Students Take Pride in Connecting with Local Food in Pilot Program

By Stefani Iribarren Brooks, Youth Cooking Program Manager
Photos courtesy of Bridgette Chestnut / SPSV

It’s not every day that you find a job that aligns with your passion, skill set and values, so when I found the Youth Cooking Program Manager position I was over the moon. The goal of Sustainable Solano’s Youth Cooking pilot program is to teach Solano youth the foundational principles of cooking with fresh, local, seasonal food in the context of a local food system. I was ready to put my educational and food industry background to work. The first few months were all about outreach and connecting with interested partners and it was motivating to see how many groups were interested, but the first group from St. Patrick-St. Vincent Catholic High School has shown a whole new reality of the impact this program can have on our next generation.

From gathering ingredients from local farmers, to taking inventory of all the cooking supplies necessary to make the class run smoothly, I was eager to share my passion for cooking and supporting local food with hungry young minds. Seven classes were booked for the first session. Each meeting would focus on a culinary skill such as roasting, sauteing, stock making, etc. and an educational intent like seasonality, healthy eating habits, and farming practices. Our first class introduced the regional map of Solano County, showing where things grow and how fortunate we are to be surrounded by such abundance. The students then got to cooking, learning new knife skills and becoming comfortable in the kitchen. As we sat down to enjoy our first meal together, I asked, “What’s your favorite meal?” Their answers blew me away. Not a continent was missed; this group named dishes from Syria, China, Peru, just to name a few. Things I had never even heard of were being described; their connection to food was evident, so my goal of connecting the importance of eating locally sourced, healthy food seemed to work into conversations organically.

By our fifth class we headed to Be Love Farm in Vacaville, where we toured with owner Matthew Engelhart, who eloquently demonstrated the efficiency of his regenerative farming practices. We got our hands dirty harvesting popcorn, then ate a delicious lunch at the farmstead around a large table where we shared what we are grateful for. I didn’t think the class could get any better than this, but I was wrong.

For our last meeting we hosted a final feast, inviting parents to join us. Students chose recipes based on what was in season and each group was responsible for a course. Watching each student take pride and ownership for their course was awe inspiring. They focused on everything from taste to plate presentation, and were eager to share it with their guests. They exceed our expectations. What started as a basic cooking class evolved into a group of young people connecting with one another through food and an eagerness to learn.

This was just the first session of this pilot, and it most certainly set the bar high, but we are eager to continue working with Solano youth. Next up, we will be hosting Girl Scouts for a weekend intensive session; a day at Umbel Roots farm followed by a day in the Solano County Fairgrounds’ kitchen with Chef Stephanie Oelsligle Jordan and myself. Solano’s 4-H Club and the Vallejo Project are also in the works for sessions early next year. SPSV would also like to have us back for another round in the spring for the interested students that did not get the chance to participate.

I entered that kitchen with the intention of inspiring students to connect with their food and understand the impact that it plays on their lives, but I left it inspired by our next generation and their capacity to understand the importance of healthy food. I hope this experience is something they will never forget; it will most certainly last a lifetime for me.

A Lesson from the Rain on Healthy Soil

By Alexis Koefoed, Soul Food Farm

Soul Food Farm‘s Alexis Koefoed shared these photos and thoughts during the rainstorm Oct. 24 that over the weekend brought more than 10 inches of rain to parts of Vacaville and at least 4 inches or more to other areas of Solano County. We wanted to share her insight about the importance of healthy soil in helping to address extreme weather events — a why farms like hers that use regenerative practices are so important.

Photos courtesy of Soul Food Farm

I thought today was a good opportunity to talk about the benefits of leaving living roots in the ground.

The first photo is the ranch directly across the road from Soul Food Farm. For 20 years this field was grazed by cattle and then rotational hay cropped, seeded and baled. While those old time farmers would not have called their farming practices regenerative, they knew how to take care of their land resources. Every year the soil provided grazing and hay crop.

Two years ago a new owner took over the same property and immediately began to overgraze the field with his cattle. To the point that the soil became completely pulverized.

