Occupy vs UC Berkeley in urban farm battle


UC Berkeley, once one of the world’s leading research hubs for sustainable agriculture, has jumped on the corporate bandwagon and has gutted the once-vaunted program, which has been reduced to one full-time faculty member.

Abandoning agroecology for corporate-backed genetic engineering programs, the school wants to turn their once-flourishing agroecology plot — the last bit of Class I farmland remaining in San Francisco Bay’s eastern shore — into a commercial development, featuring a Whole Foods store [a chain notable for its militant anti-union policies] and a senior housing development.

But a militant band of urban farming advocates hopes to change all that, and picked Earth Day to launch Occupy the Farm, taking over the Gill Tract in Albany and planting 15,000 seedlings.

Needless to say, the University is angry.

The protesters did manage to force the university to withdraw their plans from the agenda of Tuesday night’s meeting of the Albany city planning commission, but the university remains committed to their plans.

Sam Buckland reports for the Daily Californian:

While UCPD officers warned protesters on Sunday that they could face citation and arrest, there have not been any confrontations or arrests so far. Instead, campus administration has begun negotiating with the protesters, according to campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof.

“If you own something and I think I can put what you own to better use, that doesn’t give me a right to take what you own,” Mogulof said. “(But) our focus is on finding a way to bring this to a resolution in a way that allows the research to proceed without any violence or conflict.”

The university shut off the land’s irrigation system on Tuesday, and while local vendors and farms across the coast have shown support by donating food and water to the encampment, supplies are becoming more scarce, according to Anya Kamenskaya, an alumna of the campus College of Natural Resources.

Read the rest.

Jeff Conant, writing at AlterNet, adds some background, citing Kamenskaya, the same activist quoted in the Daily Californian:

Kamenskaya studied with Miguel Altieri, a widely respected professor of agro-ecology who works hard to bridge the divide between university research and the needs of farmers, especially in his native South America. As an undergrad in 2008, Kamenskaya says, she got Altieri’s approval to start a farm-to-school program with a local elementary school, using a piece of the Gill tract to grow the food.

“We got quite far in the process,” she says. “But the university thwarted us, and it became just another in a long string of attempts to preserve this land for agriculture, and community education for food sovereignty.”

“UC Berkeley is a land grant institution and this land is being administered by a university for the public. Everything done here is supposed to be done for the public good,” she said.

Read the rest.

Today’s post features videos from the occupation, two statements from the group about their action, and the university’s response.

The occupation has its own website here, as well as a vlog.

Videos of an occupation

From the vlog, three videos shot by Nick Xavier:

Occupation, Day 1:

Occupation, Day 2:

Occupy the Farm – The Back Story

And here’s a video from vlogger Josh Wolf of the Earth Day action:

The reasons for the occupation

Here’s the movement’s explanation of their action:

Occupy the Farm, a coalition of local residents, farmers, students, researchers, and activists are planting over 15,000 seedlings at the Gill Tract, the last remaining 10 acres of Class I agricultural soil in the urbanized East Bay area. The Gill Tract is public land administered by the University of California, which plans to sell it to private developers.

For decades the UC has thwarted attempts by community members to transform the site for urban sustainable agriculture and hands-on education. With deliberate disregard for public interest, the University administrators plan to pave over this prime agricultural soil for commercial retail space, a Whole Foods, and a parking lot.

“For ten years people in Albany have tried to turn the Gill Tract into an Urban Farm and a more open space for the community. The people in the Bay Area deserve to use this treasure of land for an urban farm to help secure the future of our children,” explains Jackie Hermes-Fletcher, an Albany resident and public school teacher for 38 years.

Occupy the Farm seeks to address structural problems with health and inequalities in the Bay Area that stem from communities’ lack of access to food and land. Today’s action reclaims the Gill Tract to demonstrate and exercise the peoples’ right to use public space for the public good. This farm will serve as a hub for urban agriculture, a healthy and affordable food source for Bay Area residents and an educational center.

