Merritt College Program Whets Appetites for Urban Ag
Story by Rachel Trachten | Photos by Kerstin Firmin
Elizabeth Boegel was determined not to be a gardener. “I grew up camping and hiking and gardening whether I wanted to or not,” she says. “My dad had a big garden anywhere he went, and my mother would preserve all the vegetables for winter. I remember watching my mom can tomatoes in August in Maryland, and they didn’t use air conditioning. I said, ‘I’m never doing this,’ but of course now I’m doing it.”
Not only did Boegel build an urban farm on her own property, she also transformed an overgrown yard at Oakland’s Merritt College into a thriving student garden. As the urban agroecology coordinator for the school’s Natural History & Sustainability program, Boegel teaches the skills and practices of urban agriculture, including sustainable farming and food systems, school and community gardens, and food access in underserved communities. The rich curriculum combines academic study, hands-on gardening, field trips, and internships as it prepares students to work on farms and for nonprofits and government agencies.
‘Up to My Neck with Weeds and Chain-link Fence’
In many ways, it was Boegel’s family life that trained her for this job. Rewind 19 years to find Boegel and her husband, Tom, raising their two toddlers in Walnut Creek. “The property had been a rental for 40 years and was very run-down. I was literally up to my neck with weeds and chain-link fence,” she says, shaking her head at the memory. Boegel started her garden by planting native flowers. Realizing that she could also grow food to feed her family, she gradually added raised beds for her crops, and when the kids outgrew their play structure, she used the space to grow more food. Dubbed Poppy Corners by Boegel’s family, the suburban plot bursts with veggies, herbs, fruit trees, flowers, bees, and chickens, and the Boegels share the bounty with their lucky neighbors.
When Boegel was 49 and her kids went off to college, she followed suit, seeking the degree she hadn’t completed the first time around. She started at Merritt College in Oakland, earning certificates in horticulture and nursery management, then transferred to CSU East Bay for a degree in environmental studies. Even before Boegel’s graduation in December 2021, Ben Nelson, who directs Merritt’s Natural History & Sustainability program, hired her to lead and revitalize the program’s urban agroecology track. (Students can earn certificates in any of three tracks: Natural History & Resources; Conservation & Resource Management; and Urban Agroecology. Courses in urban ag include requirements like Social Issues in Agriculture, Bay Area Food Culture, and Environmental Racism and Justice, as well as a choice of electives like Permaculture Design, Edible Landscaping, and Botany.)
Boegel started her job in January 2022, joining Nelson and the program’s workforce development manager, Brad Balukjian, who had been clearing out and reclaiming an area located at the back of campus when Covid hit. Once a thriving structure and garden known as the Self-Reliant House, it had been an example of a 1979 tract home constructed following ecological principles. Over the years, though, the area had fallen into disrepair and trash had accumulated. By the time she arrived, Boegel says, “It was just this blank canvas with gravelly, rocky soil. The trash was cleared out for the most part, but I’ll still go out in the garden and find a piece of metal that just burped up overnight.”
The first class she taught combined lectures on the theory of agroecology with hands-on labor: Students weeded, cleared, and planted, constructing a small teaching farm. “We built it from the ground up, and we built it with whatever we could find,” says Boegel. She adds that urban farming is very much about being scrappy and saving materials for future use.
When they started, she says, the area was lifeless. “I didn’t see one insect, not one bird, except for a blue jay that was curious about what I was doing. And now we have lizards, we have snakes, we have every kind of flying insect you can imagine. The soil is starting to improve; we’ve created a place that’s alive.”
The Self-Reliant House is now called the Environmental Center. It’s a cozy spot that serves as an office, classroom, and gathering space where students socialize and prepare creative salads with ingredients plucked from the garden.
