A Breath of Fresh Air for the Occupy Movement: How Occupy the Farm Hopes to Reclaim the Commons

By Jeff Conant

When hundreds of people took up the banner of “Occupy the Farm” on April 22nd and laid claim to a patch of urban farmland owned by UC Berkeley, it was not the first time this 5-acre parcel had become the flashpoint of a struggle between the University and local communities. But it was the first time anyone had done something as brash as simply taking the land without asking.

On that sunny Sunday two weeks ago, an ad-hoc band of UC alumni, urban farming proponents, families, and veteran Occupy activists ended an Earth Day parade by arriving at the site, cutting the lock and pitching in to till and plant 3/4 of an acre of guerilla farm. At least in the short term, the action worked fantastically well. Fears of a police raid the first night went unfulfilled. Rather than sending its well-appointed riot squads to dismantle the trespass, the UC took the tack of firing up its public relations machine (and cutting off water to the site). Media, from Alternet to ABC to Forbes, picked up the story. Occupiers took the high road by engaging in direct dialogue with faculty, students, and administrators. Two weeks later, the land continues to be occupied – and, more importantly, farmed.

Now, with several UC research teams needing to get their crops in the ground by mid-May, and the University unwilling to meet the demands of the Gill Tract Farmers Collective, as the group working the land calls itself, confrontation seems imminent. Whether or not the Farmers manage to stay, the experiment is a bold, largely unprecedented act of reclaiming the Commons in the most immediate sense – taking land out of private speculation and putting it into community use.

The organizers say the UC-owned Gill tract is significant not only because it is the last and best agricultural land in the East Bay, but because the struggle over this land is tied to the struggle to keep the public university serving the public interest. Over the last decade, through investments by Novartis, BP and other corporations, the University of California has become increasingly captured by private interests, which have come to control its research agenda and its land use policy. Now, Occupy the Farm says, the public is taking it back.

In the university’s first published response to the Occupiers, on April 27, Vice-Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer wrote, “We take issue with the protesters’ approach to property rights. 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.”

Blunt as the Vice-Chancellor’s thrust was, he hit on a key point: the occupiers do believe they have a better idea of how to use the land than the UC. And, once concerns about power, money, private property, and other systemic irritations are set aside, their case is perfectly rational. In a revolutionary sense, that is.

Without doubt there are very real issues to wrestle with about what the land is currently used for, whose interests are served by it, whose interests should be served by it, and how such decisions are best arbited. In the best democratic spirit, the bold action of the Occupiers forces these questions to the foreground. In a system dominated by private property, where possession is nine-tenths of the law, these decisions are usually made simple, by Money and Power. But imagine a system where we relax the hold that the Rule of Law has over public property, we unclench the Invisible Hand of the Market that governs private property, and we revive a third option – one with a long and largely invisible tradition: the Collective Stewardship of the Commons.

Farmland is for Farming

The principle motto taken up by the Gill Tract Farmers Collective is “Farmland is for farming.” The slogan echoes the visionary cry for agrarian reform that kicked off the Mexican Revolution – the first agrarian revolution of the Twentieth Century – when Emiliano Zapata set forth the basic Commons principle, “La tierra para quien la trabaja” – the land is for the people who work it.

Indeed, it is this spirit that brought the Gill Tract Occupation support from international peasant farmer movements La Via Campesina and the Movimento Sem Terra (MST) in Brazil. The act reflects what Ricado Jacobs, a South African member of La Via Campesina, told me during the UN Climate Conference in Durban last December: for farmers, food sovereignty depends on land sovereignty – and that means, taking land out of speculation, and putting it into production. Jacobs calls it “redistributive justice.”

“It’s not just about agrarian reform, or about taking land, but about transforming the whole food system,” Jacobs said at the time. “Where are we going to practice agro-ecology if we don’t take land?”

The first day of the occupation, the MST saw such importance in the Gill Tract occupation – an extremely rare occurrence in the US – that they sent a statement of support, in which they say “your land occupation is not an isolated act, but one of dozens of land occupations that are currently occurring across Brazil and the world, challenging the dominance of agribusiness in the countryside and asserting the right for peasants to own and work the land.”

