This MayDay: Occupy the Farm!

MayDay began as an ancient celebration of renewal of springtime, and continues today as a celebration of Immigrant and International Workers’ Day. Among myriad others, Rosa Luxembourg wrote about the origins of May Day as a workers holiday. This MayDay, as we take the day off to celebrate and mobilize and to breathe life into the streets of our cities and towns, we bring you an extended photo essay and update from the inspiring upsurge of Occupy action in Northern California. – The GJEP team, for Climate Connections

Occupy the Farm Brings the Struggle for Food Sovereignty and Urban Agriculture to California

When hundreds of community activists under the banner “Occupy the Farm” entered and occupied a five acre tract of land owned by the University of California on the border of Berkeley and Albany in Sunday, April 22, it heralded a new phase of the Occupy movement, and a new stage in a long debate between the University and the public over that particular piece of land.

A week later, the Farm, as it is being called by Occupiers, has taken on a vibrant life. The debate about its occupation continues, with a battle for hearts and minds of the community playing out in a series of open letters between the University and the farmers, and a steady police presence. Eye-witness reports of police harassment reveal the high-stakes and the looming potential for conflict; within the farm grounds, however, the scene is tranquil following a weekend of planned activities including music, childrens’ activities, hands-on farming classes, and a ceremony to welcome home seeds saved from the site  by Berkeley community residents twelve years ago.

Organic fava bean cover crop planted by UC researchers, protected from possible damage by the occupiers. Photo: Conant

Underlying the current occupation is a long-running feud over the best uses of the last 14 acres of the Gill Tract, a piece of land that originally comprised 140 acres and was deeded to the University for agricultural use over a century ago.

Students of agro-ecology, working with Professor Miguel Altieri, use the land to study biological pest control, organic soil improvement, and other crop management techniques that do not rely on chemical inputs, and that are designed to aid farmers in freeing themselves from ‘the pesticide treadmill’ and support food sovereignty.

The land has also been, and continues to be, used by researchers isolating genetic traits of maize, whose funding comes from the US Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, and in past, from agribusiness interests such as Novartis. Within the College of Natural Resources at Berkeley, there has been over a decade of difficult relations between these two programs. The University’s acceptance of $25 million grant from Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis generated enough controversy to have been detailed  in books such as Universities in the Age of Corporate Science: The UCBerkeley-Novartis Controversy.

Three-quarters of an acre were tilled and planted in the first four hours of the Occupation. Photo: Conant

At the heart of Occupy the Farm is a radical vision of land use reform and a critique of private land ownership. Photo: Conant

Donated tools. Photo: Conant

After months of planning in secret, the initial occupation of the land occurred rapidly, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with hundreds of people rushing in to till and plant 3/4 of an acre in the course of a few hours. By the next day, neighbors were arriving with donations of farm implements, water, compost, and other farm supplies. Not all of the neighbors are on board with the occupation, but many are. Many neighbors say they have walked by the property for years and been unable to enter; now they are elated to have the chance to take part in farming it.

15,000 seedlings were grown by farmers from the greater Bay Area, to supply the Farm with new life. Photo: Conant

Beans in new farm beds. Photo: Conant

The Farm is intended to be a refuge for families. Photo: Conant

From the outset, organizers have placed strong emphasis on making the site open, participatory, and family-friendly. This presents challenges to the ad-hoc and sometimes unruly Occupy movement, but is an important element of growth for the movement. Leaders at the site often repeat the mantra, “The best use of farmland is farming. If you’re not here to work, go elsewhere.”

Photo: Conant

Photo: Conant

Why do chickens swallow pebbles? Photo: Conant

Many of the areas established at the Farm are set up to provide educational opportunities for children and adults alike.

Triple-scary scarecrow. Photo: Conant

The Mustard House of Enchantment. Photo: Conant

Everyone lends a hand. Photo: Conant

Springtime for Occupy. Photo: Conant

One of the Farm organizers, Gopal Dayaneni of Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project, says that “The first generation of Occupy, last year, was about beginning to imagine the world we want. This season is about manifesting it.”