‘They Want to Make a Difference in the World’
Boegel’s students are a capable, motivated bunch. Although they’ve ranged in age from 18 to 70-something, Boegel says that most are in their 30s and have professional jobs. “For instance, I’ve had a social worker, a psychologist, a mediator, and a fashion designer: people who have already had a great career or are still in it, and they’re looking for something different. They want to make a difference in the world.” Twenty are currently in the urban agroecology track—most attend part-time—and each brings particular skills and passion to the work.
Recent graduate Kerstin Firmin, for example, enriched the student farm by creating a hügel, a raised planting bed made of logs, sticks, and compost. Firmin also started the Snow Park monthly crop swap near Lake Merritt in Oakland. “It’s important to build a little bit of food security at the hyper-local level because we know how fragile our supply chain and food system are,” says Firmin. “I want to meet people who grow food and connect people in an ongoing way, so we can help each other in the neighborhood.”
Meanwhile, two of Firmin’s classmates have established new community spaces for growing food. Micah Rea planted tomatoes, peppers, and basil in her Temescal apartment building’s courtyard and began sharing it with neighbors. Soon, others joined the effort, transforming the courtyard into a friendly communal gardening space.
Jenifer Azulay claimed a strip of unused land near the Ohlone Greenway in Albany where she’s growing tomatoes, beans, squash, corn, and turnips. She’s hoping to get neighbors involved in the garden and is giving the food away to a local food pantry. (Read more about this project below.)
Student Alejandro Gomez had been living in Colombia and working for a business that made car batteries. He opted for a radical change. Moving to the Bay Area, he became the first international student pursuing the urban agroecology certificate. After joining the campus Sustainability Club, Gomez set up a weekly pickup of food scraps from the campus cafeteria, using them to maintain a compost pile for the student farm.
Retired attorney Mary Ann Meany doesn’t plan to pursue the certificate but is enjoying classes in an environment she describes as hospitable, welcoming, and more like a graduate seminar than community college. Since retiring, Meany has been a volunteer cook at Dorothy Day House in Berkeley, a service provider for unhoused people. Meany used her experience at Dorothy Day for a project in Boegel’s class where she mapped the food system for all the food that came into Dorothy Day and how it was used.
Boegel has high hopes for her students and for the program as a whole. She’s happy that a section of campus that had been abandoned is now a healthy, productive space that’s becoming a part of the Merritt community again. She’s building that connection by donating excess produce from the farm to the campus food pantry. She’s also thinking ahead, reflecting on the early childhood education center currently under construction on campus and how she might connect young children to the farm. “My main goals are to build a community, become an essential part of the Merritt campus, and get my students into jobs that fulfill them and pay enough for them to live here,” she says. “That would be really terrific.” ♦
Merritt College is located at 12500 Campus Dr, Oakland | merritt.edu
Rachel Trachten writes about local food in connection to social justice, education, business, and the environment. View her stories at racheltrachten.contently.com.
Kerstin Firmin is a photographer and advocate for urban wildlife and green spaces. With a deep background in nonprofit communications and management, she is a graduate of Merritt College’s Urban Agroecology program and currently serves as a California Climate Action Corps fellow at the City of Oakland.
A Merritt College Urban Agroecology Student Redefines Community Gardening
Who can use the land around us? What if I just planted something?
Jenifer Azulay asked herself such questions as she worked on a project for her Edible Landscaping class at Oakland’s Merritt College. The assignment was to take a space and reimagine it.
“I work with the Transition Berkeley Crop Swap and other great organizations that are sharing resources,” Azulay says, “so I wanted to make this an experiment in seeing what we can grow for free.”
She picked out a “rent-free” spot a few steps from where Berkeley’s Ohlone Greenway intersects Gilman Street, and with help from her “unpaid intern”—her nine-year-old son Max—she planted tomatoes, beans, squash, leeks, ground cherries, corn, turnips, and collards in a roughly 4- by 12-foot plot. In the center, she placed a colorful circular mosaic with the message “Grow Food.”
