Occupy the Farm supporters gathers at North Berkeley BART before marching to Gill Tract at 6:00 pm Wednesday. Photo: Aaron Glimme

The group calling itself the Gill Tract Farmers Collective that took over UC Berkeley-owned land in Albany 19 days ago issued a statement Wednesday evening in which they said they believed urban farming and academic research could “coexist and benefit one another on public farmland”. They added that they felt police activity on the site yesterday morning had impeded a Cal professor’s work and been unnerving for an elementary school situated across the street from the open land.

The statement was largely a description of what happened at the site yesterday, and did not address UC Berkeley’s latest move which was to file a lawsuit against Occupy the Farm. That action was made public at around 1:30 pm yesterday.

A group of around 50 people gathered at North Berkeley BART station Wednesday at around 6:00 pm and marched to Gill Tract to show support for the activist farmers.

There follows the statement from the Gill Tract Farmers Collective which was issued by email at around 6:00 pm Wednesday:

UCPD Locks Gate on Professor’s Research, Farmers Move to Remediate Neglected Portions of Gill Tract

Wednesday, May 9th: Albany, CA – Professor Miguel Altieri, researcher at the Gill Tract for 31 years, planned to begin planting his research plot with his students this morning. An hour before he was scheduled to begin, the UC administration barricaded the Gill Tract with concrete, metal barriers, and dozens of police who threatened farmers with “chemical agents and impact force.” In a blatant affront to academic freedom, Dr. Altieri was told he lacked the “authorization” to conduct his research.  A bulldozer loomed on the edge of the farm for the majority of the morning.

Despite the blockade, Professor Altieri, with the help of the farmers, managed to plant a token portion of his research area with organic, drought resistant crops that have benefited East Bay soup kitchens for years. The majority of his planned workday, however, has been disrupted by the UC Administration’s intervention.

The Gill Tract Farmers Collective continues to believe that urban farming and academic research can coexist and benefit one another on public farmland.  Yesterday evening, in order to free up as much space as possible for researchers, the farmers began relocating the temporary camp to a more southern portion of the Gill Tract which has long been vacant, not used for agricultural research. The move was completed this morning, after the scheduled planting with Professor Altieri, and offers a win-win scenario, where the farmers can maintain access to the crops and the researchers can begin their research unimpeded.

On the south side of the Gill Tract, the farmers are beginning a community research project to find solutions that can heal damaged urban land.  Whereas the land already under cultivation by the farmers is Class 1 soil, the soil they are beginning to remediate has been impacted by concrete and contaminated by heavy metals and chemicals due to years of UC negligence. Corey Scher, an Albany native, is joining the farmers for the remediation process. “Look around here. There’s trash everywhere, big pieces of rusty metal, abandoned structures, open plastic barrels of liquid chemicals. The University has not taken care of this place, so it’s up to us to clean up their mess.” The farmers intend to set an example of how to remediate damaged land to make it safe for growing food, and have scheduled a community visioning meeting for 5pm on Saturday, May 12th, to flesh out long-term plans for the farm.

The police presence has unnerved parents at Ocean View elementary school across the street from the Gill Tract. Kristin Vorhies expressed concerns about sending her asthmatic daughter to school this morning due to the UCPD’s reputation for deploying chemical agents on peaceful protesters. She, “loves the idea of having a farm across the street from an elementary school.” Vorhies “called the superintendent and requested that [the superintendent] work with the UC and the City of Albany to make sure that the situation is resolved peacefully, and without chemical agents or the threat of chemical agents. I hate to imagine the potentiality,” Vorhies concluded.

Community outrage has bolstered the farmers with a steady stream of new visitors and community support. They believe this response has dissuaded the UCPD from forced evictions or arrests, and have called for a show of additional community support this evening.  Asked how they plan to respond to this new development, the farmers reiterate that their plans remain unchanged.  “Basically, it’s just another day,” said Ashoka Finley, an urban agriculture teacher at Richmond High School, “we’re still planting, still seeding, still watering, still weeding.”

The farmers said their encampment remains temporary, existing to maintain space for farming, education, and collaboration with the East Bay community, and to ensure open access and input into the future of these public lands. The farmer’s vision for this land, however, is anything but temporary: Farmland is for farming.

UC Berkeley files lawsuit against Occupy the Farm activists [05.09.12]
Cal weighs legal action to evict Occupy the Farm activists [05.08.12]
Farm activists: We will leave camp if Cal meets our concerns [05.08.12]
UC Berkeley sets midnight deadline for Occupy the Farm [05.05.12]
Could UC and Occupy the Farm compromise on Gill Tract? [05.04.12]
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]

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...