaculture programs.

“Our Benicia seeds are going nationwide,” Elena said.

Seven new designers will undergo training in the coming months to take on Kathleen’s role here at home.

“Ripples keep going out y’all,” Kathleen said, talking about the knowledge she will take with her to share with a new audience and how much her involvement in the movement has meant to her. “I am so moved and so full of gratitude and honored.”

The celebration ended with a look toward the future as Sustainable Solano continues in its mission of “Nurturing Initiatives for the Good of the Whole.” Elena talked about how the organization continues to grow and add new programs that expand that mission in Benicia and around the county, such as the Urban Forest and Solano Gardens programs, Resilient Neighborhoods and the Local Food System program. And how new generations will gain valuable skills through planned high-school and workforce training programs, including the Community Land & Water Caretaker Program planned for Benicia.

“We believe, as Dr. Ed Swenson did, that hands-on learning through actual practice opens awareness when hearts, minds and bodies are engaged in meaningful work,” Marilyn said after the event. “Food is central to survival. We have to work to grow it. Doing the work helps us see the necessary changes we must make in the way we do business and conduct all aspects of our lives as lived in community.”

Saturday’s celebration was the first of several we plan around the county this year. Following this recognition of our roots, we plan to celebrate in the coming months the stem of growth throughout the county, the flower and seeds that are spreading far and wide. We hope you can be a part of these upcoming events as we honor the importance of the people who have shaped Sustainable Solano through the years and are moving us forward.

View a gallery of photos from the celebration below

Our Benicia Roots & Soil

Next Economy: Making Sense of Our Banking System

By Stann Whipple, Sustainable Solano Treasurer

On March 7, a group of about 25 gathered at Green Hive Spaces in Vallejo for the third session of our “Next Economy” Conversations Series. From the beginning, we dived into the key issue of our current economic system: Who issues money and who decides on its use and how?  Elena Karoulina and Stann Whipple presented new insights into why the current financial system is going the way it is and how we might begin to alter that course, based on concepts they learned at the recent workshop given by Marco Vangelisti through the Permaculture Institute in Santa Cruz.

Our money supply has three forms: 0.03% is in coins minted by the U.S. Treasury; 25% is paper notes printed and controlled by the Federal Reserve; and the remaining “money value” is accounted for electronically through the balance sheets of major banks as members of the FDIC. Banks can lend nine times against their savings. The Federal Reserve, which is privately owned by its member banks, has no constraints as to the amounts it can add to the money supply. As the banks and the Federal Reserve are mostly privately owned, the motive to make profits for their investors influences strongly where and how their money assets are allocated. Since the middle of last century the financial sector of the “market” has received over 70% of capital investments.

Historically — during the first half of the last century — there was still the understanding about earned and unearned income in the economy and how the role of the financial sector (banks and Wall Street) increased the wealth of all sectors through investments in the industrial and commercial sectors of the economy. In our evening presentation, we saw several charts depicting the change and separation of wealth in favor of the upper 5% of the population starting around 1970. Perhaps not coincidentally, the rise of neo-classical economic theories began to take precedent in the universities and financial markets around that time.

The current neo-classical view makes no distinction between earned and unearned income. The classical view of the “free market” stipulated that ONLY earned income should be “traded” in the economic markets. This was a deliberate step to move away from the feudalistic system of landlords and peasants where the landed gentry exacted “payments” as owners of the land. “Free” meant that income from labor and non-monopolistic activities was “earned” and income from rents on land, monopolistic profits and interests was “unearned.” The latter was deemed a re-allocating of values — not adding new values to the wealth of the economy. This has resulted in labor, land and capital to be traded as commodities.

Given this shift in defining what and how values can be recorded on the accounting balance sheets (along with corporations being accorded the same rights as “persons”),  the disparity between the upper 5% and the remaining 95% will continue. The evening concluded with two presentations about recent initiatives striving to work more democratically with investment in property from Ojan Mobedshahi with the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative in Oakland and for a local food system from Paula Schnese, a founder of Cultivate Community Food Co-op here in Solano County.

We can look forward to the next conversation on April 4 giving us further understanding for the economy and how to shape it to serve our local communities for the future.

The funding for Sustainable Solano’s team training at the “Next Economy” course at Santa Cruz Permaculture was provided by Solano Community Foundation through their NPP Capacity Building grants program. Community conversations are made possible through a grant from the Peaceful World Foundation. Thank you to both organizations!

We will continue to share insights at upcoming workshops at Green Hive Spaces in Vallejo in the coming months. Please join us at one or all of these events to further the discussion on the next economy in our community.

Restorative Economics, 6 pm, April 4

Join us for a discussion on different strategies for a just transition to a more sustainable, equitable and just economy. Restorative economics takes a restorative justice approach to restoring and reinvesting in low-income communities of color through the establishment of community-owned and community-governed projects for self-determination and shared prosperity.

Designing the Regenerative Economy, 6 pm, May 2

Join us to discuss the design principles and strategies needed for vocation and regenerative enterprise design. We’ll discuss how we could redesign the economy for security, prosperity and a stable climate with transformation based on permaculture design principles, methods and ethics for an economy that benefits all life.

Garden Tour: Join Us For a Demonstration Food Forest Tour and Talk!

By Nicole Newell, Sustainable Landscaping Program Manager

Interested in learning how to turn your home into a sustainable, bountiful oasis? Curious about water, climate and practical solutions you can apply in your own backyard?

Join us Saturday, April 27, for talks and tours of 10 demonstration food forest gardens in Benicia and Vallejo.

These private back and front yards are open once a year for a self-guided tour. Each garden is a unique experience: some are compact front yards, others are on a slope, some share space with animals and small children, some are allowed to grow without restriction, while others are more manicured. They all are lush, food–producing gardens that are fed by secondary water sources (laundry-to-landscape greywater and rainwater). The food forest keepers (homeowners) will be available to share their experience and to answer questions about their custom gardens.

The day will start at 9 am with a presentation by permaculture expert Lydia Neilsen at Avant Garden in Benicia. This empowering talk provides an understanding of permaculture and practical solutions for how each of us can contribute to the restoration of the global water cycle and climate stability. From there, you will get to tour the food forest gardens and see how these practical solutions can be applied to your landscapes through simple designs. (A select group of attendees will have a chance to learn more about permaculture through a private garden tour with Lydia. Find out more about the “Dig in Deeper” special track and register here.)

The demonstration food forest gardens will be open 9 am-2 pm. Stop by Avant Garden between 9-11 am to pick up the list of gardens to tour. You can also sign up that morning to join Lydia on a guided tour of one of the demonstration food forests.   

At 2:30 pm, Dog Island Farm in Vallejo will host a guided tour of their working urban farm and the new Grow a Pear Nursery. Vallejo-grown plants will be available for purchase that day at both Loma Vista Farm and Dog Island Farm to add to or begin your own food forest garden!

Register here.

This program is made possible by the generous support from the Solano County Water Agency.