“Every piece of uncontaminated urban land needs to be farmed if we are to reclaim control over how food is grown, where it comes from, and who it goes to,” says Anya Kamenskaya, UC Berkeley alum and educator of urban agriculture. “We can farm underutilized spaces such as these to create alternatives to the corporate control of our food system.”

UC Berkeley has decided to privatize this unique public asset for commercial retail space, and, ironically, a high-end grocery store. This is only the latest in a string of privatization schemes. Over the last several decades, the university has increasingly shifted use of the Gill Tract away from sustainable agriculture and towards biotechnology with funding from corporations such as Novartis and BP.

Frustrated that traditional dialogue has fallen on deaf ears, many of these same local residents, students, and professors have united as Occupy the Farm to Take Back the Gill Tract. This group is working to empower communities to control their own resilient food systems for a stable and just future – a concept and practice known as food sovereignty.

Occupy the Farm is in solidarity with Via Campesina and the Movimiento Sin Tierra (Landless Workers Movement).

And from their website, their answer to the question “Why this farm?”:

We are reclaiming this land to grow healthy food to meet the needs of local communities. We envision a future of food sovereignty, in which our East Bay communities make use of available land – occupying it where necessary – for sustainable agriculture to meet local needs. This particular plot of land is very special:

  •     These are the last five acres of Class One soil in left in the East Bay. Ninety percent of the original land has been paved over and developed, irreverisibly contaminating the land.
  •     Students, professors, and community have fought for decades to save this amazing land from development and use it for sustainable agriculture.
  •     UCB capital projects currently administors this land and has slated it for rezoning and redevelopment in 2013 (i.e. supermarkets, parking lots, and apartments).
  •     The University uses the land to research corn genetics. This research can be conducted anywhere as opposed to this unique site.

More information on the farm:

Pre-history and history of land, including how ownership and control has changed: http://www.mindfully.org/Farm/2003/Altieri-Gill-Tract28oct03.htm#1

Documents regarding Gill Tract Design Team, decision-making body that heads the development effort: http://www.albanyca.org/index.aspx?page=709

UCSC Steve Gliessman’s agro-ecological plans for the site: http://www.agroecology.org/Case%20Studies/Albany_Gill.html

The university’s response

Here’s the university’s position, from their Office of Public Affairs, headlined “Illegal occupation of Albany open space infringes on research”:

A group of about 200 people broke into a lot near UC Berkeley’s University Village to, as they put it, “Occupy the Farm to Take Back the Gill Tract.” After illegally cutting the gate locks yesterday, the group entered the Albany site, roto-tilled part of the ground, planted seedlings and set up a small tent encampment, which it continues to occupy.

According to the 2004 Master Plan for the University Village area, site plans called for a little-league field and open space on the Gill Tract. These plans have been on hold for a number of years while the university uses the field for agricultural research. There are no immediate plans to pursue building on this site, according to the university.

“The Gill Tract is used for agricultural research by faculty and students of UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, which was just a month away from using the space for this season’s research,” said J. Keith Gilless, dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources. “We were just waiting to do our tilling till the soil moisture conditions were right.”

The college uses the area for a number of research projects focused on basic plant biology, alternative cropping systems, plant-insect interactions and tree pests and pathogens.

“I am very supportive of urban agriculture as it contributes to food access and security, nutrition, and environmental education, but the research we have been doing at the site supports agriculture as well,” said Gilless.

The protesters are in violation of campus policy and state law. If the occupation continues, “those policies and laws will be enforced when we determine it can be done safely and effectively,” said Claire Holmes, university spokesperson. “There is also concern that the lack of appropriate sanitation will result in contamination of the site with human waste.”

Both the Gill Tract and the proposed mixed-use development are adjacent to University Village, a housing complex for UC scholars and their families. UC plans to replace outmoded Village housing units with modern units. Supported in part by revenue from the mixed-use development, low-income students and their families at the Village would see their rents reduced as part of a commitment extended by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.

A proposed commercial development for university-owned property south of the Gill Tract, along San Pablo Avenue, awaits approval from the Albany city council and planning commission. The project would include a senior-housing facility with independent-living residential apartments, assisted living units and memory-care services.

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