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Our Commitment to Growth

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The initial focus of MUST will be to help at-risk and underserved youth. By strengthening after-school and educational programs, healthy lifestyles, sports leagues, and other opportunities for youth, MUST's founders hope to inspire positive changes that will extend to families and their communities.

"If you radiate out from that need, you find that you touch homelessness. You touch poverty. You touch spousal abuse, family abuse and drug abuse," explains MUST board member Terry Hoage, of Terry Hoage Vineyards. "We felt if we started with the core, we would find ways of funding, helping, and being proactive in other areas, as well."

Becky Gray, MUST's first executive director, joined the organization in February. She is already looking at long-term goals. "If we can reach out to those kids who don't have the support and infrastructure they need, we can make a big impact in their lives," she says. "Ultimately, that will break the chain of poverty down the line."

In gathering the money necessary to fund the new charity, MUST's founders decided they did not want to divert dollars and resources from existing organizations. So, MUST is developing other strategies. For instance, Eric Jensen, a board member and the owner of Booker Wines, has added one dollar to the price of each bottle sold in his tasting room. This allows Jensen to raise funds without soliciting donations from the local community.

"The wine industry needs to be a leader in this. We're the biggest industry in the area, and we need to be out front of charitable giving," Jensen says.

Rabobank, N.A.'s role in the creation of MUST was to provide seed money, along with guidance on structuring the organization, setting goals, and seeking contributions.

"Without Rabobank's support, we probably would still be sitting at a dining room table rehashing great ideas. The donation has definitely helped us move things along," says Sabrina Kruse. She and her husband Doug founded Jack Creek Cellars and also serve on the MUST board. "The additional donation of support and counsel that Rabobank has so graciously given has put us on a business level, instead of a wishful or thoughtful level."

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During the Solarthon, a group of volunteer Rabobank, N.A. employees worked alongside more than 100 individuals installing solar panels on eight homes being built through Peoples' Self-Help Housing, an organization that helps low-income families find, and sometimes build, affordable homes. The bank also donated money to the event.

Over time, the eight photovoltaic systems that were installed will generate an estimated 1.3 million kilowatts of clean energy and keep 580 tons of greenhouse gas emissions out of the atmosphere. However, the economic impact of the solar equipment is just as important as the environmental impact. Each system installed by GRID Alternatives is free for qualified homeowners, thanks to donations, state rebates, and county permit fee waivers. And, each system lowers families' utility bills by 75 to 95 percent.

"Families that might have had a $100 monthly utility bill are now down to $25. That $75 worth of savings can go into a money market account or be savings for the future. It can pay down debt, or be used for education or other things," says Knapp.

The impact has been even greater for Stephanie and Kevin Houser, who moved into a new 1,200-square-foot house in January. Bank volunteers helped the Housers install their panels during the Solarthon. "Our last electricity bill was somewhere in the neighborhood of $3," says Stephanie. "It's a blessing."

The system will save the family a projected $16,000 over the coming years. As a result, the Housers feel comfortable looking beyond food, shelter and clothing to the occasional treat, such as birthday parties for their daughters. Their youngest turned three on the day they moved into their new home.

"We are so thankful for all those people who simply wanted to help out a low-income family that they don't even know. They didn't just get out the checkbook. They got out their work shirts and rolled up their sleeves. That's what really makes a community. That's what really counts," Houser says.

Knapp agrees that it's about helping others and building community. "When they don't have to worry about paying bills, these residents can leverage assets back into other areas," she says. "What Rabobank does is almost like paying it forward. They are helping families become more economically viable in their community, and that makes the whole community more economically viable. It's a domino effect."

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The Castillo's apartment homes have gas barbecues that are available for cookouts and special celebrations with friends, family members, and neighbors; and there are on-site laundry facilities, plus a computer lab, and a common room with a television and books for residents.

"This is great. I so love this place," says Castillo. "It's made a big difference. I have a park here, I have a pool and now we can walk the kids to school."