Durning our frequent wind storms, a huge cloud of fecal dust blows over Soul Food Farm.

I’ve watched this living, thriving soil become degraded. A property I used to enviously wish was mine now is watched with worry about how its failure will impact our farm in a severe weather event. Like today.

So the first photo shows major flooding. Without soil cover, weeds, a crop, wild grasses, etc. There are no roots to hold the soil in place. And by extension no biology in the soil to convert carbon drawn from the air into food for the billions of living organism found in vibrant soils.

The next two photos are the fields on my farm. Where we have been practicing and learning to implement regenerative and no till practices for the last six years. The photo of the large field has no flooding.

The photo with some sitting water is roads and walking paths. A mini example of what happens when you have exposed dirt without a living plant on top.

Today while we celebrate the rain, but worry about such a huge moisture dump in a short period, I’m reminded of how important it is to manage our farmlands with integrity.

Extreme weather events are not going to diminish. And we have a huge opportunities as farmers, big or small, to use our soil as buffers to extreme weather conditions.

Healthy soils translate immediately into clean water ways, carbon sinks, healthy crops, thriving microbiology and productive domesticated animals.

Seeds of Hope

By Lisa Murray, SkyGirl Productions

Lisa Murray wears many hats as a visual storyteller through SkyGirl Productions, her work with the Pleasants Valley Agriculture Association, and the role she took on in helping Sustainable Solano connect with farms hurt by the LNU Lightning Fire in 2020. She offers an update on those farms in this blog.

Courtesy of Lisa Murray

The weekend of Dec. 19 was just past the four month mark from the LNU Lightning Complex Fire that ripped through Vacaville’s rural area. Instead of looking at the destruction and blackened hills with a feeling of loss and overwhelming grief, the weekend offered the first glimmers of hope.

There were two events happening in Pleasants Valley that promised healing for all involved. The first, Sow Beautiful, a native wildflower & native bunchgrass reseeding project, headed up by Karen Lee Ford and Clay Ford of Pleasants Valley Honey Company (a.k.a. “Clay’s Bees”) and partners including the Pleasants Valley Agriculture Association (PVAA), Morningsun Herb Farm, and Solano RCD.

Karen reached out to landowners and then collected volunteers via the PVAA website. With an initial training session by Solano RCD, the volunteers were off and seeding. The plan is to reseed select areas to be a draw for pollinators come spring.

Kristina Young paints at Girl on the Hill during the From Ashes to Springtime event. (courtesy of Lisa Murray)
Children play at Joyful Ranch during the Sow Beautiful reseeding event. (courtesy of Lisa Murray)

The second event was the first day of From Ashes to Springtime, an outdoor art event documenting the regeneration after the fire. Artists — painters, drawers, photographers — were invited onto private properties for the day to paint what they see now and then they will be invited back in the spring to paint what they see then. On April 17, there will be an art show/sale at Joyful Ranch to show off all of the amazing art that was created and the art will also be for sale. A portion of the sales will go to the landowners to help with their further recovery efforts.

I live in these areas, and I’m an artist myself, and even I saw these places with new eyes on that day. I took off my “regular life glasses” and put on my “artist glasses” and was really amazed by what I was seeing. First, to just see my friends’ blackened properties now teeming with artists who were honored and humbled to be there to witness what their fellow Vacaville residents and farmers had survived was an important step in the healing for all of us. And, at the same time as the sadness and shock at the now burned landscape, the artists were also inspired by the unique beauty that the landscape presented and excited to come back in the spring. My “artist eyes” saw the colors and lines differently on that day as well. I now saw the black ground as a great backdrop to all of the beauty that is nature. We also saw green! In some places, just blades of green grass poking through the blackened topsoil, in other places, bunches of
green!

Lake Curry is visible from Samuels Ranch Sustainable (courtesy of Lisa Murray)

Girl on the Hill is a lavender farm and vineyard located on top of Mount Vaca and was hit hard by the fire. Denise and Dan (owners/famers) lost all of their lavender plants as well as their lavender workshop, their still, and several other buildings. Kristina Young, a Napa-based plein air painter who was painting at Girl on the Hill, was mesmerized by the beauty all around her.

