Global Food Initiative
Global Food Initiative
Global Food Initiative
University of California
Global Food Initiative

Rachel Surls

Urban farming is a new trend

Urban agriculture is in the spotlight. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is key to a healthy diet, but not everyone has ready access to a grocery store, or can afford to buy fresh produce. Community and backyard gardens supplement the diets of low-income families with fresh fruit and vegetables.

In Los Angeles, entrepreneurs are farming on high-rise rooftops, in controlled environments like greenhouses, and in vertical spaces to grow fresh food for high-end consumers and restaurants.

Many California cities have developed local policies to promote urban agriculture. San Diego, for example, has made it easier for residents to keep chickens and bees in their backyards, and to establish farmers markets, produce stands, community gardens and small urban farms. Oakland updated its city code in 2014 to allow community gardens in most of the city without a special permit.

UC ANR supports the trend

Rachel Surls
Rachel Surls
The urban ag trend is getting the attention and support of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR). The division provided funds that allowed UC Cooperative Extension advisor Rachel Surls to lead a survey of urban farmers and agricultural scientists to develop a website with useful resources for California’s urban farmers.

Surls started communicating with California’s urban farmers and others in the field with a comprehensive website, via Twitter (@UCUrbanAg) and Facebook.

Surls said her team, "expected to find more for-profit farms out there, but instead found that most urban farming in California is not-for-profit. Most are farming to meet an organizational mission, such as improving food access or supporting social justice issues.”

Surls is also coordinator of the Los Angeles County UCCE Master Gardener program. She hopes to turn some of the Master Gardeners’ attention to alleviating the problem of food waste.

“I’m looking for ways to use the Master Gardener program to promote more composting,” Surls said. “There may be other ways we can educate the public about how we can avoid wasting so much, perhaps encouraging people to eat fruit and vegetables that look less than perfect.”


Looking for adventure, finding a career

Surls was looking for adventure when she traveled to Honduras in 1985 as a Peace Corps volunteer. She she gained an experience that would shape her career at the intersection of agriculture and social awareness.

“I found that most farmers planted every available bit of land – up to their front door – with coffee, because of its value," Surls said. "They would get an infusion of cash once a year, but would run out of money and food before the coffee harvest came around again. Food insecurity and malnutrition were a huge problem. I encouraged them to plant food crops so there would be something to eat all year long. My main goal was to help families improve their food security.”

With limited resources, Surls began an education routine that taught agricultural sustainability.

“I provided seeds, and taught composting, basic pest management, and other skills to help them grow successful gardens. I had a demonstration garden at the health clinic in the middle of town, and encouraged people to visit, learn about the crops, and try some of the vegetables,” Surls said.

This is a sustainable model she implemented when she returned stateside and took a position with UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) in Los Angeles County as a school garden and community outreach coordinator in 1988. Surls helps create garden clubs, managed community gardens, and taught low-income residents how to supplement their diets by growing their own healthy foods.

“I loved the work [and] I realized if I wanted a future in it, I needed more education,” Surls said.

Surls' career takes shape

Surls earned a master's degree in agricultural sciences from the California Polytechnic State University, Pomona, while working full time for UCCE. In 1994, she was appointed the urban horticulture advisor in Los Angeles County, working closely with community and school gardens, community agriculture and urban food production until she was promoted to county director in 1997. While directing Cooperative Extension, Surls continued her schooling, earning a Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate University higher education administration in 2008.

Surls recalls “always [keeping] some involvement with community gardens and school garden activities during those years."

After nearly 15 years in the administrative role, Surls was named the UCCE’s first sustainable food systems advisor in 2012.

“There was a growing societal awareness of hunger and food inequities, and I wanted to do something about that,” Surls said.

As she studied the urban food landscape in her new role, one need stood out – urban farming was becoming popular, and few research-based resources were available.

Growing vegetables in a train's shadow.
Growing vegetables in a train's shadow.


'From Cows to Concrete'

Surls and co-author, LA Master Gardener and farm writer Judith Gerber, trace the rise and fall of Los Angeles farming in a book slated to be published in mid-2015 tentatively titled “From Cows to Concrete: How farming transformed Los Angeles."

“All of the factors that made Los Angeles so amazing for farming made it a desirable place to live,” Surls explains. “Especially after World War II, farmland was paved over for buildings, freeways, homes and shopping districts. The county is now home to more than 10 million people.” These are the perfectly ripe conditions to start a new and sustainable, urban farming movement.

University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) is a division of the University with scientists based on three UC campuses and in UC Cooperative Extension offices serving all California counties. UC ANR conducts research and shares research-based information with the public about agricultural production, environmental stewardship, water policy, youth development and nutrition. UC ANR offers 4-H to youth in California, nutrition education to low-income children and families, and scientific support that helps farmers address challenges and maintain economic viability.

Webmaster Email: