This Giving Tuesday, Support Sustainable Solano Through Give Local Solano

By Sustainable Solano

Sometimes the gifts we get at Sustainable Solano are the small moments that come out of the work we do. While our work is focused on effecting change within our communities to build resiliency and sustainable living, what happens on the human scale is much more personal:

  • A woman getting to know neighbors and new friends while planning a resilient neighborhood.
  • A man planting in a community garden recalling how his mother prepared certain vegetables during his childhood.
  • Students researching and connecting with the food they grow on campus to send home for families.
  • Farmers connecting in conversation to share practices and ideas.

During #GivingTuesday, Dec. 3, we invite you to become part of fostering that human connection in creating a world that works for everyone. Sustainable Solano is participating in this year’s Give Local Solano. The program gives you a chance to give to area nonprofits that are doing important work in the county. All donations go to the organizations selected, and 100% of the donation qualifies as a charitable gift. Here are more details on Give Local Solano.

While we have a Donate button at the top of our website for any time of year, Give Local Solano gives us a chance to highlight our programs with people who may not have heard of Sustainable Solano and the work we do. We hope those of you who know us, volunteer with us and have joined us for workshops will help spread the word — while every dollar will help bring more programs to the county, every new connection is someone who can help us grow and spread the important work we’re doing to create sustainable landscapes, shape resilient communities, provide education and support local food.

See Sustainable Solano’s profile and donate here on Dec. 3!

CSA Farm Spotlight: Eatwell 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.

Andrew, Lorraine and Cameron of Eatwell Farm

Eatwell Farm in Dixon was started by the late Nigel Walker, a leading figure in the Bay Area organic food movement. (Here’s a talk Nigel gave on the importance of healthy soil and why it is important to the work done at Eatwell Farm.) The organic farm grows hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables to ensure a year-round, diverse supply of produce.

Nigel left a career as a radio engineer with the BBC World Service when he was 21 to go to horticultural college. He then farmed for a few years in England before moving to California.

He “started farming because of true calling and passion,” said Lorraine Walker, who met Nigel in 2005 while working for an aromatheraphy-based skin care company that used some of his extracts in its products. The two began dating in 2007 and married in 2011.

Nigel was diagnosed with cancer in late 2011 and died in 2017. Lorraine has continued to channel his passion and move forward their vision for the farm.

“I am not a farmer, but I have committed my life to this farm, but more importantly to our CSA community,” Lorraine said.

Below is a Q&A with Lorraine about Eatwell Farm:

 

  • Eatwell Farm
  • Dixon
  • 105 acres
  • Established 1997

 

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

Nigel chose the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model specifically because of the community aspect. It is what drives what we do. Putting our members first, rather than wholesale, means we commit to growing to serve their needs. When Eatwell first began over 25 years ago, our outlets were at farmers markets. We are one of the founding farms at Cuesa’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, and we have always been proud of our record of never having missed a market in all those years. After a couple of seasons, and meeting many great customers who were looking for a committed relationship to a farm, Nigel began the CSA with about 45 members. Today we stand at over 800 subscriptions, which means any given week we are feeding close to 2,000 people. That is a lot of lives we touch.

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

I find most of our members are looking to support farms and wanting fresh produce. Some come to us with an understanding of how that direct connection can impact their lives, like learning to eat seasonally, or even better, having a farm to bring their kids to. We open the farm many times throughout the year to host members here for special events like U-pick Strawberry Days, Tomato Canning parties, and our last event was a day of harvesting olives with a pizza lunch. All of our events are private for members and their guests. Several years ago we tried opening them to the public, but we quickly learned that really altered the community/family feeling which our members had come to love, and is one of the reasons many of them stick with us.

What’s something that makes your farm stand out?

I hope what makes us special is us. My son Cameron, and now my step-son Andrew, who recently joined us as our CSA manager, make ourselves very available to all of our members. I write to all of our new members personally to say hello, give them my direct email and phone number to have in case they ever get stuck with ideas on how to use some of the produce, or just talk about the farm. I want all of our members to know that we are here, to help them out and feel like they are welcome to this special place.

