Occupy the Farm entrance on April 28, 2012
I visited the Gill Tract "Family Farm" events on Saturday, April 28. After reading the press about this latest occupation of University of California property, I was expecting to find Occupy anarchists with bandanas covering their faces planting marijuana. Instead, what I found were hundreds of local residents and UC Berkeley students and alumni planting rows of crops in an event that looked like the Solano Stroll meets the Ardenwood Farm.
It was a very laid-back event, with music like Buffalo Springfield's "For What Its Worth" playing the background, while Albany residents and their children learned how to plant corn, beans, tomatoes, and other crops. The 200 people on the Gill Tract when I was there from 1:30pm-3:30pm were enjoying the unusually warm day and attending farming workshops and listening to UC Berkeley Professors Miguel Altieri and Laura Nader during the "teach-out" sessions.
UC Berkeley alum and Occupy the Farm organizer, Ashoka Finley led a workshop on how to plant corn, beans, and squash in the three sisters format pioneered by the Native Americans. Finley said, "The university was going to send people out to farm on Tuesday (April 24) for negotiations, but instead they turned off the water." Undeterred, he said that local Albany residents began refilling their water bottles and helping them out. To scale things for farming, they brought in large water tanks that are refilled multiple times a day by a school bus converted to hold a water tank.
The Gill Tract Farm looked similar to Michelle Obama's Kitchen Garden at the White House. It's an urban farm, a demonstration garden where community members can learn the basics of planting and growing food. The area is large enough to grow a substantial amount of food, should they consider using the place for Community-supported Agriculture (CSA). Devin Murphy, one of the farming leaders said that the Gill Tract Farm is "inspired by Occupy but it's not an occupation, it's a farm. We're hoping to get this land declared as an agricultural easement--a community farm--run by a collective decision-making process."
Effie Rawlings, another one of the Occupy the Farm organizers, said that their occupation, which began on Earth Day, April 22, is "a cross-pollination of Occupy and food justice movements." She elaborated, saying that this action on UC's property is inspired by the Occupy movement's efforts in reclaiming public spaces for the public good and also the East Bay's history of being a leader in the organic farming and urban farming movements. When asked about the consequences of the occupation to the research being done by Berkeley's College of Natural Resources on the land, Rawlings said that one of the Berkeley scientists showed up in the morning, furious about them interfering with his research, but after they explained to him what they were doing, and him seeing hundreds of people attending farming workshops, he left in the afternoon with a smile on his face.
Some of the Albany residents I spoke with expressed dissatisfaction with how the university has left this prime real estate in Albany growing weeds for years. Many I spoke with said that they came to the farm after reading about it on The Albany Patch, and were intrigued how this issue has become the most hotly debated thing in Albany in years--even more than the homeless squatting in the Albany Bulb. None of the Albany residents I spoke with had heard about the public hearings the University of California organized in prior years to discuss what should be done with the land.
What separated what I saw at the Family Farm event on Saturday from the countless other protests I've seen growing up in the East Bay and attending UC Berkeley were three things: 1) the organization, 2) the constructive program, and 3) the community support.
1. The Organization: The Berkeley students and recent graduates planning Occupy the Farm's "Family Farm" event provided the hundreds of volunteers with plenty of tools. They also set up a food tent where anyone could get snacks and drinks for free, and had generators powering an outdoor soundsystem. Additionally, they had planned what to plant where, and they had purchased several thousand seed starters, many of which had been planted over the previous days. And despite the press criticizing the site's sanitation, there were 4 clean Porta-Potties and a sink.
2. Constructive Program: Much of the criticism of Occupy protests is that they lack concrete goals and that their deliverables are too vague. This action, by focusing on building a community farm, has a very concrete goal. This goal has given something tangible for the community to rally around and produce a constructive outcome: fresh crops and locally grown food.
3. Community Support: Hundreds of East Bay residents came to the Family Farm event with their children on Saturday. Perhaps it was savvy PR on the part of the organizers to have families come and engage children, or perhaps it was good luck. But however they got the word out--perhaps through their large banners at San Pablo Ave. and Marin Ave.--word spread, and people showed up to check out the talk of the town.
The East Bay historically has been at the forefront of agricultural movements including the organic farming movement and healthy school lunches with Alice Water's Edible Schoolyard. In recent years, UC Berkeley Journalism Professor Michael Pollan's books have inspired many to take up farming in their backyards, including West Oakland resident Novella Carpenter, who wrote Farm City about her experience farming on an empty lot in West Oakland. Perhaps Gill Tract Farm could be something similar to Willow Rosenthal's City Slicker Farms, which gives access to healthy food at a subsidized price to low-income residents in the community.
It will be interesting to see if the university responds to this action, as they have with bulldozing gardens in People's Park, cutting down many of the trees at Cal's football stadium during the tree protest, and forcibly confronting protesters like during Occupy Cal. Or will the university see that this protest is perhaps different because it's not a protest, but a constructive program with strong community buy-in, and engage in dialogue with Ashoka Finley and the other Berkeley students, alumni, and community members planning this farm action.
The university could engage in discussions to see how this community farm could be added to the plan to build a Whole Foods. By embracing this community-centered approach to urban farming, UC Berkeley, in conjunction with the City of Albany, could remain at the cutting edge of urban agriculture. The University of California has pioneered innovations in agriculture in the past, and it can once again be a leader in the latest trend in agriculture--bringing the farms back into the city.