At Fertile GroundWorks, volunteers grow food to help ensure that neighbors have full plates
By Rachel Trachten | Photos by Zach Pine
On a December morning, the rising price of straw is on Brenda Kusler’s mind as she deftly spreads straw mulch around baby cabbage plants. She takes a break from the cabbages to help stack and store tomato cages, then notices a tube that’s come loose from the rainwater catchment system. A quick reattachment of the tube, a few words to a garden worker about surplus pumpkins that must be given away, and then she’s back to the cabbages.
As executive director at Fertile GroundWorks, Kusler is often in multitask mode as she oversees 1,500 garden volunteers who, in 2023 alone, helped grow nearly 28,000 pounds of organic produce for 6,500 neighbors experiencing food insecurity. Since 2012, Fertile GroundWorks has harvested and donated over 230,000 pounds of food. The Livermore nonprofit, housed on land provided by the Asbury United Methodist Church, donates its impressive harvest to local community kitchens, food pantries, and other Tri-Valley organizations that distribute food.
On this sunny winter morning, about 40 volunteers bustle around the garden. Some are regulars who for years have come every Tuesday to help out. Others are first-timers, like the team of 18 US Bank employees who have converged from different parts of the state for a morning of digging and planting.
Among the regulars, twin sisters Karen Mamuyac and Louise Pacini volunteer every Tuesday, driving from their respective homes in Piedmont and Pleasanton. Mamuyac sits down to chat, but Pacini isn’t ready to leave the blackberry vines she’s training to wrap around support wires. “I love playing in the dirt and I love seeing my sister, so it was a good combination,” says Mamuyac, who started volunteering after retiring from a career in health care management. After working in the garden, the sisters always head back to Pacini’s house for lunch.
Longtime volunteer Chunba Lee, who landed at Fertile GroundWorks after a career as an engineer, appreciates the problem-solving aspect of gardening and the way there’s always something new to figure out. She and Mamuyac explain how they prevented the tomatillo plants from spreading and flopping onto neighboring beds by using sticks bound together with zip ties. “You have to come up with creative ways to do things on a shoestring,” says Mamuyac.
A few minutes later, Pacini joins the conversation. “I spent a career in high tech, working on contracts and looking longingly out the window,” she says. All three women agree that not only is it fun to volunteer at Fertile GroundWorks, it’s a great place to learn new things. “I tell people coming to garden here that everybody learns: Even if you’re a longtime gardener, you learn new ways to do things and methods you hadn’t contemplated before,” says Pacini. Her sister nods in agreement, adding the strongest motivation of all: “I can’t stand the idea of people not having enough food. And so, if I can do something to help people get food, in the end I feel like what we’ve done is really meaningful.”
As the women talk, volunteer Lance Sloan, a retired computer science engineer, weighs the season’s last tomatoes on a scale. Sloan usually comes to the garden four days per week, and his careful work helps track not only how much produce is grown and given away, but how the different beds and crops are faring. Each bed is labeled with a code, which Sloan records in a notebook along with the names and weights of the produce. Today’s list includes broccoli, cauliflower, ground cherries, tomatoes, peppermint, pomegranate, and eggplant. When Sloan is finished, this produce will be whisked into a car headed for food pantries at Tri-Valley Haven and One Nation Dream Makers.
Sloan stays focused on his task as the group from US Bank walks by, chatting and laughing on their way to lunch. “Being here was fun and rewarding for us,” says Batie Favro, a market operations analyst at the bank. “It was exciting to find out how all these veggies are distributed, and we learned a lot about what we could do in our own gardens.”
Today, the 18 bankers have prepared new beds, planted rows of cabbage and red onions, and learned how compost is made with guidance from volunteer coordinator Lori Pohlmann. She works not only with corporate groups, but also with students, scouts, and individuals, teaching them biointensive gardening, small-scale organic orchardry, composting, and water conservation. She extends the nonprofit’s educational mission by visiting local schools to help them start or maintain their own gardens.
A Pastor’s Vision
Back in 2010, pastor Chuck Johnstone was looking for ways to use some of the church’s acreage to benefit the community. Johnstone had connected with master gardener Bruce Campbell, who agreed to start a food garden with help from a few church volunteers. Originally known as the Garden of Grace, Fertile GroundWorks was up and running by fall 2010.
Brenda Kusler arrived to volunteer in 2013 after reading an article about the garden in a local newspaper. Like many of the garden’s volunteers, Kusler is a scientist; she was doing biological research in autoimmune disease and oncology at Stanford. She also had experience writing grants and had been a volunteer coordinator for a women’s shelter, two skills that helped keep the garden thriving. When Campbell retired in 2018, Kusler took over as executive director.
Volunteers appreciate Kusler’s levity and describe her as “inspiring,” “super knowledgeable,” and “a wonderful leader.” “Brenda really cares about what she’s doing and how she’s making a difference,” says Christi Williams, program coordinator for Open Heart Kitchen. Williams picks up produce each Wednesday and distributes it through pop-up food pantries, senior center meals, and Open Heart Kitchen’s outreach to unhoused people.
With funding from Kaiser, Sandia, and individual donors, the garden will soon add 5,000 square feet in garden beds to the 15,000 square feet currently in use. One of Kusler’s goals for the space is to increase the diversity of their crops. “We’re trying to grow produce that people are missing from their childhoods and that are their comfort foods.” Toward that end, she created a survey—translated into 20 languages—asking recipients of the produce which fruits and vegetables they’d prefer in the coming year. Requests so far include custard apples, burdock (aka gobo), and pennywort.
