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Sonoma County is home to many unique, innovative companies. I'm proud to boast that our little county operates several companies sought out by families across the globe. Sono-Ma's will agree that we find ample local opportunities to feed, nourish, and entertain our children. In one shining example, I'd like to share how two such local companies recently touched our lives. On Sunday local bread cooperative, Alvarado Street Bakery, treated its employees and their families to a day at Safari West.

Alvarado Street Bakery (ASB), now based in Petaluma, is a "global supplier of certified organic, whole grain breads and bagels made with sprouted wheat." This local company started out in the late 70's as an offshoot of a nonprofit that also housed Santa Rosa's Community Market. The company continues to thrive today through employing more than 100 employees in Sonoma County. (To read more history click here.) Our family can attest to this amazing company's commitment to its employees. ASB provides us with a terrific, low-cost health care plan (a PPO that includes acupuncture and birthing centers), quarterly gain sharing bonuses, a living wage, input into company operations through its cooperative structure, and the opportunity to own a share of the company through its membership program. My husband has worked for this company for more than 15 years - and he is considered a "short timer." Employees stick with this company as it truly IS a company that creates a quality product with consideration for our world and its employees.

Not only is this company unique in its outstanding consciousness, it also produces great bread! While ASB families lounged on the picnic blankets during our Safari West event, we traded recipes about the best way to use ASB products. One family swears that sprouted breads make the best grilled cheese. Our family loves to make french toast casserole out of the Cinnamon Raisin breads (click here for recipe). Many of our kids gorge on the bagels and eat daily sandwiches on the " Kids Bread." ASB families bring home fresh bread at the end of their shifts,
but other Sonoma County families can always find this bread at Andy's Market, Community Market, Fiesta Markets, Whole Foods, Oliver's, Trader Joe's (Essential Flax Seed), and other conventional markets. The product is shipped as far as Japan, so people can actually grab a slice of the smiling cat bread just about anywhere!

On Sunday, Alvarado Street employees got together for an annual celebration of the company's success at Safari West. This local theme park is something of a hidden treasure buried in the hills behind Santa Rosa. With 400 acres and hundreds of African Animals, the park offers a pristine and picturesque glimpse into wildlife not usually seen in this part of the world - a true African oasis.

We were treated to a moving tour through the lower half of the property's grasslands. Families loaded into buses for a leisurely drive by dozens of giraffes, antelope, guinea fowl and other exotic creatures.

The children and adults alike were thrilled to get to see the animals up close. We also learned about other park adventures that include a longer ride in double-decker jeeps and even more diverse animal sightings. We stuck to the shorter ride, and then took a walking tour through the parks many atriums and walkways. Giant tortoises, flamingos, cheetahs, and lemurs are a few of the delightful creatures the children were able to experience.

After guided adventures, we sat down for a catered lunch and let the children romp freely in the expansive, lush open areas of the park. Family members of all ages found enjoyment through escaping into the protected and wild experience Safari West offers. The company seeks to remind families of nature's beauty and fragility. "By teaching conservation through education, we create awareness. If you leave here with only one realization ­­– that what we have on earth is perishable and we are what is making it perishable – that’s good enough for me." - Peter Lang, Safari West founder. The company began in 1989 and now hosts as many as 60,000 people annually to help further its educational mission.

Safari West is an international tourist destination, but it is also a great local getaway! Families can bunk in lavish Safari style tent cabins and catch late night bonfires as part of other offered experiences. Check out the "specials" page for offers that are sure to entice your family to visit!

Let's support our local economy and these two wonderful, family-focused companies! For more pictures, click here.

It isn't just an "Old MacDonald" thing - many Sono-Ma's are finding a way to bring a piece of farm life back into family living. Meet Sharon, artist, and mother of two little boys who and Karen, teacher, who both wrestled resources to raise coops in their backyards. Both ladies affirm having chickens is a great way to connect kids to the food chain and to ensure high quality food at the family table. Adding caring for chickens to a mother's busy to-do list may sound overwhelming, but hearing stories from these two families may leave you pining for fresh eggs and your own piece of fulfilling, country-like living.

