From Bleary-Eyed to Eye-Opening: Experiencing Cob Construction and Curriculum

By Maxfield Shain, Volunteer

Maxfield Shain incorporates a math lesson into the cob-bench construction at St. Patrick-St. Vincent school.

I woke up, bleary-eyed, to a mother (Sustainable Solano’s Nicole Newell) that seemed clear, coherent and insistent that I wear flip-flops to the cob site. This was at 5 in the morning, mind you. She claimed that she was just as exhausted as me, but I was dubious, and not particularly looking forward to the rest of the day. Little did I know it was going to be a heartwarming gathering of teachers and students who collaborated to make a cob conglomerate of a bench (I mean that in a good way, I promise.). But this was before I had become cob enlightened, or “coblightened.”

So all of you Sustainable Solano readers may be asking: What is cob? Well, cob is a combination of sand, soil, clay and straw that, when mixed correctly, forms a substance that is initially like mud. But after a couple of days of drying, it hardens to the point where you can touch it without dirtying your hands. Think of it like sustainable concrete, a concrete that responds to the ebbs and flows of the environment.

Brennan Bird talks with students about the properties and tensile strength of the cob material.

So we get to St. Patrick-St. Vincent Catholic High School, 7:30 in the morning at this point, and I meet Brennan Bird, or Mr. B, as he insists his students call him. We walk up to the cob site, and he has already got a foundation with bamboo set up for the cob bench. When we started filling up foundation bags for the project, I take note of the mud and rocks everywhere, and reflect on how dear mother wanted me to wear flip-flops. Whilst shoveling clay and molding the bench, I was glad I didn’t take her advice, but instead wore boots.  At this point the students came for their environmental science class, and I had to pretend I knew what I was doing for the first several hours or so while working with the kids. After several more classes, with the help of Mr. B’s presentations, I felt like a master of the trade.

Some of the steps in making the cob and building the cob bench

While we were making the bottle bricks (plastic bottles filled with plastic film garbage to stabilize the bench), many of the students were hesitant to get their hands dirty. Prom had just ended, and all the girls still had their nails done. But with gentle encouragement, most of the students joined in on the cob-making. The next day, I even got to teach a class of freshman and sophomores a little bit of algebra from my engineering academy days. All in all, it was a great experience for everyone involved, and I’m looking forward to the day I can make my next cob masterpiece.

The cob bench project Maxfield writes about is a part of the exciting new partnership between Sustainable Solano and St. Patrick-St. Vincent Catholic High School that combines projects such as the cob bench and a demonstration food forest garden with the development of a sustainability curriculum. The curriculum pilot is made possible through funding from the Solano Community Foundation’s ED Plus grant and the demonstration food forest installation is funded by the Solano County Water Agency. Learn more about the program in the press release here and in this Vallejo Times-Herald article.

Big Vision: Sustainability Curriculum and Certification Program for Solano High School Students

By Elena Karoulina, Executive Director

At Sustainable Solano, we are often asked how we come up with our programs and ideas. Our answer: We plant a seed and nourish it until it roots, grows and matures. A seed can be a spark of imagination or an inspiration from a community member, another organization, a book or article, or even a documentary.

We do not rush to put the seed into the ground, we need to ensure it is viable and that the plant it will grow into is strong, healthy and is needed in the community it is planted in. Most programs have been in what we internally call a “concept stage” for months or even years. When the time is right, when the soil is fertile, when rain is in the forecast (for us, that means funding), the seed is planted. Most programs start as a small pilot to ensure we learn the most difficult lessons early, on a smaller scale.

One of these conceptual seeds has been planted this month – our vision for a Sustainability Curriculum for high school students.

Framed by One Planet Living, a sustainability framework from Bioriginal, we envision a comprehensive education and certification/workforce development program aiming to equip young members of our communities and future leaders with a deep understanding of society’s sustainability and resilience, rooted in the system design and appreciation and knowledge of planetary limits, and practical skills to actively participate in the creation of a more just and resilient world.

We envision a four-year curriculum, correlated with California’s state curriculum for high schools, with a focus on the four pillars of the One Planet Living principles: Land & Nature, Sustainable Water, Local and Sustainable Food, and Zero Carbon Energy. The other six elements are softly built into the core curriculum (e.g. Health & Happiness or Culture & Community).

From Bioregional’s One Planet Living framework

We would like to offer a comprehensive standard training to all schools in the county, taught by Sustainable Solano instructors, followed by an optional hands-on practical training and certification. These practical skills will be developed and practiced on real projects in our communities — replacing the remaining lawns, installing greywater systems and solar panels, working in community kitchens and retrofitting houses for sustainability. This workforce development should be followed by paid internships, where funds earned by trainees are deposited into their savings accounts in local credit unions. These payments will not only provide trainees with a starter banking account and start them saving, but will also teach a soft lesson in the local economy. 

The program’s outline as of now is:

Freshman Year: Systems Thinking. Planetary Limits. Protecting and Restoring Land. Permaculture and Biomimicry.

