Written by Jason Mark
It doesn’t take an agricultural expert to know that you can’t grow vegetables without water. So it wasn’t surprising that after hundreds of people marching under the banner “Occupy the Farm” took over a University of California agricultural testing station on April 22, UC officials responded by shutting off water to the site. The next day a late-season storm brought a half-inch of rain to the San Francisco Bay Area, irrigating the thousands of vegetable starts in the ground and lifting the spirits of the urban farming activists who are determined to save the site from development. Score: Occupiers, 1 — UC administrators, 0.
Social change activists in Berkeley, CA have always been ahead of the curve. May Day is considered the spring re-emergence for the Occupy movement, as activists around the United States engage in work stoppages, street marches, and various forms of civil disobedience to press their demands for a more equitable economy. The folks with Occupy the Farm got started early. On Earth Day they marched from Berkeley’s Ohlone Park to a 5-acre plot of land in the adjacent bedroom community of Albany. They cut the locks on the gates of the UC-Berkeley and US Department of Agriculture field trial plot, pulled up nearly an acre of thick mustard growing there, and got busy working the soil with a pair of rented rototillers. Then scores of volunteers planted 150-foot rows of lettuces, beans, cucumbers, and leafy greens. By the end of Earth Day, the Bay Area had a new urban farm.
The occupation of the Gill Tract (named for the family that donated the property to the university decades ago) appears to mark a new stage for the adolescent Occupy movement. The autumn encampments in Manhattan, Oakland, and dozens of other cities around the country were a kind of primal scream against the growing wealth disparities and corporate overreach that have come to characterize America. With their anarchist architecture and consensus decision-making, Occupy’s autonomous spaces gave people a chance to envision a radically different way of organizing society and economy — and in the process shifted the national discourse in a more progressive direction. Now, actions like the Gill Tract takeover, the occupation of foreclosed homes, and the protests outside of bank shareholder meetings are giving new potency and political relevance to the Occupy movement. Occupiers (some of them at least) are beginning to focus on actions that are at once full of political symbolism and fulfill people’s basic human needs for food and shelter. Activists have gone from imagining a new world to actually creating it.
“While those of us who originally organized this aren’t affiliated with the official Occupy movement, we are inspired by the last year of what Occupy has done,” Anya Kamenskaya, one of the Occupy the Farm organizers, told me when I visited the Gill Tract Friday morning. “We are taking that Occupy spirit and taking it to the problems in our community. You could call it Occupy 2.0”
Kamenskaya is a UC-Berkeley alum (class of 2009) who has been involved in sustainable agriculture initiatives such as The Greenhorns and Future Farmers. As we spoke, a convoy of borrowed pickup trucks was dumping load after load of dark black compost next to where a dozen straw bales had just been dropped off. Volunteers were busy painting banners for an upcoming weekend of community farming events. A flock of six laying hens pecked about among the trampled mustard stalks. “The reason we’re here is because it’s farmland, and it’s farmland in an urban area, and it should be used as farmland, especially since there are tens of thousands of people in the Bay Area who are food insecure,” Kamenskaya, wearing a floppy straw hat, said as she directed the delivery of some port-a-potties. “For years students, professors, and neighbors have come up with proposal after proposal for some kind of agro-ecology center to show people how to grow their own food. The university has had listening sessions so they can say they have listened. But they don’t incorporate our ideas into their plans.”
The land seized by Occupy the Farm is the last parcel of Class 1 agriculture soils left in the East Bay and the final remnant of a 104-acre spread bequeathed to the University of California in the 1920s. For decades this sliver of prime farmland has been used as an agricultural testing station by researchers from the USDA and UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources. But a 2004 UC Master Plan for the area proposes a “commercial redevelopment” for the site. World War II era buildings on the south end of the property are slated to be turned into housing for UC faculty and graduate students, as well as retail space (including, ironically, a Whole Foods). The land currently used for agricultural trials would be re-zoned for “open space and recreation” and could include the construction of little league fields, a community center, or a childcare facility.
The occupiers say getting rid of this final vestige of farmland would be a horrible mistake: “Farmland is for farming,” Occupy the Farm said in an April 26 statement. “We cannot allow the UC to destroy one of the best resources for urban agriculture in the Bay Area.”
In an open letter published Friday, UC officials said that they “have welcomed community workshops to explore future use of this land” and “are open to further discussions with the community about implementation of the Master Plan.” At the same time, university administrators expressed resentment with the occupiers’ tactics. “We take issue with the protesters’ approach to property rights,” the letter said. “By their logic, they should be able to seize what they want if, in their minds, they have a better idea of how to use it.”
On Monday, Dan Mogulhof, head of UC’s public affairs office, told me that it’s unfair of the occupiers to think they are the only ones with hopes for the property. “We are big believers in metropolitan agriculture,” Mogulhof said. “A lot of our professors, students, and administrators are involved [in urban farming.] But there are a variety of competing interests here. We can’t be marching to the interest of just one group. We have to be representing the full range of community interest.”
Photos from lilyrhoads via flickr
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