Of course, the Gill Tract Farmers Collective is not made up of peasants. Anya Kamenskaya, one of the Farm’s spokespeople, says, “Obviously on a socio-economic scale our struggles are different than those of peasant farmers. But everyone in the world shares the problem of food access, because corporations control so much of global food production.”

Historically, this piece of land – not so much a farm as an open-air research lab – has been subject to much tussle between corporate-focused research and community-focused farming. As the Occupation has dug in, it has unearthed a long-term split between these divergent tendencies – a split that plays out in the current work going on there.

One set of researchers works with Professor Miguel Altieri, the man who coined the term “agro-ecology,” and whose program is aimed at encouraging “more ecological, biodiverse, sustainable, and socially just forms of agriculture.” Altieri works directly with peasant farmer movements in the global South, and, in keeping with the spirit of his work, has been vocally supportive of the Occupation of the land, while maintaining the position that research must continue there as well.

Another group of researchers is involved in what they call “basic genetic isolation research concerning how all plants develop and how they regulate their genes.” Despite the Gill Tract Collective’s attempts to negotiate with them, and to offer them the space to continue their work, this group of researchers has demanded that the Occupiers clear off the land. As some of the land’s ‘legitimate’ occupants, they have acted to give credence to the university’s position.

The split in attitudes of the two research groups to some extent reflects larger attitudes towards property, both intellectual and material, and has led the occupiers to ask the question, if farmland is for farming, what constitutes farming, and what doesn’t?

Certainly, we need basic research, and in a world facing massive species die-offs, exponential population growth, and the uncalculated effects of Global Warming, the more knowledge we have of our crops, the better. But, in an economic climate dominated by private interests – at a University whose research priorities are determined largely by who pays, whether it is the Federal government or private corporations – who is to say what research may or may not advance corporate control of food systems, to the detriment of the global Commons?

One of the genetics researchers on the land, for example, is the inventor of a US Patent with the typically abstruse title: “Genetic functions required for gene silencing in maize.” The text of the patent states that “The availability of genetic stocks that prevent the establishment or maintenance of transgene silencing would be extremely useful for engineering and breeding new corn lines.”

In other words, this researcher’s work helps solve problems blocking the further genetic engineering of corn. Put in more ideological terms, what this research does is to work out the kinks in corn for future applied transgenics, thus facilitating corporate control of seeds. The University is actively marketing this research to biotechnology companies through the UCOP technology transfer office.

Another researcher on the plot, under a grant from the USDA, works on precursors to biofuels. Her research helped to demonstrate that introducing a maize gene into switchgrass, one of the favored feedstocks for advanced biofuels, more than doubles the amount of starch in the plant’s cell walls, making it much easier to extract polysaccharides and convert them into fermentable sugars. In other words, her work on transferring genes from corn to switchgrass – a form of genetic modification – improves the switchgrass for more efficient biofuel production.

The researchers may or may not be undertaking these processes on this particular plot of land; they are perfectly friendly and approachable people, undeserving of the demonization that anti-corporate activists best reserve for the sociopathic tendencies of corporations themselves; whether one sees their work as favorable or not depends on one’s position on biofuels, GMO’s, and intellectual property rights. But if a Commons argument is to be made for the use of the land, as it is by the Gill Tract Farmers’ Collective, such research may not measure up to the “Farmland is for Farming” principle.

“If It’s the Right Thing to Do, We Have the Right to Do It”

The second part of the Farmland is for Farming principle is articulated by one of the Farm organizers, Gopal Dayaneni, of Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project: “If the right thing to do with farmland is farming, then we have the right to do it.”

While the point has not been made visible in the press, after spending time with the occupiers, one thing becomes clear: The Gill Tract Farmers’ Collective’s ultimate goal is to divest the University of the land in question. For most of us, with our minds thoroughly embedded in what Provost Breslauer calls “property rights,” such a notion is literally unthinkable. But, from a Commons perspective, it becomes quite reasonable.