“I have plein air painted all over the world and there is no other time in my life that I could paint this scene. I couldn’t get into a plane and go to paint this. Even in Napa after the fires there, I couldn’t paint something like this. This is so beautiful and unique. My heart breaks for all that was lost but as an artist, I see the beauty too. The shapes of the branches, the colors, with the black, it’s stunning. As a plein air artist, I capture nature and this is nature.”

Dan was visibly happy as he walked around delivering chai tea and gingerbread snap cookies to the artists. (And the artists were delighted by the hospitality they are not used to experiencing as plein air painters – usually they’re all alone!)

Jasmine Westbrook and her sister Whitney of Samuels Ranch Sustainable — also located on top of Mount Vaca — were both sad and inspired hosting their first “guests” since the fire that took out all three of their homes and half of their herd of sheep. The family barely escaped with their lives that horrible night. And now they were hosting artists to paint/draw/photograph the scenes from their burned land. There are so many spots on their property that have breathtaking views. By the gate, you can see Lake Curry through the burned branches. On the other side, a spectacular view of Lake Berryessa glistened in the sun. Artists had a hard time choosing which view spoked to them strongest.

The Sow Beautiful reseeding at Soul Food Farm (courtesy of Lisa Murray)

Other properties that hosted artists were Brazelton Ranch, Zinger Ranch and Wingate Trainers.

On other properties, the clean-ups continue. At La Borgata, Gerry & David were able to put a downpayment down on a new tractor — they lost two in the fire — to clear out some of the burned areas. Most of the rubbish has been taken away, leaving only the two tractors and a forklift — all three too heavy for the company that came to help haul them away. They are awaiting the company’s return with stronger and bigger equipment.

You wouldn’t believe how long everything takes to just clear away the burned stuff. But in a farmer’s life, nature doesn’t wait, so there were plantings and December sales for Soul Food Farm and Morningsun Herb Farm.

With the holidays, everybody could look forward to a well-deserved rest. The work as a farmer doesn’t stop, but it slows down considerably. Nature is resting and receiving the much-needed early winter rains. And the farmers are taking this well-deserved time to regenerate themselves, take stock of what they have been through, and visualize where they see themselves and their farms going in 2021. The healing continues for everyone, and I am excited to see how everyone emerges in early spring.

Sustainable Solano continues to work with farms, ranches and wineries that were damaged by the fires. Learn more here about how you can help or how affected farms can apply for project-based disaster relief funding.

‘Tis the Season for Local Food & Wine!

By Stephanie Oelsligle Jordan, Local Food Program Manager

Need a last-minute special gift for someone? Give the gift of local food and wine! Many of Solano’s farmers and winemakers are offering wonderful packages, gift cards and special deals this holiday season. Buying from a local farm or winery both strengthens our local food system and provides unique gifts for those you love (a win-win!). Here’s a list of available goodies from some of our favorite places, to make your gift-giving easier this year (and who doesn’t need a helping hand in 2020?!)

Farms

Be Love Farm is offering beautifully packaged gift boxes that can be shipped anywhere. There are five different boxes to choose from, with various combinations of farm goods (“Box B” has their house-made Sunbars, a pint of Be Love Farm extra virgin olive oil and 1 lb. of multi-colored popcorn). All farm goods are packed in a silver gift box filled with excelsior softwood carvings and finished with a twisted paper bow.

Brazelton Ranch, a favorite stop for stone fruit, is open on the weekends, selling Satsuma Mandarins and a variety of preserves crafted from summer apricots, peaches, “leah-cot apriums” as well as pomegranate jelly and persimmon butter. Watch for updates on their Facebook page!

Clay’s Bees (aka Pleasants Valley Honey Co.) has tasty, local honey for sale at Journey Coffee Company (3 locations around Fairfield/Vacaville), or you may visit their Facebook page and private message them. It’s some of the best honey in the county – don’t miss out!