Karen dreamed up adding a chicken coop to her backyard garden earlier this spring. This woman is dedicated to health and nutrition - she's working on a cookbook and makes all of her family's meal from scratch. Recently she participated in a 5 K "marathon" with her family. With a baby on each hip (Rowan 3 and Amy 1), she puts her heart into mothering, gardening, and finding ways to live that limit negative impacts on the planet earth. She and her husband maximized their small suburban lot by planting seven fruit trees, blueberries, artichokes and an annual veggie patch. Karen puts everything her land produces on the table or in the pantry by utilizing old-fashioned cooking, canning and freezing skills. For Karen, adding poultry seemed a natural extension of her commitment to a sustainable lifestyle.

Karen's kids get more than good food out of the deal. While finding Amy crawling in chicken poop when her chickens "free ranged" in the backyard was not part of Karen's picturesque chicken vision, teaching Rowan to harvest eggs is exactly as heartwarming as a mother could imagine. Little Rowan puffed up with pride as he showed Bryles and me how to operate the coop door, the nesting box door, and how to feed the chicks. He very matter of factly told us, "These are my chickens" - while we moms winked over the toddlers' heads. Truly, at just age three Rowan is able to make a real contribution towards caring for the chickens and will help in the important job of gathering food for his family. Amy is just steps behind at her tender age, getting to know the chickens as lovable friends and backyard companions.
Karen is thrilled to have her coop completed and to have settled in to a new family routine around supporting the chicks. The chickens must be locked in and let out in the evenings and mornings. The coop also must be raked out at least once a week. Rowan will chip in and help with the future chores of raking the coop and gathering eggs, but Karen cautions that it takes a large upfront effort to build a coop. Karen kept the kids occupied for a few full weekends, while her handy husband swung the hammer and built the chicken house. The cost of coop supplies were also substantial. This family cut some costs down by recycling old house siding, but opted for the more expensive galvanized wire to create the chicken pen.

Still Karen is glad she convinced her husband to take on this project - she's the first in her circle of friends to try raising poultry. It was a bit daunting to move the project from daydream to everyday reality. Karen's husband is a landscape architect who prides himself on maintaining a beautiful yard. This gave Karen the added task of figuring out how to make her chicken project sustainable and lovely! Of course, she also had to convince her partner to move this project to the top of the family's never ending project list. Happily her coop now stands as a living testament to beauty and utility. While working on the project, Karen's hubby has even grown to love the chickens.

Sharon is the handy woman in her family. She managed to wrangle the supplies, tools, and her two kids (Ben 5 and Phin 2) in a grand effort to build her chicken coop. A friend offered to give her an old coop in early April, and she jumped on the opportunity to start a small backyard production this spring. She had intended to spend this year collecting Freecycle items to build her coop and pen, but the free coop made her think she could muster the project a year early. While she managed to get free chicken feeders, a coop, and a few other supplies through Craigslist and Freecycle, she did have to "spring" for some costly wire. She also purchased five fuzzy yellow chicks this April. With the chicks quickly outgrowing their nesting box, she had to get the coop finished in a hurry. Her husband did have to called in (as a Mother's Day gift) to get the project completed in time.

Sharon says chicken farming runs in her blood - her mother's ancestors came to America with William Penn through a royal grant to raise chickens, and her dad's last name means "Chicken Farmer". Her girlhood memories are filled with feathers, and she wants to pass on the joy of farming to her own sons. While she doesn't live on a ranch, she makes the most of her large suburban lot, and dedicated a corner near her compost pile for a chicken coop and pen. She and her boys also installed a bench near their coop for better chicken viewing. The other evening, popsicles in hand, they all watched giggling as the chickens put on a show of what looked like dancing, singing, and "Three Stooges" calamity. Sharon and boys say their chickens are hysterical to watch.