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

Learning more about farming, improving what we do, growing our community. More than ever, I think it is critical that we educate people to the importance of supporting their local farms. We are a rapidly disappearing breed, and all of us need much more than a quick pop into the farmers market and a few nice comments on the how good our produce looks. Farmers need the support of the local consumers, not just Eatwell, but all of us — Terra Firma out of Winters, Lockwood Acres in Vacaville are two super local farms who also offer CSA options.

Anything else you’d like to add?

The more we can share with folks the benefit of eating locally/seasonally, the easier it will become for them to make it their way of life. Saying no to New Zealand strawberries in February, and stone fruit from Chile in January, tomatoes year-round from Mexico to wait for them to come in locally means you get to experience them at their best. In some ways we should make many foods special again, something to look forward to, not to have 365 days of the year when most of that time what you pay for is just so inferior. Enjoying those fruits when they are at the peak of their, or rather, our season, also means we are cutting down an enormous carbon footprint with the benefit of supporting local farms and a local economy.

Eatwell Farm has Solano County CSA drop sites in Benicia, Dixon, Fairfield, Vacaville and Vallejo. Learn more about how to sign up here.

Find out more about local CSAs here.

Got Specialty Crops? Sustainable Solano Embarks on New Project, Funded by CDFA

By Stephanie Oelsligle Jordan, Local Food Program Manager

In our mission to create a local food system that is environmentally sustainable, economically viable and socially just, Sustainable Solano applied for a “Specialty Crop Block Program” grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture. We are pleased to announce that we received the grant! The overall purpose of these funds is to support projects that increase competitiveness of specialty crops in California. Specialty crops are primarily those that we eat (fruit, vegetables, tree nuts, culinary herbs) but also include nursery products. As you might guess, over 100 specialty crops are grown in Solano County!

Sustainable Solano’s project is titled “Solano County Farm to Institution and Public Education Project,” and will take place from November 2019 through March 2022. There are four interrelated parts to the project. The first is development of an “info hub” of specialty crops, farmer profiles and collateral materials to promote Solano-grown specialty crops. Second is building a foundation for in-house hospital kitchens and culinary professionals (restaurants/caterers) to introduce one to two seasonal specialty crops per month. We will help bring attention to these foods through signage and other promotional materials developed in the “info hub.” Third, we will host 88 cooking classes all over the county (yes, 88!), to increase knowledge on the health benefits, sourcing and preparation of specialty crops. Finally, we will partner with Solano County Fairgrounds for a special event called Bounty of the County, which will pair farmers with restaurants for special tastings, educational events and more. We will also examine current county policies on agritourism and work to improve those that do not fully serve our farmers.

You might be wondering why “farm to institution” and “public education”? This project is in response to the results of a feasibility study led by our partners at UC Davis, which concluded that pairing farms with institutional customers (not end consumers) would provide a steady demand and allow them to increase capacity. The feasibility study also showed the need for increased public awareness on local, seasonal food around us and education on cooking/preserving those foods. Our place-based public outreach program seeks to establish personal relationships between communities and the farmers/food around them. Our ultimate goal is to have communities that value local food, leading to greater economic stability for our specialty crop farmers.

Stay tuned for updates, and keep an eye out for those cooking classes! We will be looking for people who know how to cook and want to share that knowledge within their communities by leading these classes. If you’re interested or have questions, send a message to stephanie@sustainablesolano.org

Building Alliance Toward Action on Solano County’s Local Food System

By Sustainable Solano

Solano Local Food System Alliance members and key stakeholders during the Listening Sessions.

