Tangible and Valuable: Permaculture Design Course Shapes Program Work

By Gabriela Estrada and Kassie Munro, Program Managers

The OAEC Permaculture Design Course cohort that included Sustainable Solano Program Managers Gabriela Estrada and Kassie Munro

During Sustainable Solano’s restorative summer break, we traveled to Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, a research, demonstration, education, advocacy and community-organizing center in West Sonoma County, where they develop strategies for regional-scale community resilience and the restoration of biological and cultural diversity. For two weeks, we joined 30 other people in an intensive Permaculture Design Certificate program – frequently referred to as the PDC.

While Permaculture Design Courses follow a standardized curriculum to ensure that those who get their PDC receive comprehensive training in all of the critical systems design components, each program has a unique approach to how they immerse students in the permaculture experience, which for us meant living in yurts on the 80-acre OAEC property as part of their intentional community for the duration of the program.

Upon arrival on the first day, we all sat in a circle and were asked why we decided to attend the PDC training. What quickly became evident was that a lot of our fellow PDC-ers wanted to learn about permaculture design not only to create beautiful gardens, but to heal the earth and the people on it. As the days progressed this became more evident. Cohort members came from all walks of life and from all over the world! We had Mimi from Taiwan and our yurt-mate Mounir from Dubai. Their goal was to create a space of sustainability and social cohesion in their properties back home. Their generous attitudes were not unique among our cohort.

The course itself was both incredibly rigorous in its training, and yet at times also felt remarkably like summer camp. Nestled in the lush Duck Bill Creek watershed of Western Sonoma County, the property boasts a number of incredible gardens, restored forest and grasslands, an irrigation pond (which doubles as a swimming hole), and countless trails to get lost on. Communal vegetarian meals cooked in the shared kitchen with ingredients from the gardens were shared three times a day.

While living on-site, the property became so much more than a demonstration classroom, and the experience became so much more than simply an education. With course topics covering everything from cob building and composting to botany and global water systems, the training is incredibly holistic. We even had an afternoon dedicated to learning the art of fire-making. The social permaculture teachings truly came to life in the communal living experience where we had the chance to feel and live a different way based on designing social structures to favor beneficial patterns of human behavior and attempting to create conditions that favor nurturing and empowering relationships with each other.

The course culminated in a group design project, which for us focused on a nearby 7-acre plot of land that had recently been acquired by the Cultural Conservancy. Indigenous wisdom and learning the heritage of our host land was a focal point of the training. This came in many forms: first a small presentation by The Cultural Conservancy, then a trip to the actual site in the city of Graton, which is Southern Pomo Coast Miwok Territory. During this site visit, we all took notes, pictures and asked members of the Cultural Conservancy what they envisioned for the space to better understand their hopes and aspirations for the place. As a group, we were grateful that we were allowed to participate in a project that aims to create an inter-tribal bio-cultural heritage farm and indigenous education center. Together in a team of five, we created designs that represented all the different topics we were taught, and then on the last day presented it to the Cultural Conservancy.

It was a true honor to be a part of a tangible and valuable regenerative restoration project during our course. Belonging to an organization such as Sustainable Solano, whose core principals are permaculture-based, it has been very valuable to obtain Permaculture Design Certification. As program managers, this certification will allow us to infuse permaculture design principles and guiding ethics more deeply into our work, allowing us to continue shaping programs that approach sustainability through the lenses of social, environmental and economic equity.

Eco Farm 2019: Looking at the Future of Farming

At the end of January we spent a few intense days at the Eco Farm Conference, which is becoming our annual tradition. Away from the complexity of daily routines and a web of Sustainable Solano activities, we were able to focus exclusively on the emerging local food system in our county and to learn from leaders and advocates of this movement.

While the topics of discussion were many, the key idea was clear: Feeding seven billion people is not a small task and agriculture is here to stay. The major question is, what kind of agriculture? As the conference progressed, we spent time reflecting on the consequences of using synthetic nitrogen introduced in the early 20th century, which allowed the production of massive amounts of “cheap” food at the cost of a decrease in quality and nutritional density of this very food as well as the degradation of the planet. This overproduction of commodity crops for profit supported intensive population growth, but the quality of food did not ensure health for the majority of humanity.

