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New farm manager puts roots down at Mills

Since the beginning of this spring 2018 semester, Mills College’s Urban Farm has a new farm manager. While Julia Dashe has only been at Mills for two months, she has already dug right in.

Dashe was hired after Mills’ first and previous farm manager, Alisha Strater, turned in her resignation notice at the end of last semester in order to become a full-time student at Mills, Karen Fiene, Mills’ director of construction compliance and sustainability, said. Fiene was involved in the hiring process.

“I think [Julia’s] the right person at the right time,” Fiene said.

Dashe credits the experience she had in 2003 working at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at University of California Santa Cruz as one of the reasons she entered her current field of work.

“It opened my eyes to the beauty of working gardens,” Dashe said. “They sing the praises of farming that is so compelling.”

Dashe started the Urban Agricultural program at San Diego City College. The farm apprenticeship program that she started at SDCC in 2008, called Seeds of Leadership, teaches students about transplanting, weeding, pruning, harvesting, as well as organic agriculture and ecological horticulture. She hopes to establish it here at Mills.

Students have seen her involvement already, as Mills student Dylyn Turner-Keener can attest to.

“From the very beginning she was directing us on how to plant certain plants properly, how to trim the branches off of newly planted trees, but also how long the soil takes until it will be ready for use,” Turner-Keener wrote in an email. “In addition to her vast knowledge on farming techniques and tools, she truly enjoys what she does as a farm director.”

The Urban Farm got off the ground in the spring of 2016, when Strater was hired. The idea for the farm came from Mills alum Lauren Mesmer’s thesis in 2010. Originally, the Urban Farm had a plan that showed the estimated costs and revenue of the farm over a five-year span, by the end of which Fiene and others on the planning committee had hoped the farm to be fully operational, she said.

“We should have known it was a pretty ambitious plan,” Fiene said.

The plan focused on three hubs: farm, learning and community; the farm hub refers to the literal growth of the farm itself, getting the soil ready, plants in, etc. Hoping to strengthen ties with academic departments at Mills, Fiene said the learning hub was meant to encourage interdisciplinary curriculum. As for the community hub, the plan outlined outreach to include community members from outside Mills in collaboration with what the Urban Farm could offer and opening the farm to the local area. Fiene mentioned that Bon Appetit already buys produce from the farm.

“I see great prospects for these community connections,” Fiene said, adding that she wants to build meaningful relationships.

The farm was expected to follow a timeline and generate a certain amount of revenue that ended up proving unrealistic, Fiene said. In addition to nutrient deficient soil, the farm is situated on a slope, which makes maintaining row crops more difficult.

The farming hub has continued along its path, some things taking longer than expected, but generally sticking to the plan. There’s been a very good response from faculty who were interested in collaborating on the farm, Fiene said, including Sarah Swope from the biology department, Chris Sollars from the sculpture department and Kari Marboe from the fine arts department. Strater also taught a Farming and Food Justice class. However, community hub has been slower growing.

Turner-Keener commented on the sense of community on the farm.

“What stands out to me about Julia is her interest in not only the farm, but also the farm community. She is always checking in with us (farm employees) to see how we are doing and how are classes are going,” Turner-Keener wrote. “Julia brings not only a lot of direction to how to maintain the farm, but also how to nurture the farm the best way possible. Julia also brings a sense of welcoming joy and pride to the farm community. Which will be of great use as the farm moves forward to do some more community outreach.”

Good soil takes at least four years, Dashe said, illustrating the time it takes for a farm to build the foundation it needs to sustain itself. Fiene also credits building a solid ‘infrastructure’ as one of the things that took more time than expected. Working toward good soil, putting in irrigation, setting up a wash station and installing a deer fence took time.

“We’ve done all those infrastructures except the kitchen, we’ve expanded the beds and the orchard’s almost done,” Fiene said. “Now we’re going to be focused on the students, and on our academic development.”

They will continue to focus on strengthening community ties, she added.

Dashe herself believes in the guiding ideas behind permaculture, which uses naturally occurring processes to lead the selection and consideration of plants, plant combinations and farming practices.

“It’s kind of a permaculture idea, you’re not just growing things, you’re growing the relationships between things,” Dashe said. “Most plants have more than one function.”

The ‘Three Sisters’ are an example of the permaculture ideology, where each plant provides something to the others. In some Native American cultures, they planted squash, beans and corn in mounds, which then assist each other. As the beans grow, they can climb the corn or maize, depositing nitrogen for the other plants to access, as the squash spreads across the ground, protecting the plants from bugs.

This method of farming, Dashe said, is more focused on relationships between plants than the large crop commercial scale model is concerned with. She mentioned pairing spinach, dinosaur kale and flowers in one bed. The dinosaur kale will grow tall enough to shade the spinach, while the flowers attract pollinators.

“Everything communicates with everything else,” Dashe said. “We get to see how science speaks to the land.”

Beans prime the soil with organically available nitrogen deposits, one of the few plants to be able to provide nitrogen in this form. Nitrogen is one of the most in-demand elements in the natural environment, as there are only a few plants able to convert nitrogen from its inaccessible gaseous form into physiologically processable forms.

“I think if people were aware of the amount of labor that goes into growing food then they wouldn’t be so quick to waste it,” Dashe said. “It’s not easy to grow food.”

She added that it is incredibly satisfying work.

Some farmers rotate crops, keeping the soil healthy and nutrient-rich, rather than replanting the same crop year after year to drain nutrients. In this way, permaculture thinking allows the farmers to maximize the relationships already in place, and maintain awareness of the workings of the plants around them.

“Over time as it [the farm] develops, it’s going to become really beautiful,” Dashe said. “It’s a living library of knowledge.”

She hopes it can be a library that both Mills and the greater Oakland community can access.

Currently, the farm has an orchard, greenhouse, some row crops, as well as a beehive. The upper edge of the slope is planted with fava beans, holding that space for berries possibly, Dashe said. Next on the list is to put in an outdoor kitchen/classroom area for workshopping events or hosting classes, get a composting program set up, and maybe a composting toilet, Fiene said, but that all depends on funding.

Funding for the farm has always been grant-based, Fiene said, so the farm manager position and the farm itself is reliant on outside funds to continue. She credits former Mills president Alicia DeCoudreaux, and previous Board of Trustee members Kathleen Burke and her husband, and the Heller Foundation for much financial support, and Mills AVP for Operations Linda Zitzner for time and energy put into the farm.

“It took a lot of commitment from a lot of people to get where we are today,” Fiene said, also citing the assistance of having a long-term vision.

Dashe hopes to have produce in the campus farm stand and at local farmers markets, increase interdisciplinary and interdepartmental work on the farm, and open the farm to local Oakland or Bay area collaborations.

If you’re interested in getting involved, farm volunteer days are Wednesdays and Thursdays from 1–4 p.m., and will be extended eventually to 1–5 p.m., Dashe said. On April 22 the farm is hosting Earth Day on the Farm which includes games and food.