On UC’s Gill Tract, Occupying Farmers Say They’re Not Going Anywhere Yet

Gill Tract, May 7, 2012. Mina Kim/KQED

On April 22 — Earth Day — about 200 activists broke into and set up camp in Albany’s Gill Tract, a five-acre patch of UC Berkeley-owned land used for agricultural research. The group, which calls itself Occupy the Farm, wants to prevent development of the tract, use it for urban farming and education, and provide food for those in need.

“For us the single most important thing is the preservation of the farm for sustainable urban agriculture for the greater East Bay,” Occupy the Farm activist Gopal Dayaneni told KQED’s Mina Kim yesterday “(It’s important) that the kids who have been coming here every single day after school have access, that the families that have been coming here on the weekend will have access.”

As reported in Berkeleyside, the land is “the last parcel of Class 1 soil (considered the best for growing food) left in the East Bay that, except for a few months every summer when it’s used for corn research, lies largely vacant — aside from a proliferation of wild mustard, wind-carried trash, (often fast food wrappers), and, reportedly, the odd hypodermic needle.” Since taking over, Occupy the Farm has planted a variety of crops.

UC, naturally, wants the group out (it cut the water supply), and, naturally, the group has refused to go (it’s getting its water donated). Last week the university and Occupy the Farm met to discuss a resolution to the standoff, a meeting the university called “a frank and forthright exchange of information and perspectives.” It also said, however, that “we have every intention of honoring our commitment to ensure the research activities are not impeded, and the rule of law is maintained.”

The university has indicated that there could ultimately be a role for the group on the tract. From Berkeleyside last week:

Berkeleyside talked with representatives from Occupy the Farm, UC, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about the contested property. All seemed to see the merit in using some of this land for urban farming purposes — including teaching students about soil and plant crops and feeding hungry residents in nearby Richmond or South and West Berkeley.

The dean of the university’s College of Natural Resources, J. Keith Gilless, wrote in a May 3 message to faculty (pdf) that, “I firmly believe that biology research and a well-organized metropolitan agriculture program could ultimately not just co-exist on the site, but benefit from interaction…It’s possible for us to achieve something wonderful together at the Gill Tract.”

But Gilless, citing upcoming university activities, also said no accomodation could be reached until the group left. “The only way we can move forward to reconcile the needs and aspirations of everyone is for the current occupation to end so that CNR’s staff can prepare the site. As dean, I cannot be a party to any resolution to this unfortunate conflict that does not respect the academic freedom of CNR’s biologists to conduct their research, or in which I relinquish the rights of my faculty and students now or in the future to help chart the course of the University’s research, teaching, and extension activities.”

The university asked the group to respond by May 5 to a “process for the proposed community dialogue that would be led by the College of Natural Resources.” A process the university reiterated would have to include the group’s departure.

“If the encampment is voluntarily disbanded, we will commit to include occupation participants in a broad-based discussion about the continuation of urban farming under university supervision on a portion of the tract, as well as any future discussions about the long-term future of the property.”

Last night, Occupy the Farm issued a statement in response, and it looks like nobody’s planning on going anywhere, at least right now.

“When the University presents a concrete proposal that satisfies the following concerns, we will break down the camp so that the researchers have access to their plots,” the statement says.

The concerns:

1. That municipal water at the Gill Tract be made available to us.

2. That the Farmer’s Collective and larger community have access to the field in order that we may: a) Tend to the crops we have planted on the East side of the field. b) Maintain the Children’s garden in the northwest corner of the tract, as well as the BASIL seed bank homecoming site on the edge of the west field.

3. That in order to protect the organic food crops, the long-term health of the soil, the beehive, as well as the neighbors, including children and families, the researchers/the University refrain from the use of chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, chemical fertilizer or plastic tarp in the soil on the farm.

The group also wrote, “we hope that more consideration for the time that is necessary to facilitate an open community dialogue is respected and that the UC ceases to levy ultimatums such as the one issued on Friday, May 4th.”

UC’s response? None yet, Anya Kamenskaya of Occupy the Farm told KQED’s Paul Lancour this morning.

You can read more about the history of the Gill Tract in this May 1 Daily Cal op-ed by Miguel Altieri and Claudia Carr, two Dept of Environmental Science professors who support the goals of Occupy the Farm.

