A Landscape of the Imagination

Creativity blooms on the Mills Community Farm

By Rachel Trachten | Watercolor by Karen Fiene | Photos by Zach Pine


This watercolor painting of Mills Community Farm is by former campus architect Karen Fiene, who played a key role in establishing the farm. Find more of the artist’s impressions of Mills College and other local urban and rural landscapes at karenfiene.art.


Mills Community Farm manager Julia Dashe (left) and assistant farm
manager Maya Sun share a mirthful moment among the fava plants.

Julia Dashe has an expansive vision for the 2.5 acres she manages on the grounds of Oakland’s Mills College (which merged with Northeastern University in 2022).

“Farms are landscapes of the imagination,” says Dashe. “Gardening can be an embodied practice for creative expression.”

Such expression is easy to spot on this hillside farm where artistic metal gates mark the entrance to the patch, a vibrant mural covers the side of the tool shed, and woodcut-print prayer flags inside the shed honor wind, worm, and leaf. Singing is a tradition here, too. Dashe even managed to keep her “farm choir” going during the pandemic as they sang safely spaced among the crops. Today, farm crew member Tanvi Mathur describes how they started the morning’s work by singing to honor National Poetry Day.

Dashe oversees a farm crew of 20 students, all of whom are paid for their work. They learn about beneficial insects, pollinators, companion planting, and the importance of crop rotation.

On this March morning, six farm crew members are present and busy pulling weeds, spreading mulch, and learning from assistant farm manager Maya Sun how to lay string along the soil to mark neat rows for planting. Crew members say their favorite parts of the job are harvesting food and making floral bouquets, and they appreciate being outdoors and getting exercise as a welcome contrast to sitting in front of a computer.

Dashe moves with ease up and down the hilly terrain inside the fence that separates the farm from busy MacArthur Boulevard. “We’re on a slope,” she says. “When you walk around the farm, it’s like you’re dancing with the soil.”


Farm crew members (left to right) Mariana Kaulbach, Yehsun Cho, and Amelie Groeschel work together to load mulch into wheelbarrows.


A site begging to be developed

Dashe came to Mills in 2018 after cofounding a farm at San Diego City College, where she also helped create a certificate program in urban farming. Her delight in and knowledge about every plant and tree at the Mills farm is evident as she walks around offering details about chard, collards, yerba buena, lemons, and stinkhorn (a mushroom). Warmer weather will bring sugar snap peas, green beans, and cucumbers, and the orchard will soon burst with a medley of fruit. Dashe speaks proudly of the variety they grow: figs, blackberries, nectarines, plums, apricots, peaches, and the cherries, which she hopes to pick before the birds and squirrels get to them.

The farm’s history dates to 2010, when graduate business student Lauren Messmer proposed the idea of a campus farm as a thesis project. She needed to show a physical location, so she approached Karen Fiene, then the campus architect, who joined up with Linda Zitzner, facilities manager, and Britta Bullard, the school’s sustainability coordinator, to find a potential site.

“The three of us were a little group that championed the farm from the beginning,” says Fiene. “We got in the electric cart and drove all around campus. We looked at edges where there were no buildings, but we needed sun, and this site was just begging to be developed. It was very empty. It literally was a hillside filled with wild radish, which is an invasive. This oak tree was the only thing here except for a little almond tree up the hill. That was it.”


Julia Dashe (left) and Karen Fiene enjoy a walk through the fruit orchard, where the plum trees are blossoming. Fiene returned to the farm the week after this photo was taken to paint the stunning watercolor that appears on the first page of this story.


The challenges were substantial, but with a generous gift from Kathleen Burke and Ralph Davis and a donation from the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation, a master plan was developed, and the farm was gradually built and opened in 2016. Terraces were constructed to create flat spaces for planting, an irrigation system was installed, and 60 fruit trees were planted on the hill.

Dashe says that the merger with Northeastern has brought new possibilities. “Northeastern is extremely supportive of the farm and has prioritized sustainability throughout the campus,” she says.