Cloverleaf Farm has preserved their summer bounty of stone fruit for you to enjoy year-round! Their Beverage Box includes a trio of handcrafted syrups to liven up your drinks, whether they are hot, cold, alcoholic, or non. The Burger Bundle pairs Peach Ketchup with Chow Chow Pickle relish for a no-fuss casual burger night at home. And of course there’s jam! If you can’t decide, pick the Jam Trio and the Cloverleaf crew will hand pick for you.  More options like dried nectarines are also in their website store.

Eatwell Farm has what you need for both the culinarian and lavender lover in your life!  Well-known around Solano County for their CSA program featuring organic produce, Eatwell offers seasoned salts (smoked chili salt? Yes, please!) and an array of lavender products, including essential oils, salves, sachets, sugar scrubs, hand sanitizer and more.  Visit their Mail Order page for details.

Lockewood Acres, a diversified organic farm near Vacaville, offers gift cards, CSA subscriptions and unique prepared items such as pomegranate shrub and elderberry syrup (great in drinks, and immune-boosting!)  There are also jellies, jams, dried herbs and more on their online market page. Look for Lockewood Acres products at Sweet Peas Boutique in Vacaville, too!

Menagerie Hill Ranch has very unique gift opportunities showcasing both alpaca fiber products (yarn, roving, socks, tote bags, Covid masks) and now the alpacas themselves! You may schedule a virtual alpaca visit where these friendly animals join a Zoom meeting! Details and more products are on their web store page.

Meridian Jacobs is a ranch featuring wool, yarn and fiber grown by Solano County Jacob sheep. Their website has DIY kits for wild wool wreath-making, Jacob horn buttons, weaving and knitting supplies and beautiful “Solano Garden ecoprinted” scarves that utilize flowers and leaves from the farm to bring color and design to the fabric. They are open Saturday, Dec. 19, by appointment – call or email!

Morningsun Herb Farm has a plethora of garden décor, candles, jewelry, and of course seeds and plants for the gardener in your life. Their collaboration with Soul Food Farm (see below) provides an array of lavender products in their Hierbas y Flores line – from soap and sugar scrub to culinary lavender and jams (strawberry lavender jam!  Yum!) Virtual gift cards may also be purchased on their website.

Soul Food Farm in Pleasants Valley has wonderful estate olive oil, dried olive leaves, yarn and of course lavender products from the Hierbas y Flores line, including essential oil and hydrosol. Their extra virgin olive oil is available for purchase at the farm or for shipping out. Visit their website for details!

Terra Firma Farm is offering gift certificates for any size of their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes (small, medium and large) – a great way to introduce someone to a CSA! Current CSA subscribers can purchase directly from their website. Others may email the farm directly (csa@terrafirmafarm.com) or call 530-795-2473 to make payment and gift-giving arrangements.

Wilkinson Acres, an organic farm in Suisun Valley, is launching their new CSA program and offering a holiday CSA raffle (great for you Fairfield folks)! Once you subscribe to the CSA, you may enter the raffle to receive 50% off your summer 2021 CSA membership as well as a full spring 2021 CSA membership to gift to another family. Gift cards may also be purchased from their web store.  Wilkinson’s farm stand – open every Saturday, and now Wednesday afternoons (December only) – often features guest businesses with everything from candles to cookies to salsa.

Wineries

At Mangels Vineyards, the Mangels family continues the tradition of winemaking in the Suisun Valley started by their great-grandfather over 100 years ago. Winemaker Gina Richmond crafts a diverse lineup of wines from Sauvignon Blanc to Syrah, and just released their new Chenin Blanc-Viognier. Stop by Friday-Sunday, 12-5 pm to taste and purchase their variety of wines!

Sky Ranch Estate was devastated by the August fires, but their inventory (stored off-site) survived!  Don’t miss out on their award-winning 2017 Sky Ranch Il Cocuzzolo, a Bordeaux-style blend; two vintages of Syrah; and extra-virgin olive oil.  Many wines are selling out — visit their web store for details and shipping info.