The 76-unit Brawley Pioneers complex provides a budget-friendly option for local farm workers who, like Castillo and her family, have few affordable housing alternatives in the area. Residents pay a monthly rent equal to 30 percent of their income, and the remaining costs are covered by United States Department of Agriculture funds. Rabobank, N.A. supplied nearly $12 million in construction financing for the project, which was also supported by low-income tax credits, and tax credits for energy efficient construction.

Incorporating solar panels, low-flow toilets, and other green components allowed developers to seek Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for the complex. As a result, Castillo says her family's utility bills are as low as $30 per month because of energy-saving features in their apartment.

"It's for the long-term good of the project, and of the community, to conserve these resources," explains Chelsea Investment Corporation President Cheri Hoffman. She calls Rabobank a "partner of choice" for her organization, particularly for projects in agricultural communities such as Brawley.

"We always go to Rabobank for these projects in Imperial County and other rural areas. They are present there, and they have branch offices and banking there," Hoffman says. "They certainly understand farm labor, and they understand the nature of the rural community. They are just more user-friendly...I can't say enough good things about Rabobank and the staff."

By funding affordable housing projects such as the Brawley Pioneers Apartments, Rabobank, N.A. and Chelsea Investment Corporation create new opportunities and change the lives of residents. Such is the case for Castillo, who says she likes everything about her family's new home.

"It feels so comfortable here. It's a really good experience living on our own, and the rent based on income is really helpful. This apartment is really good," she says.

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"We thought, wouldn't it be great if we brought the field trip to the schools?" This would solve a perpetual problem. "Schools in California are so challenged by budget issues that they can't get on buses to go to field trips," Laverty said.

Since its August 2011 launch, the Ag in Motion mobile lab has reached more than 7,000 Stanislaus and Merced County students. When the classroom-on-wheels comes to a school, students and teachers choose from one of five labs: seed dispersal, bug and butterfly anatomy, light and photosynthesis, strawberry DNA extraction, or plant identification via a dichotomous key. Each class session is taught by a teacher traveling with the classroom, and then students get the opportunity to watch career videos designed to motivate aspiring young scientists. Natalie (a student) and traveling teacher Jennifer Stolle are pictured in the lab.

The Ag in Motion experience, including instruction and supplies, is free to participating schools. Rabobank, N.A. contributed $50,000 toward the $150,000 classroom construction costs, and some of the bank's dollars also support the traveling teacher's salary. In addition, employees from Rabobank, N.A volunteer for National Ag Science Center fundraising events and serve on its board of directors.

When Ag in Motion visited Patterson's Creekside Middle School in January, students discussed seeds before tackling a hands-on lesson.

"We made a structure and put it in front of a fan, because we wanted to see how far it would go to disperse seeds," explains 13-year-old Harmeet Kaur. She and her lab partner fashioned a paper airplane that carried lima bean seeds for 42 inches. "It was fun learning more about plants. I didn't know there were so many things that actually help plants reproduce," Kaur says.

Tom Niblett, a science teacher at Creekside Middle School, agrees that most schools simply can't afford to give students Ag in Motion-type experiences without outside support.

"If teachers want to do a lab of this nature, they are forced to pay for materials out of their own pockets. Otherwise, the lab would most likely not happen," he says. He finds Ag in Motion particularly important because it introduces students to one of the region's main economic drivers - agriculture.

"A lot of our students do not have the life experiences that give them knowledge about where food actually comes from. Some of them were shocked that almonds and walnuts are seeds, or that avocado is a fruit and contains a seed," he says.

"It is so fun to be standing in the doorway of the mobile classroom when students walk in. They just light up...They get totally engaged in science and want to learn more and more," Laverty says. "The schools all want us to come back."

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"The products that we develop are all what we refer to as 'plug and play.' It's very similar to a coffee pot – you plug it into a wall, add water and a bit of nutrients, and you've got food growing at a rapid pace," explains O'Connor, the company's CEO.