 The University of California Police have a long history of engaging in provocation to quell students protest. This Sunday around 3 p.m. one such act appears to have occurred: an unidentified man appeared at the front gate of the Farm wielding a baseball bat. Witnesses say he “threatened to come back later with his buddies and shut the place down.”  Occupiers chased him off, and followed him with video cameras asking for his name. After a chase through the nearby University Village, two UC police cruisers pulled up beside the man. He immediately fell to the ground, dropped the bat and assumed a compliant posture. The police lifted him into the cruiser and began to drive off. When occupiers insisted that they be asked for statements, the police said they were making the suspect nervous, and drove off. One visitor to the Farm, a Berkeley resident unaffiliated with the protect, followed the police in her car, saw them park a few blocks away, and watched. After ten minutes, the police approached and asked her to leave. When Farmers visited the Albany police station demanding to give a statement, they were told that this was UC’s jurisdiction, and no statement would be taken. To date, no arrest has been made, and the incident has raised concern among participants that the police will not hesitate to use COINTELPRO-style tactics, and outright physical violence, to dismantle the Occupation

Photo: Conant

Like any parcel of land, the Gill Tract has a long and storied history. In 1999, shortly after Swiss Pharmaceutical giant invested $25 million in UCBerkeley’s College of Natural Resources, the College’s research priorities shifted from agro-ecology to genetic research, and students of agro-ecology were kicked off the plot. Together with community sustainability advocates, they collected the organic heirloom seeds that had been grown in the program, and brought them to the Berkeley Ecology Center where they became the first flush of seeds in the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL). This seed library in turn inspired many others (previous post).

This Sunday, as part of the educational program at the Farm, seeds from that collection were brought home to the Gill Tract. About fifty people held a ceremony and celebration of return of the seeds, and established a seed-growing keyhole garden at the site where the seeds had been removed.

An invocation was spoken, and repeated by participants that included these words: “Because we know and we believe that true humans are neither the masters nor the owners of the seeds, but servants to the seeds, brothers and sisters to the seeds, children of the seeds, today we tell your story. Today, we bring you home.”

Christopher Shein, who worked the Gill Tract as a student twelve years ago, is now a professor of Permaculture at Merritt College. Here, he is showing scarlet runner beans, from the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library he co-founded. These plants are being grown from seedstock descended from seeds saved from the Gill Tract by Shein and others in 1999. Photo: Conant

Some of this weekend's Farm activities. Photo: Conant

A sign facing San Pablo Avenue at the Occupy Farm. Photo: Conant

The battle over the Gill Tract taken up by the Occupy movement is a continuation of a long-running struggle over the privatization of public resources. As a public university, funded largely by tax-payer dollars, many feel that the UC should serve the public interest. The largest land-owner in the East Bay, the UC pays no taxes. Massive injections of money from the private sector, including the Novartis grant and a 2007 investment of $500 million from BP, have shifted the University’s research priorities, and further alienated it from the public.

New visions for the land: a sign at the Farm entrance invites all comers to imagine how the land could be used to serve the community. Photo: Conant

In the days and weeks ahead, the University will use all means at its disposal to get the Occupiers — and the community – off the land. For their part, the Occupiers plan to stay until a suitable agreement is reached that will satisfy the researchers and their needs, while also maintaining the land in community control.

Michael Beer, a Richmond resident who taught in the Oceanview Elementary school, across the street from the Gill Tract, for many years, told me of his efforts to lobby the University to make this land available for childrens’ education. The plan, called Village Creek Farm and Garden, was scrapped by the UC administration in 2006.

“My mistake,” Beer told me, “is that I talked to the University. These people just took the land, and now the University has to deal with them. I think it’s fantastic.”

The following open letter is a response to a letter posted by the University of California, here.

29 April 2012

Open Letter from Occupy the Farm to Albany Residents and the East Bay Community

As you read this letter, East Bay families and farmers continue to seed, weed, and water at Occupy The Farm.  Public events over this weekend have included workshops by members of the community and the opening of the “Ladybug Patch” children’s area. For most Albany residents this is the first time they have ever been invited onto, or set foot upon this land.

We are writing you to correct the misinformation circulated by the University Administration in their recent open letter.

