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Berkeley-Based "Green Tours" Show Off Local Innovation

Bay Area Green Tours visits local green businesses to educate participants about everything from agriculture to electric cars.

When Marissa LaMagna lost the lease for her Berkeley green business in 2008, she decided to use her education in travel planning to create a new venture. 

"I didn't want to take people on trips to faraway places," said LaMagna, who took travel classes at Berkeley City College to help plan yoga and dance retreats for her previous business, the eco-friendly Studio Raza in West Berkeley. "I thought, what can I show people here? And then the lightbulb went on."

Inspired by the East Bay Green Corridor, created in 2007 to support emerging green businesses in the region, LaMagna founded (first known as East Bay Green Tours) in the fall of 2008 to give locals and visitors alike a view of the Bay Area they had never seen — from the inside of its organic farms and rooftop gardens.

The tours feature certified green businesses, environmental nonprofits, sustainable restaurants and farms, with lectures and demonstrations on how they do things differently than your average, non-sustainable organizations.

"It was very hard the first year," LaMagna said, reflecting on her efforts to recruit people to attend the first tours. Even now, though people seek out the tours, times are still tough. The organization is looking for sponsors for its farm tours, fearing it won't have the money to give them next year. The staff is primarily volunteers and interns with other jobs and school to attend to. In return for their time, interns each get to learn about an eco-topic of interest to them, like green building or sustainable agriculture.

"I think our greatest assets are the people attracted by Marissa and her vision," said Beth Gelfand, the organization's operations and interns manager. "That team spirit is part of what keeps people here."

On Wednesday afternoon, the Bay Area Green Tours team huddled around a conference table in their shared office space inside  on Allston Way near Oxford Street, sharing pictures and memories from Sunday's farm tour in Brentwood, CA. Photographed were jars of jam from Frog Hollow Farm, dried peaches, an olive grove and numerous scenes with picturesque Mount Diablo in the background.

The group discussed their upcoming trial run of a tour of green businesses on the San Francisco waterfront, featuring the TCHO chocolate factory at Pier 17 and Levi's among other institutions, strategically organized so it won't incur the expense of renting a bus.

There are two upcoming tours: a green walking tour of Berkeley on August 19 for $15 per person and another farm tour of Brentwood on October 8 for $85 per person (plus $15 for an optional lunch), this time featuring seasonal apples and pumpkins. The Berkeley tour will offer "an insider's view" of Downtown Berkeley establishments, such as , and .

In July, the Bay Area Green Tours won a $5,000 grant from the Chancellor's Community Partnership Fund to create a "Welcome to Berkeley" tour to connect new students at UC Berkeley to the community and show them eco-friendly places to shop near campus "so they don't feel like they have to go to IKEA or order [items] online," LaMagna said.

Groups can also pay for private tours. The price varies by destination and the number of participants, but the bus rental alone costs $1,000 according to LaMagna. Offerings include a "Farm to Fork" food tour, a green tour of San Francisco and other tours where participants can "touch, taste, feel and see sustainable solutions in action" — featuring organic cheese and wine, green buildings, green jobs organizations, electric cars and alternative fuels.

LaMagna said there is "no rhyme or reason" to describe the tour attendees. "We've had the Composting Council of America," she said. "We had the Economic League of Philadelphia come."

Students in Berkeley High School's Green Academy have also participated in tours, getting to visit , and , among other East Bay organizations.

LaMagna's favorite tour moments are when she sees someone inspired by what they learn along the way. She recalled a Berkeley High School student who, after a green building tour and creating his own model building with solar panels and other environmentally-conscious features, told her he wanted to become an architect.

"I think people learn by example," she said. "I want people to come away feeling enlightened and empowered that there are solutions for a much more sustainable future."

For more information on upcoming tours, visit bayareagreentours.org/registration.html

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