Asked what she most enjoys about her work, Kusler says, “It really is the people. And I love seeing things grow and change with the seasons and knowing that what we’re growing will be shared in the community.”
She also appreciates that so many community members feel a personal connection to the garden. “It’s been kind of amazing, going into local businesses and having somebody take you aside and say, ‘when my parents divorced, my mom and I went to the food pantries, and I just want to say thank you. I know who you are, and here’s your discount for keeping me alive when I was a kid.’” ♦
4743 East Ave, Livermore
Sign up online to volunteer on a Tuesday or Wednesday 9am–noon, Friday 3–6pm, or Saturday 9am–noon.
On a visit to Fertile GroundWorks, writer Rachel Trachten and photographer Zach Pine gathered plenty of inspiration for their home garden. Zach also got the full volunteer experience as Brenda Kusler put him to work sorting ground cherries and carrying equipment whenever he put down his camera. Follow Zach’s environmental art projects and events at zpcreatewithnature.com and sandglobes.org and read Rachel’s stories at clippings.me/rachel_trachten.
VOLUNTEER AT A GARDEN NEAR YOUR HOME OR WORKPLACE
This list highlights garden projects that specifically address community food insecurity. If you know of one we missed, please send us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll add it here.
Acta non Verba Youth Urban Farm Project at 1001 83rd Ave, Oakland, offers youth programming and distribution of produce to neighborhood families.
A network of gardeners, Alameda Backyard Growers donates produce to the Alameda Food Bank. Project Pick volunteers collect excess fruit from backyard fruit trees.
City Slicker Farms at 2847 Peralta St, Oakland, recently joined the Acta Non Verba Farm Project. Contact Acta non Verba (above) about volunteering.
Clare’s Food Garden at St. Clare’s Episocopal Church, 3350 Hopyard Rd, Pleasanton, and Eden Organic Garden at Crosswinds Church, 1660 Freisman Rd, Livermore, are both managed by the Livermore-Amador Valley Garden Club. Volunteers grow produce to donate to East Bay organizations.
CoCo San Sustainable Farm at 5500 Imhoff Dr, Martinez, is volunteer-run and provides sustainably grown produce to soup kitchens, food pantries, food banks, and other nonprofits.
The Deep Medicine Circle Rooftop Farm in Oakland hosts volunteers every Thursday. Read our Spring 2024 story here.
To grow local food security, Dig Deep Farms operates four food-production sites around Alameda County and is developing two more.
The Edible Schoolyard Project at MLK Jr. Middle School, 1781 Rose St, Berkeley, provides education in the garden and kitchen for students and families.
Farm2Market Urban Farm at 2600 Barbers Point Rd, Alameda, is a social enterprise growing produce for CSA distribution and donation to the Alameda Food Bank.
A community garden and pocket park, ForestR—Paradise Garden at 20095 Mission Blvd, Hayward, grows food for a variety of uses and also manages backyard fruit-tree gleaning programs.
Volunteers help out at the Gardens at Lake Merritt, where teaching self-reliance and combating issues of hunger and violence go hand in hand.
Gill Tract Community Farm, 1050 San Pablo Ave, Albany, is an urban farming and research collaboration between an intentional community of farmers and UC Berkeley. Produce is sold at their farmstand and also donated to East Bay organizations.
The gardens maintained by Fremont LEAF (Local Ecology and Agriculture Fremont) at 55 Mowry Ave, Fremont (LEAF Stone Garden), and 36501 Niles Blvd, Fremont (LEAF Center), serve the community with educational programs and donations to Tri-City organizations.
The Mills Community Farm at Northeastern University, Oakland, provides urban agriculture instruction to students, food for on-campus dining, and a CSA program for East Oakland residents. Email farm manager Julia Dashe at email@example.com
Founded with a mission to create green jobs for people transitioning from prison, Planting Justice regularly hosts volunteers at their farm in El Sobrante and East Oakland nursery.
A network of backyard farms around Oakland, Pollinate Farm sells at the Freedom Farmers’ Market and also offers a CSA program.
REAP Climate Center at 2133 Tynan Ave, Alameda, has volunteer opportunities, including an urban farming program that speaks to equity.
San Leandro 2050, a resident-led nonprofit committed to curbing carbon emissions and improving local quality of life, manages the San Leandro Community Garden at 14235 Bancroft Ave, San Leandro, and donates produce to the community food pantry.
At Spiral Gardens Community Farm, 838 Sacramento St, Berkeley, volunteers plant and harvest as part of a food security project.
Sunflower Hill Garden, 455 Olivina Ave, Livermore, is managed as an instructional and therapeutic space for adults with developmental disabilities. Produce is donated to Tri-Valley organizations.
Sustainable Solano organizes volunteers to build and maintain sustainable vegetable gardens for communities across Solano County.
In addition to their regular volunteer days at three growing sites in Richmond, Urban Tilth offers free farm stands, CSA, cooking classes, and educational and training programs.
At Vallejo People’s Garden on Mare Island, volunteers grow organic fruits and vegetables for community members, food banks, and senior lunch kitchens.
Thanks to StopWaste for their very helpful resource page at stopwaste.org/at-home/home-and-community-gardening.