Califonia Bountiful

Illegal dumping in rural California inspires grassroots cleanup effort

November/December 2019 California Bountiful magazine

Farmer founds movement to beautify community

Farmer Jeff Stephens, inset below, founded a grassroots group called SAYlove to help solve the problem of illegal dumping. Volunteers including his wife, Cherie, above, clean up blighted areas. Photo: © 2019 Fred Greaves

Rolling vineyards, blooming orchards and expansive rangeland might be what you expect when envisioning California's rural landscapes. But the reality many farmers wake up to each day can look quite different.

Farmer Jeff Stephens would regularly find old mattresses, discarded tires and household garbage dumped on his Yuba City farm.

Illegal dumping, a pervasive problem in rural areas, creates an unsightly mess and brings added cost for farmers and county and local governments. Stephens, who farms peaches, prunes and walnuts and operates a roadside stand and bakery called Stephens Farmhouse with his wife Cherie, said the problem of illegal dumping had long been ignored. Often, farmers such as Stephens pay to have trash removed from farmland.

"It is creating hope, instilling in people that change is possible," says SAYlove founder Jeff Stephens. Photo by Christine Souza

"I was in church and it dawned on me: Instead of complaining about it, why don't you do something?" Stephens said.

So he did. Stephens founded SAYlove (SAY stands for "Sutter and Yuba"), a grassroots organization. Putting out a call to action to community volunteers and service organizations, SAYlove holds community cleanup days on the last Saturday of each month.

"I got tired of picking up people's trash, so I designed a program that wasn't a workday; I wanted it to be fun and attract people and keep them coming back," Stephens said.

Piles of trash at the edge of an orchard await pickup. Photo: © 2019 Fred Greaves

'Trying to change a culture'

Participants receive a yellow SAYlove T-shirt and lunch provided by a sponsoring local business, after a morning spent cleaning up. And the program's reach goes beyond rural backroads: Its work may involve clearing trash in the community or other projects such as sprucing up a school with new paint, improving a park or placing U.S. flags on veterans' headstones at a cemetery.

"Farmers love the group because we're cleaning up a big mess," Stephens said. "My hope is that people see that we care—and maybe if you see people out actually working to clean up the mess, maybe they won't put it there. I'm trying to change a culture."

SAYlove has held more than a dozen monthly community participation days since the group's inception in the fall of 2018, Stephens said. The first event attracted 35 volunteers who picked up 26,000 pounds of trash, and the second drew 65 people who removed 46,000 pounds of trash. Between January and August 2019, hundreds of volunteers had picked up 300,000 pounds of trash, he said.

Julie Ann Jackson of Yuba City volunteered at the first SAYlove cleanup day.

"It's yucky work, but it's fun because we're all doing it together," she said. "It is really encouraging to see parents teaching their children community service. We have young children who come with their parents, but also teenagers as well."

After each project, a yellow sign is placed at the location to inform others that the cleanup was done by SAYlove volunteers. Photo by Christine Souza

Cleanup and conversations

Erica Hernandez of Marysville also enjoys volunteering with SAYlove, saying it has brought the community closer and helped change attitudes and behaviors. After cleaning trash dumped along the river bottom near a homeless encampment, volunteers left extra trash bags behind for the homeless residents to use.

"What we're seeing is, they are gathering the garbage for us and they have it for us in bags ready to take it to the dump, instead of throwing it on the ground," Hernandez said. "Some will take the bags and start cleaning with us."

A visit to clean the homeless camp also led to a conversation with an 18-year-old homeless woman who expressed a need for help, Hernandez said. Due to the work Hernandez does at Sutter Health, she was able to help the woman find housing and some assistance, she said.

"Everyone has a story, and most of the people down there just want someone to listen," Hernandez said.

After each project, a yellow sign is placed at the location to inform others that the cleanup was done by SAYlove volunteers. Symren Takher, whose family grows peaches, prunes, walnuts and almonds in Sutter County, remembers when her father discovered one of the yellow signs near their land.

"There had been a couch dumped on one of the roads near our house and one day it was gone," she said. "My dad mentioned that (SAYlove) cleaned up all of the junk."

After that, Farm Credit West, where Takher works as assistant vice president of the Yuba City branch, became involved as a sponsor, and staff volunteered in a community participation day.

"We take pride in cleaning the community," she said. "These are areas that we all drive by and see every day, so to be able to clean it up, it goes a long way."

Stephens said the program is achieving what it was designed to do; even more important than a cleaner community, residents are building a more empowered one, together.

"Instead of feeling hopeless, it is creating hope, instilling in people that change is possible," he said.

Christine Souza

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