Again, the history of the land is key: this is the last and best arable soil in the urban East Bay, and is the last farmable 14 acres of a 104 acre land grant given to the UC in 1928. All but 14 of the original acres have been developed into urban landscape. A few years ago, the university transferred the land from the College of Natural Resources to Capital Projects, its commercial arm that specializes in “development projects.” One of the key points brought to light by Occupy the Farm is that much of the property in question is slated for sale and development as soon as next year. In the Zapatista-inflected words of one organizer, “this is the Ya Basta! to the UC’s selling off this land.”

There have been many prior attempts by community members to work with UC faculty and administration to make good use of the land, with vocal support coming from the likes of Alice Waters, Food First, and the Black Panthers. In 2000, under the name Bay Area Coalition for Urban Agriculture (BACUA), several professors, students, community members, and nonprofit organizations proposed turning the plot into the world’s first university center on sustainable urban agriculture and food systems. The proposal was ignored by the university.

In 2005 a group called “Urban Roots” advanced a proposal to create Village Creek Farm and Gardens, “a farm that would provide Bay Area students from preschool to community college and university with an educational resource par excellence.” Urban Roots argued at the time that the Center for Urban Agriculture at the Gill Tract offered UC Berkeley the opportunity to join other organizations and community members in teaching students and future urban dwellers these skills and the benefits of locally produced food. This proposal, too, was rejected.

As Professor Altieri wrote in an Op-ed in the Daily Cal, “From these facts, it can be concluded that until now, the university has shown little to no interest in requests for community involvement and benefit from the exceptionally high-quality lands at the Gill Tract.”

Michael Beer, a former Albany schoolteacher and one of the forces behind the Urban Roots initiative put it more bluntly: “Our problem was we tried to talk to the university. These people just came in and took the land, and now the university has to deal with them.”

Professor Altieri adds that, “To many people, the actions taken by the farm advocates are consistent with the university’s education and public mission as a land grant institution with a Cooperative Extension function (the latter established in the Smith-Lever Act of 1914) to promote community involvement and initiatives in agriculture.  Their actions are also consistent with California public policy, as set forth in Section 815 of the Civil Code, to preserve and protect open space, particularly agricultural land that has historical significance — such as the Gill Tract.”

Professor Altieri cites the historical mission of the land grant university to preserve agricultural land, and it is important to cite such legal precedent. (An important recent report from Food & Water Watch has much to say on the topic.) But, with the Commons framework in mind, it’s worth considering that it’s one thing to pressure the University to develop an urban farming program with a component that engages and educates local communities, as the institution’s mandate suggests; it’s another entirely to judge the University incompetent to steward the land, to declare the property a conservation easement, to put it in a land trust, and to restore it the Commons. Ultimately, in conversations on hay bales and under impromptu tarps fluttering in the Bay breeze, this is what the Gill Tract Farming Collective is proposing.

To Plant, You Have to Supplant; To Reclaim the Commons, You Have to Break the Law

The university administration has expressed alarm at Occupy the Farm’s tactics — ignoring property rights and establishing an illegal encampment for starters — and charges that the young farmers are trying to bulldoze their demands through without consideration for other community interests, such as the ballfields, the Whole Foods and the Senior Home that are awaiting construction on the Gill Tract. The fact that the University has done much the same is negligible, because it stands on the right side of the law.

As Dayaneni says, “Occupy the Farm is an act of ongoing civil disobedience, and the action is farming.” The point being, in a system that has no ground rules for governing land within a Commons framework, the old rules will need to be cast aside. Civil disobedience spelled the other way around is moral obedience – standing for a higher principle. Doing it is messy, especially with so many divergent interests at stake. It takes courage, it takes commitment – and, in many cases, it requires breaking the law.