Suisun Creek Winery, operated by Brian and Katie Babcock, is open Saturdays and Sundays from 12-5 pm for wine tasting and sales. Their handcrafted estate wines include Verdelho, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Petite Sirah — many options for putting together your own gift combo (or keeping some for yourself!) Visit their website for wine club details and more info.

Suisun Valley Wine Co-op represents three micro-wineries and offers small-batch wines handmade here in Solano County. Their popular wine gift set — the #SolanoStrong Fire Relief Pack — features a bottle from each producer and supports local farmers and ranchers affected by the devastating 2020 fires. All Holiday Gift Sets includes wine-infused fleur de sel salt too! In addition to the online store, the Co-op will be open every day for tasting, sales, and curbside pickup between Dec. 18 and Jan. 3 (except Dec. 25 and Jan. 1). 

Tolenas Winery is offering complimentary shipping (to all allowable states) with an order of six or more bottles, and complimentary delivery within Solano County on all orders of $50 or more! Check out their holiday special release of 2020 Gamay Nouveau and the 2020 Lot 38 Port Nouveau, featured by Fortune.com magazine for top Thanksgiving wines. There’s a limited supply, so visit their web store fast!

Wooden Valley Winery is offering $5 flat-rate shipping on purchases of four or more bottles anywhere in California and a variety of two-bottle holiday packages in a gift box, complete with a bow and an ornament. From sparkling to Italian-style and even a dessert wine package, Wooden Valley Winery has you covered!  

Fire Relief Fund: Give the Gift of Hope!

Several farms were destroyed or damaged in the August 2020 fires that swept through Solano County, including Girl on the Hill, Samuels Ranch Sustainable, La Borgata and others. Sustainable Solano continues to gather donations that will support specific projects for these farmers, ranchers and growers in Pleasants Valley who were affected by the fires. Visit Sustainable Solano’s website for details, and please earmark the tax-deductible donation for “fire relief.” If you wish to donate directly to a specific farm, please visit Pleasants Valley Agriculture Association’s website for a complete list and preferred donation methods.

A note on open hours and COVID-19: The listed days and times were correct at the time this blog was written, but we know that there is a chance state and county orders could quickly change how these businesses operate. Please check with any farm or winery before visiting.

CSA Farm Spotlight: Wilkinson Acres

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.

Mike and Courtney Wilkinson of Wilkinson Acres

Mike and Courtney Wilkinson started thinking about their future together after they were married — and what they really wanted to do with their lives.

“After a lot of discussion, we decided what we wanted more than anything was a lifestyle — one in which we could provide good, healthy food for our community while enjoying the freedoms (and responsibilities) of owning our own small business,” Courtney said.

The two left their jobs as a building engineer and high school teacher and started Wilkinson Acres in Fairfield about a year ago, where they use low-till and organic practices to grow vegetables and fruit for their customers, which include restaurants, weekly visitors to their farm stand and, starting in January, CSA members.

Below is a Q&A with Courtney about Wilkinson Acres:

  • Wilkinson Acres
  • Fairfield
  • 5 acres
  • 2019

 

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

Our first ever CSA starts in January 2021! 2020 was a crazy year of pivoting due to COVID-19. The closure of many of our restaurant accounts required a shift in our business model towards our direct community. We realized that now more than ever it’s important for us to make healthy, organic food accessible to our immediate neighborhood and county. The CSA model allows our community to give us a boost at the beginning of the season, ensuring we can provide them with the best of our product for the 16-week season!

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

There are definitely perks to being a member! For starters, all members get an extra 10% off at the farm stand (on-site), as well as a weekly Member Newsletter, featuring recipe ideas for the week’s produce. We’re working on more perks, in conjunction with some of our farm stand partner vendors. Stay tuned!

What’s something that makes your farm stand out?

Our organic certification. We’re certified organic by CCOF and, as far as we can tell, we are the only officially certified organic farm in the Fairfield/Suisun Valley area. We take a tremendous amount of pride in our organic transparency and the quality of our certified organic product. We are looking to implement even more organic and sustainable practices around the farm in the years to come.