Connecting with campus and community

On Tuesdays, the students harvest produce and flowers to sell at a campus farmstand. Anything that doesn’t sell is donated to the campus food pantry, where students can pick it up for free. From late spring through mid-fall, the crew helps prepare 20 CSA boxes that go to staff, faculty, students, and community members who have signed up for a weekly share. Some produce is sold to the dining service. When the harvest is plentiful, Dashe donates the excess to Mercy Brown Bag, a nonprofit that distributes to Alameda County seniors.

With pandemic disruptions and the merger now settled down, Dashe would like to resume the Farm Practicum that she taught pre-pandemic. She sees expansion ahead with more CSA boxes, additional beehives and chickens, and stronger connections with local urban farms and organizations like Castlemont High School, whose students have visited and shared ideas from their own campus farm. The Mills Community Farm recently resumed its biannual harvest fair for the campus and greater community.


Julia Dashe bought the prints that hang in the toolshed from the Vermont theatre company Bread and Puppet. “Worms really are the central players in this humus-made story, so it’s good to sing their praises along with ‘Bird,’ ‘Wind,’ and of course, ‘Leaf,’” she says.


Cabbage, calendula, and collaboration

Dashe welcomes a wide range of collaborations as part of the farm program. She has hosted biology and ecology classes where students conduct experiments on the soil. One class learned to make natural dyes from plants on the farm. Members of a sculpture class fashioned the farm’s handsome metal gates, and ceramics students created colorful planting pots.

Drawing on her expertise in herbalism, Dashe grows a variety of herbs and teaches her crew to make teas, salves, and tinctures. She’s hoping to join forces with chemistry professor Jennifer Cassano, who proposed a farm-based pop-up class on the chemistry of herbalism for the fall.

When Cassano began volunteering at the farm, she saw the farm’s cabbages and realized they could help her teach about indicators for measuring pH. Cabbage contains chemical compounds called anthocyanins, she explains, and these can be extracted by boiling the vegetable in water to produce a red-purple solution, which will change in color when an item of a different pH is added. “It’s a great way to teach students about acidity and the concept of indicators,” she says.

“There are so many ways to spin off through science, through the arts,” adds Cassano. “I really appreciate this opportunity to explore collaborations and to make connections with different fields.”

Dashe continues to nurture these links, creating a bountiful farm that is also a joyful haven for artistry and learning.  ♦


Mills Community Farm | mills.northeastern.edu


Visiting the Mills Community Farm left writer Rachel Trachten and photographer Zach Pine longing to go back to college—preferably one with a farm. View Rachel’s stories about food, farms, and gardens at clippings.me/users/rachel_trachten and learn about Zach’s environmental art projects at naturesculpture.com and sandglobes.org.


Jennifer Cassano’s Calendula Salve

Photo by Tami Chu


Chemistry professor Jennifer Cassano drew a direct connection to the farm in a recent Chemistry of Skincare class. Using calendula flowers that Julia Dashe encouraged her to harvest and dehydrate this past spring, Cassano taught students how to make this soothing salve, which harnesses the flowers’ anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

  • 1 cup calendula oil*
  • 3–4 tablespoons beeswax pastilles
  • A few drops essential oil of choice, optional
  • A double boiler
  • Small lidded jar or tin for the finished salve

Add water to the bottom of a double boiler pot and set the top pot over the water. Add the calendula oil, beeswax pastilles, and (optional) essential oil to the top pot and set the double boiler over medium-low heat until the beeswax melts. Stir until all ingredients are thoroughly mixed. Remove from heat, and while mixture is still hot, pour the liquid salve into a storage container. Allow mixture to cool before adding a lid to the storage container.

*Many herbal apothecaries sell both calendula oil and the dried flower petals used to make it, but when the flowers are in their fall through spring bloom, it’s easy to make your own: Dry the fresh flowers on a low setting in a dehydrator, then pluck the petals off the green centers and pack them into a clean jar with enough olive oil or almond oil to cover by at least an inch. Secure with a tight-fitting lid and let infuse at room temperature, shaking daily. After 4 to 6 weeks, strain out the petals, seal the container, and store in a cool, dark place. (Instructions adapted from mountainfeed.com)