A soil test had ensured that the produce grown there would be safe to eat, so Azulay has been giving her crops to the Rose Street Food Pantry. In addition to the charity, she sees her patch as a “guerrilla gardening” experiment, a way to get people talking about and questioning who can use the land. At the nearby Peralta Community Garden, locals lucky enough to be granted a plot pay an annual fee, but the difference with Azulay’s project is that she hasn’t been “given” a space for planting; she’s simply planted. She’s quick to say that she’s not breaking chains, jumping fences, or cutting bolts to break into public spaces. She’s using land that she doesn’t technically own and raising the question of how best to use underutilized spaces.
“When there’s a barren strip in your neighborhood, and you also across the street have an encampment, it’s hard not to look at that barren strip with a critical eye and think, ‘what could we be growing here?’” she says. “What would happen if I just planted something?”
Azulay remembers when her grandparents’ flourishing garden was the center of their neighborhood. “I recognized that not only is it nourishing for individuals to be able to provide their own food, but it can help to fill gaps that I was seeing in the community,” she says. “A lot of organizations are asking for monetary donations, but my work is specifically around getting people to take time to connect with neighbors in a way that is supportive of all involved.”
As the volunteer coordinator for the Gardens at Lake Merritt, Azulay helps people connect with one another as they become stewards of the land. As a board member of Transition Berkeley, a grassroots organization focused on growing and sharing local food, choosing clean energy, and learning DIY skills, Azulay helps organize the group’s Crop Swap, where neighbors gather weekly to share homegrown produce and recipes.
The feedback from neighbors who see Azulay’s “Grow Food” garden has been overwhelmingly positive. When an arborist offered to donate mulch, she said, “Yes, please! This is a community effort.” She hopes that more neighbors will join in and expand their thinking about the meaning of a community garden.
“I’m trying to move away from the idea of community gardens as places where you have a plot that is yours,” she says. “It’s more about, let’s see what we can all plant in this space and all grow in this space.”
Environmental Center Garden Salad with Warm Dressing
Recipe and photo by Elizabeth Boegel, urban agroecology coordinator and part-time faculty member at Oakland’s Merritt College
My students are eager to harvest and eat the produce they grow, so our last half hour of class is often reserved for going out into the garden to see what’s ready to pick. We often bring the produce into our classroom kitchen to make salads to eat together as a group out in the sunshine.
For the mixed garden salad
- 4–5 cups mixed lettuces and tender greens
- 2–4 cups crunchy vegetables like peppers, green beans, carrots, beets, cabbage, celery, and cucumber, sliced or shredded
For the meats
- 5–6 slices bacon, diced
- 8–12 ounces chicken or other meat (raw or leftover cooked)
For the warm dressing
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Sunflower or pumpkin seeds or chopped walnuts, almonds, pecans, or pistachios
- Dried cranberries, raisins, or cherries
- Crumbled or shredded cheese like cheddar, parmesan, chevre, feta, or gorgonzola
- Sliced hard-boiled eggs
- Edible flowers like borage, nasturtium, and chives
Combine greens and veggies in a large bowl. Add optional adds ins, toss, and set aside.
In a large cast iron skillet, fry the bacon until crisp. Remove bacon and set aside to drain.
If you are using raw chicken or other meat, add to the hot bacon drippings and cook until the internal temperature reaches 165°F. Remove from drippings and set aside to drain. (If you are using leftover cooked meat, you could heat it up now by cooking lightly in the drippings or leave it cold.)
To the drippings, add the chopped shallot and garlic. Cook until softened and fragrant. Whisk vinegar, lemon juice, honey, and mustard into the cooked alliums and bacon drippings and cook over low heat until slightly thickened. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Chop cooked meat and add to the salad bowl. Crumble the bacon and add to the salad bowl. Add optional seeds, nuts, dried fruits, cheese, and hard-boiled eggs. Pour warm dressing over the salad, garnish with edible flowers, and serve immediately.