People in Occupy the Farm work on the Gill Tract in Albany. Photo: Subconscious Collective

Stranger things have happened: Maybe six months down the track a crop of winter greens will occupy a  stretch of land on San Pablo Avenue along the Berkeley-Albany border known as Gill Tract, site of a nearly two week standoff between the University of California, Berkeley and Occupy the Farm.

And everyone in this growing controversy might be happy. The saga over an often overlooked but special patch of earth began, aptly, on Earth Day. Now, both sides in this brouhaha in the normally quiet enclave of Albany appear to be making noises about having “meaningful dialogue” to facilitate a resolution that could include “shared custody” — though the situation resembles more of a spurned suitor (urban ag activists argue the university has repeatedly ignored requests to use this land for farming) than a marriage gone bad.

At stake: UC-owned land on 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.

Indeed, a private meeting between Cal representatives, Occupy the Farm advocates, and attorneys for both sides was slated for Thursday night at an undisclosed location to dig into their differences and come to a compromise over the 15-acre plot, the remaining remnant of a 104-acre area that UC Berkeley bought for $400,000  bequeathed to UC Berkeley in 1928. It is named for the family that once owned he land.(No settlement was reached, UC spokesman Dan Mogulof said at 9:20 am)

Yesterday, 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.

So far so good. How to get there, however, seems up for debate. Yesterday, as reported here, the Dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, J. Keith Gilless, who in principle is willing to engage with the Occupy the Farm folk who took over the lot April 22, stated that such a constructive dialogue could only happen if Occupy the Farm inhabitants peacefully departed their recently planted plots.

“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…” noted Gilles in a message to faculty yesterday. “It’s possible for us to achieve something wonderful together at the Gill Tract. The politics of confrontation also make it possible for us to fail completely.”

Both parties accused the other side of slinging mud. Occupy the Farm organizers aren’t just a bunch of hippie agitators, argued Miguel Altieri, a professor in the college’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management. Many in the movement are former students from UC with an abiding interest in food security, social justice, and sustainable agriculture.

Miguel Altieri

For more than 30 years, Altieri, an internationally-recognized expert in the science of agro-ecology, has conducted research on this land as part of his field work growing crops without external inputs. Working next to him for roughly the same period of time: Sarah Hake, an adjunct professor at UC’s College of Natural Resources and a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee, who studies basic plant biology by growing corn, which is grown on the site during the summer.

Hake noted that all her work is financed through federal grants — not multinational Big Ag companies — and none of her research involves working with genetically modified corn. Both accusations have been levied her way during this showdown over soil, she said. Despite their long history on the same land and their collegial affiliations, the two agricultural researchers keep to themselves.

Hake, who lives on an organic, family farm in West Marin known as Gospel Flat Farm, said she is empathetic to the Occupy the Farm movement’s agenda to feed more needy people. At the same time she’s concerned her research — and the work of her graduate students — won’t get started on time this summer due to their actions.

“In the short term these people have made their point,” said Hake, who noted

Sarah Hake

that her dealings with Occupy the Farm representatives have been civil and polite. “But illegally staying on this land is the wrong tactic as a long-term measure and could very well jeopardize the kinds of programs they’d like to see implemented,” said Hake, a member of the National Academy of Sciences who maintains a small edible garden in front of her USDA office.

Meanwhile, Altieri maintained that the university has had no real interest up until the occupation of exploring using this “idle and abandoned” land for urban agricultural purposes. In an op-ed piece for the Daily Cal campus paper, Altieri and his colleague Claudia Carr argued that as a land-grant university, UC has a mandate to educate students, undertake research, and share that research with the public. An urban farm that taught undergraduate classes, conducted graduate level research, and produced food for the greater good would fulfill all of those functions.

The takeover of the tract is a wake up call, in the East Bay and beyond, of growing support for urban farming and local agriculture to feed people close to home, explained Altieri. The university administration has expressed alarm at Occupy the Farm’s tactics — ignoring property rights and illegal encampment for starters — and countered that the young farmers are trying to bulldoze their demands through without consideration for other community interests (Little League, student housing, and retail space, the three most commonly voiced alternative users for the space to date).

Gopal Dayaneni, a spokesperson for Occupy the Farm, pointed out widespread support for their cause from food justice advocates such as Raj Patel, author of Stuffed & Starved, Yoni Landeau, a leader in the campus cooperative movement, and the Ecology Center.  For the record, Dayaneni noted that while some occupiers remain on site overnight to keep the land in their control, this is not a tent-city situation akin to the recent Occupy camps that sprung up in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco.

“This land is supposed to be used for agricultural purposes and we’re just trying to ensure that that remains the case,” said Dayaneni, an Oakland resident whose wife teaches in the Berkeley public schools and whose children attend Berkeley schools. He described the protest as simply a measure to protect a precious resource.

The group has planted herbs, tomatoes, beans, leafy greens, and even corn. UC responded by cutting off the water. The nascent farmers have been keeping their veggies alive with water donations from supportive local residents. Proving, perhaps, that it’s possible to sow seeds (or at least starters) of change, one plant at a time.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Ongoing coverage of the Gill Tract protest can be found on Albany Patch.


UC Berkeley to Occupy the Farm: “Time is running out.” [05.03.12]
Occupy the Farm activists issue open letter to community [04.30.12]
UC Berkeley issues open letter to “clear confusion” on Gill Tract [04.27.12]
UC Berkeley calls for peaceful end to Occupy the Farm [04.23.12]
Occupy the food: College co-op advocates gather in Berkeley [01.06.12]
Author Raj Patel’s food revolution: From chips to salad [04.01.11]