Full Occupy the Farm statement:

1) Regarding media reports about dialogue between the Gill Tract Farmers Collective and the University of California:

We dispute the veracity of media reports claiming that we failed to respond to the UC’s request for dialogue on Saturday. Dan Siegel, legal counsel for Occupy the Farm, says, “The University’s statement that we failed to contact them on Saturday is incorrect.” In a message to University counsel Chris Patti on Saturday, Siegel wrote, “We were concerned about the potential for a police attack tonight. The farmers are committed to constructive dialogue to resolve the issues raised in our meeting on Thursday. A police action would create serious problems for us and for UC, especially in light of the university’s recently announced plan to adopt less violent police tactics. As you know, our process requires careful consultation with a large number of people. Nonetheless, we will provide you with a comprehensive proposal to resolve UC’s concerns on Monday.”

2) Regarding the resolution of the current conflict over access to and use of the Gill Tract:

The Gill Tract Farmers Collective looks forward to addressing our mutual concerns around the unimpeded work of the Gill Tract researchers. We understand that the nature of genetic research necessitates extra precautions for the security of those experiments. When the University presents a concrete proposal that satisfies the following concerns, we will break down the camp so that the researchers have access to their plots. The concerns are:

1) That municipal water at the Gill Tract be made available to us.

2) That the Farmer’s Collective and larger community have access to the field in order that we may:

a) Tend to the crops we have planted on the East side of the field. b) Maintain the Children’s garden in the northwest corner of the tract, as well as the BASIL seed bank homecoming site on the edge of the west field.

3) That in order to protect the organic food crops, the long-term health of the soil, the beehive, as well as the neighbors, including children and families, the researchers/the University refrain from the use of chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, chemical fertilizer or plastic tarp in the soil on the farm.

We continue to be willing to facilitate this transition process for the researchers, and to work jointly toward such tasks as the construction of new fences or gates that would allow for our access to the locations referenced in Condition 2, so long as these conditions are met. We look forward to further discussion around how to make this a truly collaborative process for all stakeholders in the Gill Tract. This includes not only the Albany community, the Gill Tract Farmer’s Collective, and UC Berkeley, but also the residents of the greater East Bay. Because of its unique location in a thriving urban area, any future use of the Gill Tract has an immediate impact on East Bay food sovereignty, equity, and access issues. We hope that more consideration for the time that is necessary to facilitate an open community dialogue is respected and that the UC ceases to levy ultimatums such as the one issued on Friday, May 4th.

3) Regarding our vision:

Our original vision in occupying this parcel of land, the last and best soil in the urban East Bay, was to preserve the entirety of the Gill Tract as agricultural land not only for a single growing season, but in perpetuity. This vision persists. Farmland is for farming.

Matthew Williams of Bay Area Bites was on the scene the first day of the occupation and created this audio slideshow:

  • Damon Lisch

    Jon, this piece was really disappointing.  Rather than accurately describing the situation, which is, at best, complex, you simply repeated what a group of activists have said, along with a couple of bland pronouncements from UC.  This quote was particularly irritating:   “the last parcel of Class 1 soil (considered the best for growing food) left in the East Bay that, except for a few months every summer when it’s used for corn research, lies largely vacant — aside from a proliferation of wild mustard, wind-carried trash, (often fast food wrappers), and, reportedly, the odd hypodermic needle.”  What are you talking about? You make it sound like it was an abandoned lot that was liberated.  I’ve been working in that field almost every year for many years and it has been a real, working farm, used for both basic and applied research for that entire time.  It’s “vacant” in the fall in winter because it is a farm, and you generally grow things on a farm in the summer.  In the winter there is usually a cover crop that helps fix nitrogen (although this year the geese ate the cover crop seed).  The land was not unused.  In fact, over the years it has been used to make seminal discoveries in the genetics and biology of plants. And no, just because the plant is corn does not mean that the work is funded by evil corporations to make more monster corn plants that will make you fat (I’m not saying you said that, but that is a common misperception among the occupiers). These well intentioned but often painfully ignorant activists have subverted any semblance of democratic action by unilaterally stealing what they couldn’t get any other way.  It was a badly planned, poorly thought our, criminal act that has negatively impacted important research and education that would normally be done in that field.  It does not deserve your applause.

  • MommaK

    Did I miss something?  Did they ask to purchase this land and then take into account how much they will have to sell this food for?  If they just “took over” this land then, yes, they can afford the supplies and labor to raise and harvest this good food.  Sounds like an economics class project!

    I am left with this vision of an “occupy” group talking over my home and our 1/2 acre property because  they think more than just 2 people should be allowed to live in such a large area when there are people around the world crammed 6,8,10 into 1 bedroom. Scary!

Author

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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