The University administration’s position does NOT represent the position of the entire university community.  For example, there are 8 faculty members within the College of Natural Resources that are actively supporting the idea of turning the Gill Tract into an urban farm. These faculty’s interest in the Gill Tract stems from their affiliation with Berkeley’s new Diversified Farming Systems Center, whose mission is closely aligned with Occupy the Farm’s mission to promote “sustainable agriculture to meet local needs.” Building on the long history of the parcel as a home for Miguel Altieri’s agroecological research, the Gill Tract could potentially become a center for community outreach, agroecology, and urban farming – thereby meeting the growing interests of the university in socially and ecologically sustainable farming, and the needs of the local East Bay community.
We are well aware of the history of this land and the debates about its future.  We encourage everyone to examine the University’s 2004 Master Plan, which clearly indicates that the historic agricultural field we have planted is intended to be developed.  This field used to belong to the College of Natural resources, but has long since been transferred to Capital Projects, the development arm of the University of California.  The UC allows researchers use of the field, but as long as this master plan remains in effect the clock is ticking, and the planned redevelopment will displace all researchers from this land as well.

We are acutely aware that our presence on this land presents challenges for the researchers who have been using this land as well as for the neighbors living around it.  Our inability to provide advance notice for this action has certainly compounded this inconvenience.  We recognize that it will take time and hard work to solidify good relationships with our neighbors, and we are humbled by the grace we have been shown by nearby residents, the UC Village, and the Ocean View Elementary School, and grateful to those who have allowed us to open lines of communication.   We are hopeful that dialogue with the researchers can lead to a mutually acceptable resolution that reconciles the needs of those using the land for research with the long term goal of preserving this land as farmland for future generations.

The UC’s letter clearly exposes how out of touch it is with the Albany community. The UC claims to have been “actively participating in a collaborative, five-year-long community engagement process.”  After five years of this supposed “collaboration” and “community engagement”, the same letter acknowledges that most Albany residents “are studying the details of the project for the first time as the result of media interest in the protest.”  Albany community members have not been aware of this proposal because the UC has not engaged in a sufficiently open and participatory process.  As Ulan McKnight, an Albany resident, says, “The process included no real collaboration.  The University may have ‘listened’ to the community, but ignored their proposals and suggestions.”

Despite more than a decade of requests by many members of the community that the land be used for agriculture in service of the public interest, the UC continues to offer the land up for non-agricultural uses.  In 1997, the UC walked away from the table during the final stages of deliberating a proposal for the Gill Tract drafted by a coalition of UC professors, residents, and more than 30 local non-profits known as the Bay Area Coalition for Urban Agriculture (BACUA).  These negotiations were abandoned with no explanation. Mara Duncan, an Albany resident for 16 years, says, “Long before the Whole Foods proposal, 1200 people in the community signed a petition asking to make the Gill Tract a community farm. When the Whole Foods proposal came, many of the voices supporting an urban farm felt shut out by the UC and the deliberative process.”

Dan Siegel, our legal counsel, points out that the UC is not only violating the public trust, it may also be violating the law.  According to Siegel, “Since the Gill Tract represents one of the few remaining agricultural spaces in northern Alameda County, preserving it as a productive farm is consistent with public policy and the public interest.” Siegel cites several statuets, including California Civic Code 815, which “declares that the preservation of land in its natural, scenic, agricultural, historical, forested, or open space condition is among the most important environmental assets of California.”

Our goal is to prevent development of agricultural land, and to allow the community to be engaged with the land.   Support for The Farm is building because it represents an important hope for urban agriculture and community in the East Bay.  Please join us in protecting our most valuable community resource. Farmland is for Farming.

This letter has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: April 29, 2012

An earlier version of this letter incorrectly quoted part of an Albany resident’s statement regarding the extent to which community voices were or were not considered in UC-sponsored listening sessions.

END

In closing, we leave you with some words of MayDay inspiration:

…Let the winds lift your banners from far lands
With a message of strife and of hope:
Raise the Maypole aloft with its garlands
That gathers your cause in its scope….

…Stand fast, then, Oh Workers, your ground,
Together pull, strong and united:
Link your hands like a chain the world round,
If you will that your hopes be requited.

When the World’s Workers, sisters and brothers,
Shall build, in the new coming years,
A lair house of life—not for others,
For the earth and its fulness is theirs.

Walter Crane, The Workers’ Maypole, 1894


 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Climate Change, Nuclear power, Posts from Jeff Conant

One response to “This MayDay: Occupy the Farm!

  1. Pingback: On the Road with Dancing with Dynamite

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