Optional practical training/certification: 72-hour Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC)

Sophomore Year: Sustainable Local Water. Watersheds. Secondary Water (greywater and rainwater). Water Budget for All Landscapes. Flooding and Drought.

Optional practical training/certification: Greywater Installer Training

Junior Year: Local and Sustainable Food. Solano Local Food System. Foodsheds. Climate-Smart Agriculture. Humane Farming. Healthy Diets.

Optional practical training/certification: Food Handler Certification, Cottage Food Operator or State Food Safety Certification (TBD)

Senior Year: Renewable Energy.

Optional practical training/certification: TBD (e.g. solar panel installer)

We will be developing these ideas into solid business plans and grant proposals in the next couple of years. We are beginning to connect with other organizations doing similar work in the county and the state to form partnerships that strengthen each organization and further our missions.

Last month we received funding to plant the first seed: Solano Community Foundation awarded an ED Plus grant to Sustainable Solano to develop a pilot curriculum program in partnership with St. Patrick-St. Vincent School in Vallejo! This very first project will focus on sustainable water and permaculture; the materials designed for the students will enhance their classroom learning, especially math and science classes.  The hands-on practical application will involve building swales to slow, spread and sink rainwater, building a rainwater collection system and learning about greywater. The students will even build an earth bench using natural on-site materials. This project runs in conjunction with a demonstration garden coming to this school under another program, Solano Sustainable Backyard, funded by Solano County Water Agency.

Please let us know what you think about this idea! We are looking for support, partnerships and inspiration to bring this vision to life in Solano County!

Starting your Backyard Orchard Culture

by Kristina Fink

Fruit tree society is constantly evolving. Before we admired fruit orchards with big canopies and lots of space for maximum yields. However, the average homeowner doesn’t have space for a standard size fruit tree that can grow over 15ft tall. To accommodate the height issue, bare root fruit trees have been perfected just for that. So what are bare root fruit trees? They’re an un-potted tree that goes straight into the ground after purchase, bare roots and all. Each bare root tree is grafted on a semi dwarf root stalk that “only” gets up to 15ft tall.

A way of keeping your fruit trees well maintained is by properly pruning it when you first receive it. To do this, you must first prune it back; interfering with its branches and keeping the height up to 4 ft tall. When planning where to place your tree, make sure your planting area has well drained soil, and keep in mind that many bare root trees can die the first year from saturated soil, sunburn or too deep of planting. Additionally, fruit trees can take a few years before they start bearing fruit so if your tree looks unhappy but not dead then don’t worry, she’s just trying to get her nutrients right for fruit!

One way to maximize your personal orchard is by planting several fruit trees in one hole, this may sound crazy but it actually helps maximize your fruit yield, adds variety and gives different ripening times. When thinking about the spacing of your trees, keep in mind that there are many styles of planting, some dig a big circle, some kidney bean shaped, some in a straight line. Another big thing to look for is the branching patterns of your bare root tree since some may need more pruning than others! To get this just right, don’t be afraid to ask your nursery provider how to trim your tree or watch different videos to see how its done. Remember that every tree is different so not all pruning methods will be exactly the same.

 When planning to prune remember that your tree is on a grafted root stock so don’t cut back too far towards the main stem. It’s best to look for trees with branches that start 15”-18” from the ground, then trim branches back 1/2” to 2/3” back. After pruning and planting your tree then its time to wait; after the first year you’ll start to notice nodes for fruit and some height growth. If during the first year you want to prune your fruit trees back, keep in mind how big you want your tree to get. After all, its easier to make a small tree smaller than it is to make a big tree small. Figure out a manageable height for you and your family and stick to it for the years to come! 

Pruning is most important in the first three years because this is when the shape and size of your tree are established. If you prune while there’s fruit on the tree you can see how far the wood has evolved which helps make better pruning decisions.  When picking your fruit trees make sure you know what fits your planning needs, for example some cherries need a mate in order to flower and apricots need more pruning. One of the best ways to find out if a fruit will work for you is by seeing the fruit and nut harvest dates. There are charts online or fruit tree distributors will have them posted in their office for customers to see. Harvest dates are important to know so homeowners can be aware when their fruit is going to be ready. While backyard orchard culture comes with many varieties, it starts with knowledge, bare root trees and patience.

For further knowledge on fruit trees, harvests, maintenance, etc, please visit Lemuria Nursery in Dixon or check out the main distributors website at: http://www.davewilson.com!

Biodynamic Agriculture Symposium Reflection

By Stann Whipple

 Image courtesy of Biodynamic Association

With the Conference title of “Rediscovering the Heart in Agriculture” it was exciting and reassuring to see attendees from many different parts of the United States and even from other countries. From bare feet and boots to beards and hats with sport coats and shawl wrapped individuals; our diversity was celebrated every minute we met as representatives of the people who love and care for the earth–its soil, climate, food and cultural practices.

