Its been ten years since I joined Petaluma Bounty as an intern and Community Gardens Coordinator. A whole decade… my thirties to be exact. I joined the team after colleagues from the UCSC Farm and Garden Program informed me about the ambitious aspirations of a small group in Sonoma County. Although I had experience organizing community around food, sustainability, and health, this was a significant stretch in scope and scale. And I’m so glad I did it!
After learning about the mission and organization, I started showing up to workdays and asking how I might get involved, paid or unpaid. I was thrilled to get an $8/hr position for the summer of 2010. Like many of my most rewarding life experiences, I thankfully had little foresight of what lay ahead because I wouldn’t have thought myself capable of meeting the challenges that laid ahead. My pragmatic orientation probably wouldn’t have let me take such a daunting leap of faith. But I’m oh so glad I did!
Before I get into the organizational reflections, I’d like to offer a few personal insights (skip to the next header if this isn’t your thing). First, I remain full of gratitude, awe, and hope because of the amazing community we’re part of.
I am most fortunate to find work that inspires, challenges, and ask the best of me each day. Although not all days were easy, I never doubted my interest or passion in the content. I have had the honor to grow personally, professionally, and spiritually in service to my community- and I even get paid for it! This is not something to take for granted nor to forget that I am in service to my community.
I will always be indebted to predecessors, mentors, and leaders who invited me into their structures, visions, and efforts. They saw potential in me and offered coaching, modeled leadership, and nurturing reflections when I stumbled and continue to offer resources as I grow into my unique model of leadership for the next generation of leaders.
Although I hesitate to name individuals due to the length of the list and fear of leaving an important figure out, I will be more than happy to share with each of you what I have learned from our interactions if you ask me. There are a few organizations and opportunities I feel compelled to appreciate because I was offered more responsibilities and opportunities to try out new skills- Petaluma Bounty Advisory Board, Petaluma Health Care District, the Sonoma County Food System Alliance, Sonoma County Food Recovery Coalition, the Leadership Institute for Ecology and Economy, Coaction Institute, Celebrating Women’s Leadership in Food, and most recently the California Certified Farmers Marker Advisory Committee.
These groups and my day-to-day work gave me ample opportunities and materials to learn by doing; just like we do on the farm. I have been able to step into a non-traditional leadership style that reflects my values and position as facilitator of community solutions. I fall short regularly of what I could be and do but will keep striving to affect the greatest positive change I can in my limited time in this life. I’ve never liked the hierarchical model of leadership where people look to one person to have the answers; to be clear, that is not me!
I think now more than ever, we need different approaches to unprecedented challenges as well as organizational models that reflect participatory prioritization, institutionalized listening, and accountability. I am imperfect, impermanent, and fallible; I will disappoint. But hopefully, in the meantime, I will help our community to manifest the best we can with the resources we have.
As Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further than others, it is upon standing on the shoulders of giants.” I don’t think I have necessarily seen further than others, but it is crucial to me that my successors stand on my shoulders, see further than I ever could, and reach farther than I dreamed possible, regardless of the circumstances. What I lack in charisma or charm, I hopefully make up for in integrity, persistence, and a penchant for building the capacity of those around me.
It is my belief that the concept of duality is a human invention that reflects the limitations of our own thought process, not the world. We need to check assumptions, stay comfortable in the grey, and be curious to new ways- whether it be leadership, farming, political institutions, ideas, gender, land use, nutrition, social service agencies, etc. But that’s probably more than enough of the theoretical…
Celebrating Shared Accomplishments:
First and foremost, we’re still here! The fact that Petaluma Bounty still exists is a testament to a deep and sustained commitment of our community to each other. In an ideal world, we would have a network of community farms that would serve as demonstration production farms or whatever their members prioritized. Sadly, we have seen several worthy, amazing community farms fold. Charitable efforts, regardless of how worthwhile, are affected by funding trends, donor fatigue, and lack of long-term investment. People are drawn to novelty, innovation, and promises of technological solutions to wicked, complex problems.
Bounty joined Petaluma People Services Center in 2012 because it could not afford to maintain operations as an independent organization. At it’s smallest, the Bounty had one full time staff member; we now are nearing four full time staff members. More crucially, we have increased the pay rate of all teammates to be closer to a living wage. Although there is a need for more paid staff and increased wages, progress has been made on both fronts and the difference in staff wages is 25%.
The Bounty Farm is a community space created for multiple public benefits- food access, experiential education, relationship building, and more! The operating budget for the farm alone is approximately $80,000 per year for 1.5 employees and produce sales bring in $20,000. The rest is covered through donations, corporate sponsorships, and additional programming. The farm is not able to be self-supporting through production because the social benefits it provides are not lucrative in the traditional sense and sometimes directly in conflict with efficiency.
By expanding mission-aligned programing, we are closing the gap toward being self-supporting. Let me state in no uncertain terms that Petaluma Bounty would not exist without the support (financial, administrative, and otherwise) of PPSC! Over the past ten years, we expanded the scope and impact of Bounty programs.
Our most recent annual report offers a comprehensive description of shared accomplishments as well as the evolution and sustainability of our model. Petaluma Bounty is a farm-based community food security project that prioritizes participatory program development and a place-based approach to strengthen our local food system. We have worked diligently to create the organizational structures, feedback loops, and guiding principles (read them here) to ensure our programming remains pertinent, responsive, and effective for years to come.
Since I started working at Petaluma Bounty ten years ago, all expenses- operating costs, staff, overhead and regulatory fees- have increased. What has not increased is the cost of the food we grow. To be clear, we offer more nutrition incentives than ever before through our sliding scale farm stand and CSA, and at 15 participating farmers’ markets. As proud as I am about those end user subsidies that promote healthy eating and our local economy, that is not what I am emphasizing. I mean that the retail price of fresh fruits and vegetables has not increased since I started with the Bounty in 2010. In other words, the economic conditions that small-scale farms face today are more difficult than ten years ago.
The reasons are varied and complex as to why the cost of fruits and vegetables have remained the same over the past decade. Equally troubling is the increase in community members that cannot make ends meet, especially those working in food and farming. These are symptoms of a system that is working for less constituents, a.k.a. consumers, each season.
We are all participants in our imperfect food system and each decision impacts other stakeholders. It is important to acknowledge that we are each in compromise with how we would like the world to be and how we relate to it. There is no getting around that fact, but we can reflect on the consequences of our compromises. Sometimes, it’s enough to make informed individual decisions; other times, we need to work collectively to make larger system adjustments. The systems we rely upon are imperfect and need our active reflection and intervention!
It is for this precise reason that the work of Petaluma Bounty is more relevant today than it ever has been. We are poised to engage our community in the coming conversations about food politics, systems, choices, and activism for affecting change in institutions and systems that were originally created to serve us.
I am honored to have invested the best of myself in Petaluma Bounty over the past decade. Thank you to everyone who made that possible. We’re going to need each other more than ever in this next decade; we have cultivated fertile ground for an abundant future. I look forward to working with you!