We also discussed the importance of yield and how we pushed nature to its limits with our intensive technologies, beginning with the Green Revolution. It became clear that reproduction is the biggest energy sink, and that plants exhaust their energy reserve to deliver the higher and higher yield we demand from them; compromising all their other systems in the process. This results in weak plants that are susceptible to pests and disease and require an increasing number of pesticides, herbicides and other poisons to simply survive.

Eventually we will have to wean ourselves from synthetic fertilizers and return to a more balanced way of producing food. Critics of holistic agriculture (such as true organic, biodynamic, permaculture, regenerative agriculture and others) are quick to point out that the yield of these approaches will not support the demand of a growing population. However, there is such a distortion of truth in the global food economy, where subsidies and tariffs obscure the true cost of food. These costs include the cost to the communities and the environment. We produce grains for cattle, corn for syrup, and food for profit, making it difficult to assess available land and other resources to produce simply food.

As we always say, Solano County is a microcosm of the world. We have two types of agriculture side by side all around us. Large industrial agriculture produces over $350 million worth of products annually that are exported to 44 countries. Smaller, community-oriented farming is here too! Organic farms, such as Eat Well Farm, Cloverleaf, Lockwood Acres, CoCo Ranch; sustainably managed Brazelton Ranch; the lavender fields and olive groves of Soul Food Farm; Ilfar; farm stands; and wineries of Suisun Valley and Pleasants Valley need our support and attention!

Together with our community partners, we are seeking to strengthen our local food system, make it economically and ecologically sustainable and socially just. Justice and equity of food systems was another key focus of the Eco Farm Conference this year. We heard from numerous organizations from across the nation struggling to build a more equitable world. This is an enormously difficult area, with no clear answers yet, but with many promising and inspiring examples and leaders emerging all over the country.

Indigenous wisdom was another key component of everything we discussed at the conference. Biodiversity in and around fields is a crucial component of sustainable agriculture. Time-tested, wise ways of managing our local ecosystem must inform any work done in local agriculture and local food systems.

The three days of the conference were packed with technical knowledge and assistance to the farmers, with topics ranging from tractors to taxes, and with many workshops for the support ecosystems,  FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act), food hubs, marketing, legal, policy, even grant writing.

We gathered together at the last hour of the conference, tired but inspired and excited to continue to carry this work forward in our communities. The last key speaker brought us back to where it started and where it all needs to point to: to the sacredness of nature and food as its gift, to the reverence for Earth and all forms of life, to interconnectedness and interdependence of everything and everyone…

Soil is the foundation of life and soil fertility is what life depends upon. Resilience is fertile!

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

The Shalom demonstration food forest installation wrapped up Saturday.  This was phase one of a larger goal to create a community garden in Vacaville.  The past few weeks have been incredible community events, but the devastation of the fires and shootings weigh heavy on my heart.  In spite of the smoke, people showed up and as a team we installed the Shalom garden.  In spite of the fear of violence, Pastor Sue and husband Jim opened their home and served lovely meals.  The fair share ethic in permaculture was embodied on these Saturdays:

Kathleen brought pineapple guavas.

Ron, Sue and Neely shared their bounty of pomegranates.

Kevin and Jessica brought tools and strength.

Kristina from Lemuria donated two flats of vegetables.

Divina brought her infectious joy.

There are too many generous acts of kindness to list.

With facemasks on, members of our Solano community came together to build a garden and somehow exist between the speechless beauty and bottomless grief.

Even though I felt deep gratitude, for the kindness of the community, I awoke on the Sunday after the final installation feeling weepy and moving around my home directionless.  Then I remembered that I came home from the installation with pomegranates!  I got lost researching pomegranates and the best way to separate the seeds for juicing.  As I separated the arils, I had a few bowls next to me. The worms got the membrane; the chickens received some of the arils that I was too lazy to separate.  I pressed a beautiful burgundy apple pomegranate juice for my family and saved the peels of the pomegranate in the freezer to make a tea.  While I got lost in the task I listened to the Mr. Rogers documentary, “Won’t you be my Neighbor?”  The tears began to flow as he relayed his mother’s advice that when something is happening that is scary to always look for the people that are helping.  I just spent three Saturdays surrounded by the people that are helping.