Mobile Farming Systems' equipment ranges from the Veg Buddy, a small structure perfect for growing on a patio or balcony, to the company's flagship product, the 40-foot Mobile Grow Trailer. Outfitted with grow lights and shelves full of trays for planting, the trailer can produce some 20,000 heads of lettuce annually. One client wants to purchase trailers to grow kosher fruits and vegetables in the eastern United States and as far away as Israel. Other clients are interested in providing communities with fresh produce during snowy winters. And, because it can be easily transported by shipping container or towed behind a truck, the Mobile Grow Trailer also shows promise in disaster recovery efforts and hunger relief.

Major marketing efforts are set to kick off in the spring of 2012, and O'Connor is also in the process of moving his manufacturing and fulfillment operations to the Coachella Valley from various western United States locations. His team made that decision after working with the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership (CVEP), a Palm Springs-based organization that educates workers, assists start-ups and attracts new companies to the area. The nonprofit also hosts one of 12 California Innovation Hub (iHub) sites, each designed to foster clean technology ventures.

CVEP is trying to be a "one-stop shop for businesses in the community," says its Chief Operating Officer Wesley Ahlgren, including maintaining "incubator space for six emerging entrepreneurs who are invited to work on site, taking advantage of training, mentoring, and networking opportunities, for up to three years each." "We look at whether a company will create jobs, lease space, hire people...if they're going to do that, they are a good client for us. It's all about job creation and being part of the community," Ahlgren says.

More established business owners, such as O'Connor, can also capitalize on CVEP's support and connections while maintaining offices elsewhere. "CVEP has helped us a lot, and we wouldn't be where we are without them," O'Connor says.

CVEP is housed in the Rabobank Regional Business Center (Center), a facility completed with the help of Rabobank, N.A.'s $250,000 capital investment. "Rabobank is a leader. The bank is on the cutting edge of economic growth in our region," says Ahlgren. "They not only wrote the check [for the Center], but are also very engaged on a daily basis with everything going on here." That engagement allows CVEP team members to better support entrepreneurs like O'Connor. O'Connor concurred, saying "They are legitimately going out and trying to bring businesses to the valley. They're great, great partners."

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"People would say, 'You're going to be a farmer.' That's what my dad said, too," recalls Mizuki, who has always enjoyed the independence and access to nature that farming provides. I had enjoyed agriculture since I was a kid, so I knew I was going to get into that."

Upon his return, Mizuki purchased a 40-acre plot adjacent to his family's original ten acres. Unfortunately, there were abnormalities on some of the vines. A UC Davis scientist diagnosed a virus that would eventually wipe out the entire crop. So, on the advice of a friend, Mizuki slowly converted his land from grapes to almonds.

Like many farmers, Mizuki hit a financial rough patch in the early 1990s and turned to local banks for help. Most were not in a position to provide funding, but one bank referred him to Valley Small Business Development Corporation (VSBDC or Valley). Before long, he had found a supportive partner in President and CEO Debra Raven. Her organization has loaned money to farmers and small businesses since 1981. In more recent years, Rabobank, N.A. has provided VSBDC with funding that supports small agricultural enterprises in central California.

"It just goes smoothly. I give her my plans and forecasts, and I am always up front with her. Debbie's been wonderful – she's believed in me and trusted me, and I've always tried to live up to my word. I think so far I have," Mizuki says.

"Jim is the type of borrower that relationship banking is all about," says Raven. "It's all about communication and trust. We believe in Jim's plan, and I think Jim believes in the products Valley can provide to carry out that plan. It's really a partnership, and we're grateful that Rabobank has provided us money to be able to help people like Jim."

Today, Mizuki's almond business is going strong. Except for occasionally hiring help during harvest time, he still plants, prunes, irrigates, and weeds his 50-acre orchard by himself. That's no small feat for a farmer in his 80s.

"As long as I'm able, I'd rather do it myself. What am I going to do, hire someone and then sit and watch?" he laughs. "The acreage is not that big, and so what if it takes me an extra three days to do it. This way, I keep myself occupied. Physically, I'm capable."

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