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.

 

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.

Mini Green New Deal for Benicia: Funding Will Make Education, Conservation Program a Reality

By Sustainable Solano

Sustainable Solano will launch a new program in Benicia that will bring sustainable landscaping training and skills to local landscape professionals and high school students while also helping Benicia residents turn their lawns into sustainable, waterwise food forest gardens in the coming years.

Significant funding provided for the Community Land & Water Caretaker Program is the result of three-party negotiations initiated by the Good Neighbor Steering Committee with Valero and the City of Benicia. The negotiations ended with adoption of a second amendment to the 2008 Settlement Agreement, which had been originally contracted between the GNSC and Valero over challenges the GNSC had posed to Valero’s submission of an addendum to the officially adopted environmental review of the Valero Improvement Project. The current amendment reallocated funds that had been previously distributed to other projects under the original agreement but were determined to be “nonperforming” as they had not been put to use as intended.

Alternatively, the GNSC proposed redistributing those funds to four worthy projects, which Valero and the city reviewed and finally approved. The chosen projects reflect water and energy saving aims that were terms of the settlement: $460,000 for an independent, Benicia Community Air Monitoring Program to be administered by a new nonprofit; $100,000 for Air Watch Bay Area, a public website capturing air monitoring data collected throughout the region; $450,000 for the city to create an Integrated Water Management Plan; and $440,000 for Sustainable Solano’s Community Land & Water Caretaker Program.

In late February, the Benicia City Council after long deliberation voted unanimously to approve the agreement as put forth by the GNSC and Valero — an agreement that will allow us to continue to grow the important work we do in the city where we first started with Benicia Community Gardens 20 years ago.

One of the most exciting aspects of the Community Land & Water Caretaker Program is how it will incorporate education with conservation, helping to teach the next generation of leaders and landscape professionals through a hands-on education and certification program — a training room without walls.

Here are some main benefits of the Community Land & Water Caretaker Program as proposed:

  • Create a new program for Benicia residents to convert their lawns through sheet mulching into environmentally friendly food forest gardens and incorporate greywater systems and rainwater harvesting. These could be done free of charge or for a small fee for the property owner and would help residents reduce their water bills, create more sustainable communities and create more edible landscapes.
  • Offer training for local landscapers and horticulture graduates on rainwater retention, laundry-to-landscape greywater systems and edible landscaping. Those who receive the training would then be hired as contractors for the program. The program not only provides the training and pays for the installations, but gives these landscapers increased exposure to potential customers.
  • Offer internships for high school students to gain experience in sustainable landscaping, including calculating water re-use for the home and creating landscape plans.

The idea builds on the important work Sustainable Solano has done to create food forests within communities, which started with the Benicia Sustainable Backyard Program funded by the Benicia Community Sustainability Commission. That program was able to grow with funding from the Solano County Water Agency — using demonstration food forests in Benicia to inspire gardens in cities throughout the county.

It also draws from what we learned with the Land Caretakers program, funded by the Solano Small Business Development Center in 2016. That program gave us insight into the need for sustainable practices training among landscape professionals and inspired the idea to teach high school students those skills as a means of workforce development.

Based on what we learned from the Benicia Sustainable Backyard Program, a single house that is converted from a lawn to a food forest with laundry-to-landscape and rainwater harvesting systems can save 70,000 gallons of municipal water, divert more than 50,000 gallons of rainwater from the storm management system and make more than 30,000 gallons of that rainwater available for groundwater recharge.

Preliminary estimates show that if 300 Benicia homeowners participate in the new program, converting 300 lawns could result in water savings of 2 million gallons a year; 300 laundry-to-landscape systems would save 7.5 million gallons a year; and rainwater retention would save 14.4 million gallons a year — a total of 22 million gallons of water saved annually.

We are delighted to have a chance to once again plant the seeds of a new program in Benicia that could serve as a model for other communities.

We hope to share more with you about the program as we move forward!

Good Neighbor Steering Committee’s Commitment Pays Off

Our hats off to the five local Benicia women of the Good Neighbor Steering Committee for their tireless work over many years as “refinery watchdogs” to protect our air quality, community health and safety.

The GNSC first formed in 2000 to address the refinery’s change in ownership when Valero made the purchase from Exxon.

For their determination to negotiate with Valero and the City of Benicia to reallocate settlement funds, we thank GNSC members Marilyn Bardet, Mary Frances Kelly-Poh, Kathy Kerridge, Constance Buetel and Nancy Lund, and GNSC attorney Dana Dean. We also thank them for recognizing Sustainable Solano’s contributions to water and energy savings that will be realizable through our new Community Land & Water Caretaker Program.

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/ .