From the onset of the first open session, and throughout the conference, our thoughts and feelings were guided to remember the thousands of years and millions of people who had lived and cared for the environment we were now sitting on and cultivating. The Red Lion Hotel on Jantzen Island, for example, was once an active fishing ground for the salmon which sustained the lives of the Native Americans who thrived for generations on the ground where we now sat listening, and thinking about how to better care for the earth. We became very aware of how much we had to learn by listening to each other.

Mealtimes and breaks were fertile ground for stimulating and informative discussions amongst diverse and curious ‘strangers’ who were open to becoming better aware of each others views and experiences. Connections were made, friendships renewed or initiated, and contact details were exchanged with abundant smiles and an ‘I hope to see you again soon’. One had to trust fate, and that we were meeting with the people we needed to meet, during the information sessions and meal times. Being in the presence of over 400 people was energizing in itself.

My focus as member of the Sustainable Solano Board was to glean as many ‘nuggets’ from the food and economic sessions as I could fit in. The Thursday before the start of the main conference there were two session dedicated to this theme. Those present shared the many sides of bringing food from the soil to the table. Topics discussed ranged from the multiple factors affecting these processes to the struggles to overcome obstacles to ‘marketing’ produce. Small groups formed to identify specific issues and general conditions needing further discussion.

In the afternoon we heard from three different food producers and had the chance to question, observe and reflect on the successes and challenges they face. It became clearly that what is now providing ‘food for the world’s people’ is unsustainable at best and potentially disastrous for cultures and ecosystems. These sessions left us feeling more informed and with newly formulated questions, concerns, and a renewed resolve to work together for a better and more integrated sustainable food system.

Over all, the Conference brought a richly diverse group of speakers to the main sessions. This was done deliberately, an attempt to broaden and deepen the conversation between those who tend to the fertility of the earth’s eco-systems and those who benefit from them. We heard from amazing and inspiring individuals and groups who were working on rehabilitating distressed natural and social environments. A central thread ran through their stories–people matter and the choices we make matter. They insisted that if the climate of our planet, the animals and the plants are to thrive in the years ahead, we must change our choices. This conference definitely held us all accountable for that and provided relevant information on how to realign our thinking and choice making for a better food system and social/environmental justice for ALL.

I am indeed grateful to the Bio-Dynamic Agriculture Conference team who put the conference together and had the vision to bring us together. We will probably never truly know the scope of the impact of this event had, or the lives it will touch in the years ahead. But one thing is for sure, actions speak louder than words, so let’s get active!

To learn more about the conference visit: https://www.biodynamics.com/ .

 

 

SPICE UP YOUR LIFE AND STAY WELL THIS WINTER!

By Lyta Hamm, Solano County Herbalist and Wellness Educator

With the days growing colder; the winter and cold and flu season is upon us. Practicing good self-care and incorporating herbs and spices in our diet can help keep our health and immunity strong; increasing our odds of staying well and not getting as sick when we do catch something.

BASIC HEALTH PROMOTING PRACTICES AND REMINDERS TO STAY WELL:

  • Sleep 7-8 hours a night. Sleep is an underutilized health elixir with many benefits for your health, immunity and mood.
  • Practice stress reduction in the way that best works for you, whether it is a walk in nature, laughing with friends or yoga and meditation.
  • Get some physical movement in each day, you don’t have to go to a gym; every minute of any physical movement and stretching counts!
  • Hydrate! You might not be as thirsty in the winter months, but you still need water for optimum health.
  • Eat well and eat more fruits and vegetables which are packed full of vitamins, minerals and micronutrients that keep healthy and ward off disease.
  • Add more herbs and spices to your diet!

SPICE UP YOUR LIFE!

Many commonly used culinary spices and herbs have immunity and digestive enhancing properties as well as making our food taste better. Traditionally, most cultures incorporate many spices and herbs in their daily diet to maintain health and prevent illness. Basic food seasonings such as garlic, ginger, hot chilies, horseradish, rosemary, oregano, thyme, basil, sage, turmeric and cinnamon are all useful, especially in the winter season, to promote our vitality.

WANT TO LEARN MORE? 

Attend the “Spice up Your Life and Fire Cider Demo” workshop this month and learn how to use more of the herbs and spices that are widely available and in your cupboard. Learn how to make infused vinegars and watch a demonstration of how to make Fire Cider!

  • WHAT: “Spice up Your Life” workshop on using spices and herbs to stay healthy and Fire Cider demo
  • WHO: Presented by Lyta Hamm, Herbalist and Wellness Educator
  • WHERE: Tune Up Massage Works, located at 1212 Georgia St. Vallejo, CA 94590
  • WHEN: Saturday, December 15, 2018 1:00 pm – 3:00 pm
  • COST: $40 includes a bottle of Fire Cider vinegar to take home

If you can’t make it to the workshop, and still want to make a batch of Fire Cider vinegar, learn from the original creator of Fire Cider, herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JU8U0bDmXks

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.