Albany — On a typical spring day in early May at the Gill Tract, UC Berkeley agriculture researchers would be busy preparing for the summer research season.
But this year, in a fenced-off field that usually grows experimental crops, a temporary encampment has sprung up. A group of students and others associated with the Occupy movement have rototilled the soil and planted their own vision of the future of farming.
Rows of pesticide-free potatoes, broccoli and kale were seeded within days of the group’s illicit arrival on April 22 (Earth Day), a beehive was set up, and chickens began pecking at the earth in a chicken tractor. The Occupy the Farm activists have thumbed their collective noses at the demands of UC officials to leave.
“You can study corn anywhere you want. This soil shouldn’t be used to grow corn, it should be used to grow food for people around the Bay Area who lack fresh food,” said Lesley Haddock, a second-year UC Berkeley student and designated media spokesperson.
Occupy the Farm activists planted fields of vegetables on land that researchers were getting ready to use. Photo by Alison Hawkes.
So far, UC Berkeley has been noticeably hands off, except for turning off the water to the property, perhaps in an effort to avoid a scenario similar to the controversial actions taken at other Occupy events, including the tear-gassing of UC Davis students and violent May Day demonstrations. That’s given the “Gill Tractivists” time to gather community support and re-launch a longstanding public debate about what to do with the 10-acre property next to family housing, University Village.
On Saturday, the group invited the community in for farming workshops and teach-out sessions.
“We hope to eventually have the land gifted to us as a return to public space,” said Haddock.
UC Berkeley officials argue that the land was set aside more than 50 years ago as a “living classroom” for College of Natural Resources to study such topics as basic plant biology, alternative cropping systems, plant-insect interactions and tree pests and pathogens. The university said it plans to develop a portion of the land along the busy corridor of San Pablo Avenue that isn’t used used for agricultural study into a senior center and Whole Foods supermarket.
“We take issue with the protesters’ approach to property rights,” university officials wrote in an April 27 letter to the community. “By their logic they should be able to seize what they want if, in their minds, they have a better idea of how to use it.”
But critics believe the university isn’t telling the whole story.
“ I don’t trust what these people really do because they have never been transparent,” said UC Berkeley professor of entomology Miguel Altieri. “It’s the only piece of Class One agricultural soil left in the Bay Area.”
Altieri, a supporter of the activists, has been studying inter-cropping techniques on the Gill Tract for 30 years (activists left his portion of the land untouched). He said the university transferred the land from the College of Natural Resources to Capital Projects, its commercial arm that specializes in “development projects.” And under the 2004 Albany City master plan, the land was re-designated from “academic reserve” to “recreation and open space,” which may portend future playing fields.
In the April 27 letter, the university states that it has “not taken any steps to implement the master plan on the parcel” and welcomes “community workshops to explore the future use of this land.” Officials deny that GMO crops have been grown on the property, as activists claim.
The debate dates back to at least 2000, when a group of students, nonprofits, and community members calling itself the Bay Area Coalition for Urban Agriculture (BACUA) presented a proposal to university officials to create “the world’s first university center on sustainable urban agriculture and food systems,” an idea that went nowhere. As did a 2005 plan by Urban Roots to create the “Village Creek Farm and Gardens” as a way to teach urban farming to the masses.
“All in all, perhaps five years of my life went to building community support and asking UC nicely if the City of Albany and the school district could create a farm on the site,” said Village Creek organizer Michael Beer in an email. “I gave up when I realized that UC would never grant the land, but instead sell it to the highest bidder, forget the agricultural tradition.”
Altieri and the Occupy activists believe there’s still hope to do something different with the land, formerly famous rose gardens farmed by Edward Gill.
The activists want a community farm that will feed the needy. Altieri is drumming up the old BACUA plans and said the university has a one-of-a-kind opportunity to establish a world class education and research center on urban farming, which now feeds 30 percent of the world’s population.
“We were way ahead of our time and the university didn’t pay attention to our proposal,” he said. “Now we see urban agriculture as important for the future.”