In the pursuit of building a system that supports farmers and generates demand for local food, Sustainable Solano held Listening Sessions on October 22 and 23 with the Solano Local Food System Alliance to find out what key stakeholders need and want to see accomplished. The two-day event built upon previous efforts in the county, including “food oasis” and corner store makeovers that brought fresh produce into areas that previously had little access, often known of as “food deserts.” The Listening Sessions included farmers, institutional customers such as schools and hospitals, agency representatives and elected officials and were facilitated by Allison Goin, a strategic consultant in food systems and specialist in USDA grants.

Part of the conversation centered around the definition of “local,” which can carry so many connotations that it often means little to those who come across it. Some agencies dictate that local be within 100 miles or 400 miles or even within the same state, which in California covers a vast area.

A recent research article co-authored by Alliance member and UC Davis Assistant Professor Kristin Kiesel found there was more value in branding food as coming from an area or region rather than simply as “local.” In Solano County, there is a strong desire among farmers and other stakeholders to bring back the “Solano Grown” marketing label that lets county producers benefit from coordinated marketing and gives consumers a way of knowing where the food originated.

There was also a lot of interest in farm-to-institution efforts, particularly farm-to-school programs that could bring more food from area growers into Solano County schools and give students a better understanding of where their food comes from and the importance of food quality and good nutrition.

Listening Session participants gather to reflect before sharing a meal

Some have already started to make those connections. Vacaville Unified School District Director of Student Nutrition Juan Cordon recalled working with Cloverfield Farm and one of the district’s produce suppliers to bring seasonal peaches to the serving line — and how delicious those peaches were. Opportunities were floated for student field trips to local farms to see how vegetables that would appear on their lunch trays the next day were grown, and challenges raised, such as the Solano County Fairgrounds’ efforts to get more third-graders to participate in its annual Youth Ag Day.

The farm-to-institution conversation also touched on Sustainable Solano’s work with Kaiser Permanente in Vallejo on a pilot program that will replace some of the fruit and vegetables served in the cafeteria with locally grown seasonal produce and build community awareness through strategic signage that gives consumers a way to learn about the food and farmers behind it. Kaiser Nutrition Department Manager John Healy participated in the Listening Sessions. Through this partnership, we hope to both amplify current opportunities at Kaiser and engage other hospitals in similar work.

Community leaders and elected officials tour Be Love Farm with farmer Matthew Engelhart

The Solano Local Food System Alliance grew out of Sustainable Solano’s local food advisory board, which was an instrumental part of our efforts under our USDA Local Food Promotion Program project. The Alliance brings together a wide variety of stakeholders committed to fulfilling the mission of creating an environmentally sustainable, economically viable, socially just and equitable local food system in Solano County. The Alliance’s work and the Listening Sessions are made possible through a grant from Solano County Public Health in partnership with the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation.

To make a strong local food system sustainable will demand policy action, such as guiding institutions to make a portion of their purchases local or looking at the regulations that affect farmers in rural or urban areas. On Oct. 23, elected officials and policymakers met for feedback on what had come out of the Oct. 22 Listening Sessions and through prior one-on-one interviews with those officials.

County Supervisor Erin Hannigan speaks with gathered officials at the Listening Sessions breakfast

Many of the concerns came down to two categories, Sustainable Solano Executive Director Elena Karoulina said: Community Health and Community Wealth. There was an understanding that good, nutritious food advances the health of a community and good farming practices mean healthy water, air and soil, she said. There was also an interest in keeping money spent local, building that local economy.

The Listening Sessions were held at Be Love Farm, a regenerative farm in Vacaville, and included tours of the farm, which gave some participants a first-time look at how the systems on a farm can work together to create healthy soil and healthy food. Discussions on local food and farming extended to questions and conversations on the tour. We’re grateful to Matthew and Terces Engelhart for the beautiful setting and farm insight vital to the meetings.

Many of the participants noted that the conversation gave them a better understanding of the other players involved in the local food system and the resources that may be available to them through those connections.