We use low-till growing practices to build soil health, which, in turn, grows better produce. Encouraging all the good bugs and bacteria to live in our soil by not tilling up their ecosystem and by adding in organic compost benefits the farmer and the plants. These beneficials, as we call them, help the plants take in and process nutrients, resulting in healthier, tastier food. Low-till farming is environmentally friendly, sustainable, and low-waste. It may not be the easiest way to farm, but we believe sustainable growing practices create better farms, food and families.

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

The opening of our first CSA! We’re focusing hard on making the CSA kickoff in January an exceptional customer experience. Check out our website (WilkinsonAcres.com) for all the details.

With regards to interest in local food — we’d love to see more! We’ve had the great fortune to start creating relationships with a lot of passionate foodies in Solano County, but we know there are so many more people in our county that can and should benefit from the fantastic variety in the local ag and hospitality industries.

Anything else you’d like to add?

A big huge thank you to all of our customers! It’s been a wild couple of years for all of us and we know we would not be here without them. We are so deeply grateful for the welcome we’ve received from the agricultural community in Solano County. If you haven’t visited us yet, come see us every Saturday, 8 am-noon at the farm stand [winter hours: 10 am-2 pm]. We’re looking forward to meeting you!

Wilkinson Acres has its Solano County CSA drop site at the farm. Learn more about how to sign up here.

Find out more about local CSAs here.

Wildfire Relief Goes to Farms to Meet Immediate Needs and Build Future Resilience

By Sustainable Solano

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. James Muncy, 60th Civil Engineer Squadron crew chief, puts out burning embers near a residence on Gibson Canyon Road in Vacaville, California, Aug. 20, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Nicholas Pilch)

In the weeks since the LNU Lightning Complex wildfires tore through many of Solano County’s family farms, we have been humbled by the number of you who poured in donations to help those who had lost homes, animals, farm structures and crops to the devastation.

Through the Bounty of the County: Stronger Together fundraising, special fundraising packages from local wineries and generous donations from more than 160 individual donors, Sustainable Solano has collected more than $10,000 that we now plan to distribute to help with the immediate needs of those farmers. Working closely with the Solano-based farming community, we looked at where the most need is and where we could make the most impact with your donations.

Toward that end, we identified these farms, ranches, wineries and agritourism businesses in need of support:

But those donations have inspired something more than a one-time distribution. Some of our farmers told us they wanted the donations for more immediate needs to go to those farms that needed them more, but they are examining how to rebuild and their long-term needs are great. We are pleased to say that we can offer that support as well. Alongside the Bounty of the County fundraising effort, Sustainable Solano was awarded disaster relief funding from the Solano Community Foundation that will help us look at the next stage of recovery for our Solano County farms, including those that have received your donations and others that are rebuilding for the future. We will continue to work with our local farmers to help coordinate with farms hurt by the fires for project-based funding that best addresses their mid-term needs. Find out more about how SCF supports our work here.

And beyond that stage? We want to help our local farms prepare for the future, and a big part of that is supporting resilient, regenerative ways of farming that are healthier for the planet, the farmers, and for those of us eating the food grown in this manner. Some of our local farmers use regenerative approaches in their operations, including low-till methods, building soil health without the use of artificial fertilizers and using integrated pest management as opposed to pesticides. We want to further support these efforts, so with the long-term resiliency of our farms in view, we hope to seek further funding that can help local farmers engage in recovery in a more regenerative way.

Do you wish to continue to support these efforts? You can still donate directly to help with fire relief or the next stage of recovery and rebuilding. To do so, either send a check to Sustainable Solano, P.O. Box 1215, Benicia CA 94510, or donate through our PayPal link. To make sure your donation goes to wildfire relief for farms, please note that the donation is for “Fire Relief.” You can also continue to purchase fire relief fundraiser packages from participating wineries that have extended their offers to continue to raise funds.

We look forward to sharing with you how our Solano County farmers are recovering and rebuilding – and how they are moving to more regenerative approaches through your generous support.