Melanie Charles, Mark Jones and Julia Raskin pick weeds at the Gill Tract farm on a recent Tuesday night. Photo: Kathleen Costanza.
Melanie Charles, Mark Jones and Julia Raskin pick weeds at the Gill Tract farm on a recent Tuesday night. Photo: Kathleen Costanza.

On a Sunday in early August, about 20 volunteers milled around the UC Gill Tract Community Farm, plucking weeds, harvesting tomatoes and weighing buckets brimming with leafy kale.

“What are we supposed to do with aphids again?” said Vivek Nath, a first-time volunteer, as he bent over to pick broccolini.

“They’re the little green bugs, you take off the pieces with a lot of them,” replied fellow volunteer Allen Barth. “Chickens like to eat ‘em.”

A collaborative project between UC Berkeley and the public, the UC Gill Tract Community Farm is a year-and-a-half old urban farm that has sprouted up on land embroiled in years-long controversy. Open six days a week, people can harvest organic produce in exchange for help weeding, watering or planting. On Sundays, volunteers set up a farm stand where all the food is free or offered for a donation.

The UC Gill Tract Community Farm’s farmstand is open Sundays on San Pablo Ave. Photo: Kathleen Costanza.

The farm aims to be a source of organic produce for anyone who lacks access in the East Bay. Volunteers have harvested 17,000 pounds of produce since June 2014. Today, about 30 different types of crops grow on just over one acre of land — everything from dry-farmed tomatoes and leeks to pineapple ground cherries, which are tomatillos that taste just like, well, pineapple.

“I’m not working right now, so the vegetables I get here really help me out,” said May, a volunteer, as she covered a row of Walla Walla onions with straw to protect them from the sun and retain the soil’s moisture. (She declined to give her last name because she’s still on the job hunt.)

Even if they don’t harvest food, other volunteers come to help the effort, learn about urban agriculture or attend workshops. Recently, about 30 people gathered for a workshop on yarrow, a flowering plant that grows in the farm’s medicinal herb garden.

“The food here is organic and it’s better than what you can buy at the market,” said Xiyan Xu, who lives in the neighboring University Village and visits every Sunday with her 4-year-old son to play and learn about plants. “But it’s not just for vegetables, it’s also for fun.”

The Children’s Garden at the UC Gill Tract Community Farm. Photo: Kathleen Costanza.

The farm is only one piece of an ongoing controversy over a total 20 acres of land in Albany including the adjacent Gill Tract agricultural research field, an area which has been the site of Occupy The Farm protests since 2012.

The on-and-off demonstrations started with a three-week occupation of the research field in 2012, a response, in part, to the university’s plans to lease a vacant lot south of the research field to a new senior housing development and a Sprouts Farmers Market. The university plans to use the revenue generated by leases — about $1 million — to subsidize housing for low-income students and support the agricultural research and UC Gill Tract Community Farm on the northern end of the property.

Occupy the Farm members, though, object to what they see as privatization of public land. They believe the university is still “paving over” a rare opportunity for a larger, multi-faceted urban agriculture program on some of what they have repeatedly described as the last prime farmland in the East Bay. (Critics of the campaign have questioned the factual basis for that assertion, however, pointing out that the land that will be leased has been vacant for years and before that was a housing project.)

“This is proof of concept,” said Krystof Lopaur, Occupy the Farm member and community organizer, as volunteers weighed produce and toted it up to the farm stand.

Following the take-over of the land in 2012, UC Berkeley transferred 10 acres of the research field back to the College of Natural Resources, which is using it as an “experimental research lab” for biological, social and cultural research.

Effie Rawlings (right) shows volunteers Vivek Nath and Allen Barth how to harvest broccolini. Photo: Kathleen Costanza.

Approximately 9 acres on the western side of the Gill Tract are used for biological and agricultural research by faculty. The remaining acre on the northeastern side is the UC Gill Tract Community Farm. The college provides the land, water and funds for farm manager Jon Hoffman’s 20-hour-per-week position. The college also provided $10,000 for supplies and equipment, including nets that keep neighboring wild turkeys out.

Though the dispute is ongoing, volunteers’ and visitors’ level of familiarity with the history varies. The farm has seen seven field trips from nearby schools and has hosted interns and over 40 different workshops. Volunteers also supply food to the Berkeley Food Pantry, senior housing communities including Harriet Tubman Terrace and the Sojourner Truth Manor, and other community groups.

“I think the university had no idea how popular and successful this would be,” said Hoffman.

The Gill Tract farm is located on the corner of Marin and San Pablo avenues in Albany. Photo: Kathleen Costanza.

Jennifer Sowerwine, assistant cooperative extensions specialist with the college, said the amount of food the farm has produced has been “thrilling.” She said the farm is unique nationally for its structure of governance. A stewardship council comprised of both university representatives and community members meets monthly to hear proposals from a number of different working groups. A broader stewardship assembly, also a mix of university representatives and the public, then ratifies the decisions of the council.

“There are a lot of university farms where community members might be able to farm on a plot, but it’s still completely governed by the university,” Sowerwine said. “What’s unique about this project is it’s really collaborative and participatory. We’re [working with] an innovative governance model of how community members and university can create a space that’s more equitable in terms of decision making.”

Photo: Kathleen Costanza

She also said she sees the farm’s impact spreading via a “lighthouse model,” where East Bay residents bring what they learn at the farm back to their own plots, backyards, gardens or farms.

Hoffman’s vision for the future includes increasing research that could answer questions brought up by the public and to further research of agricultural techniques such as dry-farming. He also hopes to one day offer even more education programming, like cooking classes.

“I fell in love with the potential of this place,” said Tina Klugman, a volunteer who stumbled on the occupation several years ago and has been volunteering since the farm opened. “There are so many ways we’ve been cut off from each other. But a place like this shows how we can connect, collaborate, and learn from people of all different backgrounds. It’s just bubbling with life.”

The UC Gill Tract Community Farm is located on the corner of Marin and San Pablo avenues in Albany. Hours may change seasonally. For information on upcoming workshops, visit the farm’s Facebook page.

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Kathleen Costanza

Kathleen Costanza is a writer, photographer, and Bay Area transplant by way of Chicago. In the last year, she has interviewed affordable housing developers, professional potters, urban farmers and middle...