Sharon's chickens do seem to be chalk full of personality. The chickens learned to roost by jumping to the edge of their roosting box during their early days in the garage. One particularly cheeky chick, aptly named Chicky (and whom my family adopted after reading Michele Anna Jordan's article about a chick she is raising in a friend's coop) learned this trick early on. Chicky would hear Sharon working away on her oil paintings in the garage cum studio while her boys napped, and would perch to watch the production. The other chicks took Chicky's lead and soon several birds would perch and watch her paint! It seemed perfect timing when Sharon finished her coop on Mother's Day as her chickens declared that their last day to be content with roosting on the edge of their box. When she came to collect the chicks to move them into their pen, they'd all flown out of the box. They were happy to march behind Sharon and kids into their new home - as if they knew it was moving day!

Not only do Sharon and her boys love to laugh with the chickens, Sharon says the chickens offer an invaluable lesson in demonstrating the circle of life. Her boys have grown up helping her garden, and now they get to see how chickens can also add to the family table as well as help sustain their land. They will soon gather eggs to eat and use the chicken poop as plant food. Sharon says little Ben and Phin respond well to this kind of hands on learning and living.

Oh the joys of a backyard barnyard! What inspirational mothers!

Ever get a moment to examine what's accumulated in your life? I am not talking about the dishes by the sink, the laundry, the voicemail messages, or the diapers in the bin. What comes to mind is more of the blessings, mysteries and curses that shape our every day lives - what my Alabaman grandma would call our "lot in life".

All day today, little reminders of the gifts I've been given kept popping up. The recent gift of rain swept my garden clean, and today's sun helped me to rise early with a fresh burst of energy for working outside. I smiled at the stack of straw I'd pulled pack to do my spring planting, remembering Cozette's autumn birthday party where straw bales were the children's party props. We'd loaded a bale in our truck with thoughts of putting it to some unknown use in our garden, later learning that it makes a terrific mulch. With the spring plants well rooted and seeds popping up in the rain soaked soil, the beds were begging for a straw blanket to seal in the free water. We've never worked mulching into our veggie gardening before, but this year's water shortage will make the gift of Cozy's party straw ever more valuable.

The last few days of rain worked magic for our soil and plants, but some things were beaten down in the recent water and wind. Half of our tallest pink rose toppled over on the ground, blocking the walkway to our veggie garden. We sadly removed the broken rose, but immediately found ourselves joyful again as the plentiful buds filled up a crystal vase on our kitchen table. The whole room brightened as the rose found a new purpose and place.

Outside again, we used our fresh energy to put other garden blessings to work. We harvested spinach for dinner, and cut back some of the fallen fava bean branches. Bryles puffed up with the important task of handling the scissors as I held branches. Then we worked together to shell the beans for our dinner and to cut the remaining plant pieces into a "salad" for the garden. We tucked the salad under the hay covering the veggie beds to give our seedlings a surge of nitrogen and nutrients.

Still enjoying our cutting work, we moved on to dead heading Luther Burbank's peppery smelling, pink climbing rose. We are keeping small buds for drying and making sachets later this year - the fragrance is intense and long lasting.

We took a break to admire a few lady bugs climbing through the tiny blue flowers on the isotoma plants, and determined we needed to capture this moment on camera.

After getting a few great bug shots, Bryles reminded me that we needed to photograph our wool pile. A kindred spirit and friend through Waldorf's Blossoms program gave us a whole bag of wool on Tuesday. Bryles favorite song lately has been "Baa - baa black sheep, have you any wool? Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full..." and he was thrilled to bring home his very own bag! I too was excited, although this pile represents a whole new project for me to top an already too long list! The wool is freshly sheered and still full of grass, sticks, and - YES - sheep poop! Our wool pile is mottled with brown, black, and yellow wool awaiting our care and cleaning. We saved this morning's bath water to rinse a sample bundle clean and found that the our sheep's wool is actually white!!! We used our feet to stomp out the water and dirt, and ended up with shockingly pristine fibers.

How all of these gifts have come to us is a mystery to me. While I've felt cursed by some misfortunes, including losing my job in December, all of the time this "curse" allots me allows me to make the most of "my lot in life." Bryles and I are off to finish pressing the tiny blue borrage flowers the bees love... We will pull a few of these wild, weedish plants to clean up the area near our lavender. Still, I am learning how even these stray plants can be gifts as I make the effort to find ways to glorify and use all that I am given.

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