The Occupy Movement writ large has not been shy about any of these questions – from Zucotti Park to Oscar Grant plaza, to public squares everywhere, the movement has pushed the boundaries of the law. In return, it has received grim treatment that bears frequent recall: Scott Olsen, the Iraq War veteran who received a traumatic head injury from an Oakland Police Department projectile; the pepper-spraying and beatings of students at UC campuses; police abuse in New York City, and countless arrests are testament to the lengths the authorities will go, daily, to protect and serve private property and big financial interests. From abolition to civil rights to the anti-war movements, we know this is how the state responds when the Commons are reclaimed, whether the Commons in question are political spaces or physical territory.

That said, until the day the police arrive in their militarized gear, being on the Occupied Gill Tract feels nothing like breaking the law. The plot today is a flat piece of green and tilled pasture edged by palm and Russian olive trees and surrounded by high chain link fence, bordered by major urban thoroughfares, a mile from the highway and in plain view of the Albany Police Department and several gas stations. A mixed and scrubby bunch of people – occupiers, UC faculty, permaculturists, neighbors, children – sit on straw bales or under tent canopies talking, or walk with jugs of water down the 40 or so rows of crops that were tilled and planted over the past two weeks. Drugs and alcohol are prohibited, and dogs must be leashed – after all, farmland is for farming.

During the family farm days they’ve held for two weekends in a row, children dig and plant, musicians take the stage to strum or simply stroll through the fallow stretches of the land, folks sit in circles learning about the joys of composting or the complexities of the global food system. The first Sunday after the land was taken, several of us held a welcome home ceremony for the descendents of seeds that had been moved off the tract twelve years ago – during one of the moments when the university prioritized genetic research over agro-ecology – and been saved year after year at the Bay Area Seed Library down the road. In less than an hour, a dozen people planted a permaculture plot to continue growing the seedstock that had been in diaspora for over a decade. My four-year old daughter helped out, and everyday since, she has asked to go back.

Despite the growing attention given to food, farming, and open land in the urban East Bay, there is no place I know that feels like this.

Certainly the joy of being on this little parcel of farmland is first and foremost that of getting a breath of fresh air in an urban environment. But could it be that part of the pleasure of setting foot here is that it’s against the law? That it’s neither a public park nor a private farm, but a brief and utopian step outside of the rules that surround and enclose us everywhere we go? That we are not supposed to be here?

As the struggle of Occupy the Farm continues, it takes shape as a battle for public sympathy. Certainly the genetics researchers and university administrators and the UC Police and a fair number of law-abiding neighbors would like to see the farm put back into private hands. One of the researchers – the one with intellectual property rights to the technique that allows corn to be more efficiently modified – said about the occupiers, “They’re not bad people – they’re just good people on my land.” His statement points to one of the underlying issues: where one’s sympathies lie is determined, in large part, by whether or not one believes in the Commons.

Lesley Haddock, one of the Farmers, wrote yesterday in the Daily Cal, “The Occupy movement began with the idea that we could no longer depend on the powers that be to provide for us. Occupy the Farm takes this message one step further, demonstrating that we can create our own alternatives. If this farm stays, and if farms like this one continue to spring up in urban centers around the world, we won’t need to rely on the massive industrial structures that feed us genetically contaminated and nutrient-poor foods. We can create our own sustainable models and grow food the way we know it should be grown.”

That’s a big “if.” But it’s the if that holds open the door onto the Commons.

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0 Responses to A Breath of Fresh Air for the Occupy Movement: How Occupy the Farm Hopes to Reclaim the Commons

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  2. Birdie Bauer

    Has anyone pointed out to the opposition that a non native diet can cause a host of imbalances leading to all sorts of illness. Could use example of Native American Indians eating “American” food, and the implications to that culture. In a hundred years buildings or mini-malls will be torn down to have a space to garden locally. Simple population growth index alone! It just makes sense to Do this important thing and preserve more open natural locations or what will happen? IN a Hundred years we will be tearing down these structure and asphalt so we do have the space. Man is animal and animals need to be in the natural habitat and that my friend can never be all concrete, for sadly we will all go mad. Just think about it?

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