Following the sessions, participants were ready to direct their energy toward action. There was excitement around supporting a local food system among those who attended and a desire to move that forward, including building community awareness and consumer demand, creating policy that supports agriculture and prioritizes local food sourcing, not just the lowest bids, and continuing to make connections and share resources to grow the market locally for local farmers.

The Alliance will meet again in January. But you can take steps to support local food now. Check out our Local Food Guide here and find out what’s going on at our Local Food Happenings page. Join a CSA and get fresh produce while supporting an area farm. Do you have a role in the local food system and want to be part of the conversation? Contact Local Food Program Manager Stephanie Oelsligle Jordan at stephanie@sustainablesolano.org

 

CSA Farm Spotlight: Riverdog 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.

Riverdog Farm chickens forage in the farm’s organic pasture

 

Riverdog Farm owners Tim Mueller and Trini Campbell started the farm on two acres in Napa in 1990 before moving to Capay Valley a few years later.

The certified-organic farm grows vegetables, fruit, nuts and chickens and pigs. It uses a systems approach to farming with compost, crop rotation, cover cropping, hedgerows and integrating animals into the system, providing natural fertilizer for the orchards and fields.

“[Tim and Trini] hoped to provide a stable livelihood for themselves and their employees while practicing good land stewardship and producing high quality food for their community,” Riverdog CSA Manager Lola Quasebarth said.

The farm began offering a CSA a few years after it started and was one of the first organic farms at the Berkeley farmers markets.

Below is a Q&A with Lola about Riverdog Farm:

 

  • Riverdog Farm
  • Capay Valley
  • 450 acres
  • Established 1990

 

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

We first started offering a CSA in Napa in 1994. The Napa farmers markets would close for the winter and many of our customers wanted to keep getting our produce, so we started delivering veggie boxes to the home of one of our longest-running customers (who still hosts a pick-up site at her house now, 25 years later). These days the CSA is central to leveling out the ups and downs in veggie production. The consistent customer base provides year-round stability for our core crew of 50 employees, and allows us to provide healthcare for them. 

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

Through surveying and talking with our CSA members, we’ve realized that a huge amount of our customers have been members for quite a long time. They’ve been to the farm for our annual Pumpkin Party in October, come visit us at our farmers markets in Berkeley and Sacramento, and many follow the farm day-to-day on Instagram. Members of our CSA have the opportunity to directly support the many families who work to grow, harvest, pack and deliver high-quality Riverdog meat and eggs, and produce. In addition, our CSA customers can add pastured meat and eggs to their weekly veggie box delivery, and we even partner with a fruit farm to offer their weekly fruit CSA boxes to our customers.

What’s something that makes your farm stand out?

One thing that makes Riverdog so special is our dedication to integrating animals into our cropping system. We farm 450 acres but only 90 acres or so is in vegetables at any given time. We give our land much-needed recuperation time, rotating vegetables with grain and pasture for our animals. Even our orchards get chickens running through them at least every couple of years, helping relieve pest pressure and adding nutrients that our trees will utilize for years. By carefully managing animals on our land, we keep the soil healthy and get to provide incredibly nutritious, delicious pastured meat and eggs to our customers. We’re excited to be offering pork shares so that our customers can get our delicious pork cuts and sausage in bulk. The pork share is a variety of pork cuts, cured meat (bacon!) and sausages, perfect for stocking the freezer.

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

We’re excited to continue selling at our favorite farmers markets in Sacramento and Berkeley and love for our customers to come visit us there. We’ve also been happy to see restaurants in Sacramento and the Bay Area buy more and more from local farms, so now you can find Riverdog produce at many restaurants. You can find a full list of grocers and restaurants who carry our products at: www.riverdogfarm.com/markets

Anything else you’d like to add?

Customers can find more information about our markets and CSA and sign up at www.riverdogfarm.com/csa 

Riverdog Farm has Solano County CSA drop sites in Benicia, Vallejo and Vacaville. Learn more about how to sign up here.

Find out more about local CSAs here.

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.