Rachel Surls has cultivated a healthier LA County through gardens

UC Cooperative Extension advisor who promotes school gardens, urban agriculture to retire after 35-year career

A stroll through a leafy, green garden can give one temporary relief from life's harshness. During her career, Rachel Surls has used gardens to cultivate healthier communities, whether they are growing nutritious food or providing science lessons for students.

Over the past 35 years, Surls, University of California Cooperative Extension sustainable food systems advisor in Los Angeles County, has witnessed many changes – such as promoting public events on Instagram rather than typing and mailing press releases. A comforting and consistent presence has been the UC Master Gardener Program, part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources. 

“As I look back, the UC Master Gardener Program has been a constant in my work. It helps so many people,” said Surls, who joined UCCE as a school and community garden coordinator in 1988.

“My new job with UCCE-LA was my dream job. I organized community gardens around the county and supported teachers who wanted to start school gardens,” recalled the Michigan native, who plans to retire at the end of the year. “I had a bachelor's degree in agronomy and was freshly out of a stint with the U.S. Peace Corps in rural Honduras. My work there inspired me to pursue community development work related to gardening.”

Louisa R. Cardenas, trustee of Los Angeles County Natural History Museums, was a UC Master Gardener volunteer for 25 years.

“Among Rachel's many skills and assets are her willingness to listen to and consider ideas from Master Gardeners that eventually reach and empower Los Angeles County residents to grow food that supplements their nutritional needs,” Cardenas said. 

To complement the nascent UC Master Gardener Program in Los Angeles County, Surls organized “Gardening Angels,” a cadre of volunteers to work with teachers and students to develop school gardens. She edited a guide for teachers, parents and volunteers to build gardens for children.

“I met Rachel in 1992 and was so blessed to come up through the ranks with her,” said Rose Hayden-Smith, UCCE emeritus advisor in digital communications in food systems and extension education. “We were in neighboring counties, and had many similar programmatic interests, including school gardens. Her research informed my work and was so helpful to me.”

Advancing food security, community nutrition

In 1994, after earning her master's degree from Cal Poly Pomona in agricultural science with a focus on agricultural education, Surls accepted a newly created position: UC Cooperative Extension urban horticulture advisor.

To retain Los Angeles County funding in 1992, the UCCE staff had become part of the county's Housing Authority/Community Development Commission. As the UCCE urban horticulture advisor, Surls was tasked with developing gardens at five public housing sites. At one of these locations, Carmelitos Housing Development in Long Beach, she worked with community partners to select landscape trees, hire a greenhouse contractor and design a horticulture job training program for public housing residents. This site became known as the Growing Experience Urban Farm.

“I'm pleased that 29 years later, the Growing Experience is still an active community farm where UC Master Gardeners offer workshops for the community,” Surls said. 

In 1997, when George Rendell retired as director of UCCE in Los Angeles County, Surls applied for the job. For the next 14 years, she oversaw more than 70 employees and local programs, including the 4-H youth development program, which launched afterschool, hands-on learning for children. 

Surls, who participated in 4-H herself as a child, worked closely with 4-H funders. She helped secure grants, contracts and gifts for 4-H as well as the UC Master Gardener Program and UCCE nutrition programs for projects that encouraged Angelenos to eat more fruits and vegetables.

“Rachel was incredibly creative and innovative as a leader,” said Hayden-Smith, who served as director of UCCE in Ventura County. “Rachel models a kind of quiet leadership that invites people into the process, honors the group and moves work forward in important ways.” 

While working, Surls earned her Ph.D. in higher education administration at Claremont Graduate University in 2008, with an eye on pursuing other leadership roles. Instead, the global financial crisis inspired her return to working directly with Los Angeles County residents on urban gardening to reduce food insecurity.

To focus on outreach, the UCCE sustainable food systems advisor handed her UCCE director duties to Keith Nathaniel, UCCE 4-H advisor, at the end of 2011.

Developing, sharing resources for urban farming and gardens

In 2012, she organized colleagues within UC Agriculture and Natural Resources and community partners to study the needs of urban farmers and begin offering workshops for them. She led the development of an urban agriculture website, with resources covering business management, food safety, marketing and regulations. She served on the leadership board of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council and began advising cities on policies that would make it easier for residents to grow food.

“These have been my favorite and most productive years of my career,” Surls said.

Drawing on skills she began honing as an undergraduate at Virginia Tech as a news writer for the Virginia Extension Service, Surls co-authored a book about the history of agriculture in Los Angeles County, called “From Cows to Concrete: The Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles.” She is currently working on a second book about urban farming in the U.S.

The Grow LA Gardens Initiative – which helps aspiring gardeners start their own gardens quickly – is one source of pride for Surls. Hundreds of people have taken the four-week course and, after participating, nearly 70% planted gardens. 

In 2018, Surls was honored with the Bradford-Rominger award by the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis for her work promoting community gardens, school gardens and urban agriculture.

With community gardens and school gardens now commonplace, Surls chuckles as she recalls veteran UCCE colleagues advising her to choose a more “serious” academic focus early in her career.

“It's gratifying to see so many people in academia working on farming in cities, school gardens and community gardens,” Surls said.

Advocating for equity

In 2022, while Surls was on sabbatical, she and Cardenas – the longtime UC Master Gardener volunteer – requested and received $100,000 from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to hire an equity, diversity and inclusion coordinator and to fund outreach. This UC Master Gardener project championed by Supervisor Sheila Kuehl specifically reaches underserved populations within the county. “Such a significant achievement would not have been possible without Rachel's encouragement and support,” Cardenas said.

After she retires, Surls plans to volunteer her expertise for online training of UC Master Gardener volunteers statewide. To support their program efforts including outreach to the Spanish-speaking community and scholarships for underserved communities, Surls has pledged to give $5,000 as a matching gift to donations to the UC Master Gardener Program in Los Angeles between Giving Tuesday, Nov. 28, and Dec. 31 at https://ucanr.edu/LAmastergardener.

By Pamela S Kan-Rice
Author - Assistant Director, News and Information Outreach