Permaculture Convergence 2018

By: Nicole Newell, Sustainable Landscaping Program Manager

Permaculture enthusiasts from all over the country and beyond gathered at the Solar Living Institute to attend three days of workshops, keynote speakers, panels, skill shares, ceremonies and so much more.  This was a gathering of authentic people genuinely working at creating a world that works for everyone.  I walked away from the convergence inspired by the community initiatives. Here are a few that stood out:

Ann Kreilkamp, the founder of Green Acres Permaculture Village, spoke about this intergenerational, intentional community.  Located in a suburban neighborhood in Indiana, it includes three adjacent homes, permaculture gardens, pathways and common areas (two greenhouses, a workshop space and a chicken house). A small CSA has evolved from the garden and every Thursday, a meal is shared.  Ann aims to transform the paradigm from a culture of complaint into a culture of creativity.  She gave an example of a “mistake” made in the placement of a structure.  A cob wall and pizza oven was built in a location that resulted in a neighbor complaint to city officials.  Ann was angry at the neighbor yet had the wisdom and self-reflection to pause before acting.  The residents at the village recognized that this structure was placed on the edge of the property and saw the flaw in the design.  They decided that instead of fighting the complaint that they would break down the wall through a “Ceremony of Impermanence” and have a community potluck.  More time was spent looking for solutions in a group as opposed to brooding on the problem.

A network of changemakers is growing through NorCal Resilience.  This organization was founded in 2013 by Susan Silber and is committed to building resilience in our communities.   The Resilient Hubs initiative is a new project aimed at creating neighborhood centers that demonstrate ecological features, prepare for disasters and engage the community.  Jessica Bates owns Rising Spring Farm, a private home in the El Sobrante hills that is a growing example of this model.  This urban farm displays many elements of permaculture design (swales, berms, perennial vegetables, composting and greywater use).

While working in her front garden, Jessica naturally began to talk to inquisitive neighbors and a connected community started to emerge.  Now a group of 12 neighbors shares a tool library and hosts work parties, crop swaps, and monthly neighborhood gatherings. They even purchase bulk food together.  During one meeting they made a sign to place in the front window in the event of a disaster; one side it said OK, the other side said Need Help.  It was a simple way to prepare for unexpected challenges during the times we live in.

How do we begin creating a site like this within our own communities?  Community hubs are based on relationships. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Go to where people already are. Work with existing networks within the community and begin to partner through shared goals.
  • Show up to events and share what you have to offer. What are the needs and assets of each person, organization?  How do we begin matching the needs of one person/organization and the assets of another?

There was synergy at the Permaculture Convergence.  I was inspired seeing so many people and organizations partnering on projects, trying new initiatives, making mistakes, learning and actively working at building community.

Sustainable Solano in Vacaville!

[Click here for full Daily Republic article]

Sustainable Solano is a grassroots, county-wide movement uniting people and their initiatives aiming to serve the future of Solano County, to promote ecologically sustainable, economically and socially just communities. The organization had been expanding its mission of sustainable gardening since 2011 to include all forms of sustainable local food production (urban agriculture, permaculture, wise water landscape practices, Community Supported Agriculture partnerships and public education). Benicia Community Gardens changed its named to Sustainable Solano in 2016 to reflect its current scope and growing reach to actively engage all of Solano County. Sustainable Solano provides opportunities to local community members across the county to participate in four main initiatives: sustainable landscaping, local food movement, a community conversations speaker series and a sustainable neighborhoods pilot expanding on the sustainability framework to include renewable energy and shared small local solutions. Since 2016, its programs have extended to Vallejo, Fairfield and Suisun City.

Sustainable Solano will be launching its Sustainable Backyard program in Vacaville this August bringing educational, hands-on learning opportunities for residents interested in sustainable landscaping and wise water landscape practices to feed a landscape. This program focuses on transforming lawns and unproductive landscapes into lush, food-producing gardens fed primarily by secondary water sources (laundry-to-landscape greywater system and rainwater) and also brings inspiring talks on sustainable landscape design and permaculture principles.

The Vacaville Sustainable Backyard program will launch on August 11, 2018, with a talk by the permaculture expert Lydia Neilsen at Morningsun Herb Farm in Vacaville. The application period will be open to Vacaville homeowners and community public spaces to apply to become “food forest keepers” and have their yard transformed into a demonstration food forest garden. Highly visible, front-yard lawns are preferred but other types of landscapes (up to 2,000 square feet) are welcome to apply. Details about this expansion and a downloadable application will be available on the website homepage from August 11-September 21st.

Sites are assessed and chosen by Sustainable Solano’s Advisory Board made up of dedicated residents aiming to raise sustainability awareness in Solano County.  Site selections are based on criteria such as: yard access, greywater feasibility, sun orientation and a commitment to community education.

There is no financial cost to Vacaville homeowners interested in being a part of this community-building project. The program will offer a series of free, hands-on public educational workshops where locals can learn about permaculture design and be part of the installation of these edible ecosystems fed by secondary water sources. There will be an annual tour of these demonstration food forest gardens.

The Sustainable Backyard program has successfully completed 15 demonstration food forests on both private and public land since the initial launch in 2015.  Names given to these gardens are a reflection of the hopes and aspirations of the homeowner as part of their vision for the world they want to live in. Suisun City homeowner and food forest keeper of “A Growing Future” demonstration garden, Cassandra, had her lawn replaced with what she calls “a secure source of local food for my family with a surplus to share with the community”. For food forest keepers in Solano County, these gardens are a source of inspiration, resiliency and connection with neighbors. For Benicia food forest keeper Nam, the garden provided something else aside from birds, bees, flowers, fruits and vegetables. “This garden provided a place for meditation and a peaceful space during difficult times for our family.”

This project is made possible by the funding and support of the Solano County Water Agency.

The Sustainable Backyard will expand to Dixon and Rio Vista in 2019.  Visit www.sustainablesolano.org and www.facebook.com/sustainablesolano for updates and details about this expansion.

In addition to self-sustaining, water-efficient landscapes, Sustainable Solano also envisions an environmentally and economically sustainable local food system. In September of 2017, it was awarded a planning grant by the USDA to begin developing a business plan for Community Food Centers in all seven cities. These food centers will serve as a hub for local food activities: CSA deliveries, cooking classes, and community education increasing access to seasonal, locally-produced food, better health for residents county-wide and a stronger local food economy.

[Click here for full article]


From Airman to Daisies: Suisun Wildlife Center Pollinator Project Draws in Community

By: Nicole Newell, Sustainable Backyard Program Manager

The work at Suisun Wildlife Center was the most interesting and busiest installation yet! As we were learning, working, and getting to know each other, the raptors and a one-eyed coyote were watching us.  Volunteers stopped by to get bottles for the baby squirrels and raccoons that are receiving in-home care and wounded baby possums, squirrels, raccoons and birds arrived as we installed the pollinator food forest.  We saw first-hand the service that Suisun Wildlife Center provides to California native wildlife.  Throughout the three days, city council members, board members, and community members interested in water-efficiency and wildlife visited us.

Andrew Torres, a student from the Airman Leadership School Globemaster class contacted me a few days prior to the installation and asked if we had a community service project available for the class to join.  This healthy crew of young men and women studying to be sergeants delivered 15 yards of tree chips and dug 60 feet of swales in only two hours! Each year 35, 263 gallons of water will be diverted from the roof to the swales.  Suisun City Vice Mayor, Lori Wilson, coordinated lunch with local eateries and McDonalds donated chicken salads (yes they were tasty!).  At lunchtime, we spoke to the Globemaster class and learned about the important role that community service plays in becoming sergeants. The foundation of this garden was completed and the class learned how to harvest water in-ground and build soil by adding tree chips.

The next day, we did not have the help of the Globemaster class, but we did have a few solid participants that have been to our previous workshops ready to wrap up this project.  Kevin brought his nifty drill that helped dig the holes and made planting in clay soil effortless.  We planted over 30 different types of plants to attract pollinators.  Rose from Morningsun Herb Farm recommended Newleaze Coral.  This plant blooms from spring to fall and attracts many different types of bees including native bees.  After we had our pizza lunch donated from Mountain Mikes, the Daisy Girl Scouts arrived to work on their honeybee award.  The girls worked as a team to plant Russian Salvia; this plant attracts butterflies, hover flies and bees.  Then they sprinkled laughter, joy and pollinator seeds all over the garden.  Thank you to everyone that helped get this pollinator food forest installed at Suisun Wildlife Center.  Vice Mayor Wilson supported the Suisun City Sustainable Backyard program from the beginning by introducing us to local organizations, launching our program at Denise Rushing’s speaker event and serving on the Advisory Board to help select both the private and public site in Suisun City.

This demonstration pollinator food forest at Suisun Wildlife Center is a public project funded by the Solano County Water Agency. The garden will serve as a community asset where people can learn simple techniques to design a resilient, water-wise landscape.