Summer Youth Employment Program shows local youth careers on working lands

Multi-site work session includes Patwino and Brazelton Ranch
By Samuel James Adams

It’s no secret that Solano County boasts amazing agricultural land. Some of the nation’s most fertile soils rest in the Dixon Ridge. Heirloom fruits sell in the finest Napa and San Francisco restaurants. And multi-generational family farms and ranches innovate and endure across the county.

On farms and ranches, youth still grow up with land front and center, planning educations, careers, and futures around it.

But in cities and suburbs, kids don’t always get a chance to connect to surrounding agricultural lands and natural areas. Without this opportunity, youth don’t learn about the variety of careers in agriculture, natural resources, and conservation. And they don’t encounter the many backgrounds and talents that find a home in these industries.

Donors like you want a county where youth have opportunities to form those connections to that land regardless of their background.

This summer, a new program gave eleven teenagers income, training, and hands-on experience working alongside local agricultural leaders. And their work included digging a new trail at Patwino Worrtla Kodoi Dihi Open Space Park, the land you protected forever.

Solano County funded the pilot program, in which high school students from Vallejo, Vacaville, Fairfield, Suisun City, and Rio Vista earned summertime income pulling up lavender, marking almond trees, and helping with a restoration project at the Sewer District. As students learned the nitty-gritty of outdoor work, local professionals put their tasks in a scientific, social, and economic context.

The Summer Youth Employment Program came about through a collaboration between Solano Land Trust and the Workforce Development Board of Solano County, the Solano County Office of Education, the Student Conservation Association, the Fairfield/Suisun Sewer District, and the Solano Resources Conservation District.

“This was the first year of the program,” says Tracy Ellison, Conservation Director at Solano Land Trust, who had a role helping to connect youth to working farms that showed the range of Solano County’s agricultural activities. “We are lucky to have such great farm family partners who were willing to jump in and open their farms for this program.”

In addition to their tasks with food producers and on working ranches, interns spent a key part of the five-week program at the Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District. They replace existing turf and ice-plant with native and habitat-enhancing landscapes to increase biodiversity, reduce irrigation needs, and improve the quality of stormwater run-off. District staff also gave the students a tour of the facilities and a presentation about how our community processes trash.

The students were affected by the visuals the team provided—the island of trash, wipes, and plastic debris—and several students noted the sewer district as their favorite site.

A firsthand tour of an agricultural county

Their first site was at El Molino Farms in Dixon, a fitting place to show modern farming is an advanced and high-tech affair. They toured an equipment barn with Dr. Kevin Tyson, M.D., who changed careers to pursue his passion for farming almonds, Solano County’s most profitable crop. Working with Kevin and Ranch Manager Tommy Bottoms, students trimmed suckers from the base of trees, promoting growth in the upper reaches of the tree and making fruits accessible. Later, they painted tree trunks to identify the almond varietals, an essential preparation for the fall harvest.

They encountered farming on a more intimate scale at Soul Food Farm in Vacaville. Owner and farmer Alexis Koefoed purchased the land twenty years ago and has “been on a learning journey ever since.” She farms olive trees, flowers, and herbs and operates a community farmstand from her property. For her work as an agricultural leader, Alexis was recently named Solano County Woman of the Year by Congressman Mike Thompson.

At Soul Food, the crew cleared the lavender crop that was lost to last year's flood and pruned nearby perennial flower plants and bushes so they can flourish next season. Alexis explained the five principles of soil health and described her days operating this one-woman working farm and marketplace.

Down the road at Brazelton Ranch, students met Will Brazelton, a 4th-generation farmer and current board president of the Solano County Farm Bureau. Will spoke of the farm's storied family history and the realities of a contemporary stone fruit operation, covering the family fruit stand and sales to Sunsweet Growers Inc. to the seasonal challenges of a varying climate.

The students pruned orchards, trimming limbs broken from age, drought, and the weight of the fruit. They worked in pairs, one sawing away broken limbs while the other placed limbs in the center of the row for pickup. Later, they picked up a new skill bleeding the irrigation lines, taking turns opening the line until the water ran clear. After lunch, the students learned about the different stone fruit varietals as they packed fruit for the following day’s sales.

And at Solano Land Trust’s Patwino Worrtla Kodoi Dihi Open Space, the students cleared and dug an excellent new trail on Harmonia Hill and settled two commemorative benches to face the scenery. Solano Land Trust staff talked to the students about careers in conservation and the mission of the land trust. Then they thanked the students for the help they gave preparing a 1,500-acre park for opening.

“I was blown away by how much the crew accomplished on our first day!” says Project Manager Jasmine Westbrook-Barsukov. “It was their first time building trails, but they all learned quickly and got the job done in less than half the time I expected.”

Most of all, Jasmine hopes the crew members return to Patwino Worrtla Kodoi Dihi Open Space Park to show their families and friends the trail they built and the picnic tables and benches they placed. Whether or not they work on the land when they get older, their work leaves a legacy at this park!

Investing in the future leaders of our community

Should those kids feel inspired to try their hand at agricultural careers, they won’t be alone.

First-generation farmers aren’t anomalies; people follow their passions on the land all the time. According to data compiled by the USDA from 2017, 1 in 4 farmers is a “beginning farmer” with less than ten years of experience. The average age among this group, however, is over 46. Workplace development programs like these could accelerate the process—and they give local agricultural professionals a glimpse of what the next generation has to offer.

“We hope they came away with a newfound understanding of what farming and food have to do with their day-to-day lives,” Tracy said. “No matter what path they take in life, I hope they will see a future in conserving land and its many benefits.”

People may hike, bike, and bird at protected lands off the clock, but these varied environments offer thousands of acres for workplace development: a place where you can learn new skills, work on a team, and adjust your tasks to the dynamics of the natural world. This pilot program gives young people experiences that broaden their view of the lands around them and put new opportunities in view.
And by providing economic opportunities for local youth, this program helps broaden the role conserved lands can play in serving the communities around them.

These are working lands, after all. Hardworking youth should have a chance to work them during this important phase in their development—when they’re exploring their passions, acquiring new skills, and planning out a path for their lives.

Photography by Sarah Madsen, Sam Adams, and Laura Livadas