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Mills’ first farm manager digs in


(Calli Storrs) Alisha Strater is Mills’ first farm manager, a job that requires a wide range of skills such as organization, communication and outreach. Here she is layering cardboard that supports mushroom mycelium with new cardboard that has been soaking in water, so that the mycelium have more food and space to grow.

Alisha Strater sits on the gravel of the greenhouse, peeling apart cardboard that’s been soaking in water. Carefully, she layers the cardboard with white dots of mushroom mycelium to encourage growth.

Strater, Mills’s first Urban Farm manager, has only been here for a little over a month and has already dived into planning and incorporating the farm into the Mills community. The farm is projected to be completed by 2020, a fairly quickly paced timeline, so the base built now will set the tone for the years to come.

Strater has experience working as a farm manager at the College of the Atlantic in Maine, organizing educational farm tours, and starting a campus farm at Castlemont High School — down the road from Mills — in just one year.

Karen Fiene, the co-chair of the Sustainability Committee and member of the Urban Farm sub-committee, was impressed with Strater’s eight year experience in integrating education with agricultural environments. Out of the hundred resumes, Fiene felt that Strater fit the bill as Mills’ new Urban Farm manager. 

“She’ll put the thought and time into making it meaningful,” Fiene said. “There’s a deep level of caring for the land.”

Strater began her career in the agricultural education industry in 2004 when she was hired as a puppeteer to perform a show on local versus non-local food sources. That show made her think about her relationship with the land, and catalyzed her journey into agriculture.

From there, Strater gathered experience that fit with the Urban Farm’s three focuses — the farm itself, curriculum involvement, and community inclusion — along the East Coast then moved to California in 2014 and continued as the farm manager for Castlemont Farm.

(Calli Storrs) The farm is hidden on the other side of the ridge, facing MacArthur Blvd.
(Calli Storrs)
The farm is hidden on the other side of the ridge, facing MacArthur Blvd.

The farm is situated on the side of the slope down from Ethel Moore and Mary Morse residence halls. There are 2.5 acres set aside for the farm. She is looking to get a small garden in that area up and running before summer begins and expand it later. Eventually, she will start requesting quotes for a deer fence, see what greenhouse space is needed and network with students.

Strater teamed up with biology professor Sarah Swope’s Plant Ecology class to plant mushrooms that will precede the orchard. The fungi roots will help extend the root system of the trees and aid in getting the trees all the nutrients and water they need.

Student Andrea Kuftin is currently enrolled in the Plant Ecology class. She believes that growing your own food can be empowering and promotes a healthy mind and body.

“It would be really beneficial to get students involved in urban agriculture,” Kuftin said. “She seems like a go-getter and is always very friendly.”

(Calli Storrs) Strater gives instructions on Mar. 1st, the day the Plant Ecology broke ground for the Urban Farm.
(Calli Storrs)
Strater gives instructions on Mar. 1st, the day the Plant Ecology broke ground for the Urban Farm.

Beyond the immediate future, Strater hopes to engage the Mills students and bring local community members in to work on the farm. She has high expectations for the farm’s future such as starting a committee for food justice, having animals on the farm, offering workshops and fundraisers, and experimenting with medicinal plants. As of now, she is focused on knowing what the Mills and East Oakland communities want from the farm.

Strater welcomes the local community and feels that Mills students can learn from working on the farm and from working in neighborhood projects that already exist.

“I see it as a real potential for Mills to have beneficial relationships with the community that it exists in,” Strater said.