Category Archives: Urban agrciculture

Occupying the Future, Starting at the Roots

Occupied Urban Farmland in the Bay Area Highlights Privatization of Public 

Universities and Corporatization of Public Trust

By Diana Pei Wu

Cross-posted from Race, Poverty and the Environment

As a mother, I was nervous about taking my daughters into a land occupation. But I also feel an enormous responsibility to stand up against a global economic system that puts profit over people.” —Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan

“Farmland is for farming.” —Gopal Dayaneni

On Earth Day—April 22, 2012—about 200 people, accompanied by children in strollers, dogs, rabbits, chickens, and carrying hundreds of pounds of compost and at least 10,000 seedlings entered a 14-acre piece of land containing the  last Class I agricultural soil in the East Bay. Located on the Albany-Berkeley border in the Bay Area, the plot is owned by the University of California Berkeley. By the end of the day, they had weeded, tilled, and successfully cultivated about an acre of the land. By May 14, when 100 University of California riot police surrounded the tract and began arresting the farmers, Occupy the Farm had cultivated around five acres of the plot known as the Gill Tract.

The Occupy farmers have laid out footpaths around cultivated plots, created wildlife corridors, riparian zones, and protected areas for native grasses and a wild turkey nest, and set up a library and a kitchen. They have planted thousands of seedlings of corn, tomatoes, squash, beans, broccoli, herbs, and strawberries, including heirloom varieties from a local seed bank. Other plots have been reserved for agro-ecological research. There’s also a permaculture garden for kids on the other side of a gazebo of woven branches where wind chimes tinkle in the breeze.“

Gopal Dayaneni of Movement Generation, says that the vision for the farm is the “practice and promotion of sustainable urban agriculture with a commitment to food justice and food sovereignty.” He is a father, activist, and member of what he calls the “new urban peasantry.” Food grown on the farm will be distributed—for free—through existing food justice networks in the San Francisco Bay Area.

On April 24, the University shut off the water supply and threatened the farmers with eviction. University administration has gone on a media offensive, attempting to pit researchers against the Occupy farmers[1] and according to some reports, preventing them from negotiating with the farmers. Some faculty members have published statements[2] in support of the farmers, arguing that the goals of the farm are aligned with the public policy goals of the state and the U.C. mission.[3] If transforming a student’s life is part of that mission, U.C. Berkeley student Lesley Haddock has certainly experienced it working on the farm. “Before our project began, I had never planted a seed,” she admits. “But in the past two weeks, I have become a farmer!”[4]

Public Good—Private Gain at the Gill Tract
One of the Occupy farmers, Ashoka Finley is a program assistant with Urban Tilth and runs an organic farm in collaboration with students at Richmond High School, in Richmond, California. A political economy graduate of U.C. Berkeley, Finley believes that the farm is redefining and reclaiming the role of the public university, just as the Occupy movement is redefining and reclaiming public space.
“The history of the Gill Tract is [about] public subsidization of private research that [profits] the corporate industrial complex; not research for the public good,” he says.

It was not always this way. The 104-acre plot was sold to the University in 1928 by the Gill family with the condition that it be used as an agricultural research station. Under the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, part of the University’s mission as a land grant institution is to promote community involvement and initiatives in agriculture.

From the 1940s through the 1990s, research conducted at the Gill Tract laid the groundwork for successful, non-chemical and non-petroleum-based methods for controlling numerous major insect pests on several California crops, and for the integration of biological, chemical, and cultural methods of pest control.5 The innovative methods developed, shared, and refined at the International Center for Biological Control included intercropping6 and using bugs to control pests in addition to or in place of pesticides, and means to reduce overall chemical dependency and prevent the development of superbugs in industrial and community agriculture worldwide.

The turning point came in 1998, when Novartis gave $25 million to the Plant and Microbial Biology department to conduct genetic research on the land. “They kicked off the local organic pest management project to do gene research,” says Ulan McKnight of the Albany Farm Alliance. “What was here before directly benefitted the people of California; now what they do here directly benefits biotechnology companies. Instead of doing things that can help people, they are doing things that benefit the one percent.”
Among the projects closed down at the time was a seed bank of rare heirloom varieties of many important food crops, and a state-of-the-art drip irrigation system from a student-run urban sustainable agriculture demonstration plot. Until the water was cut off at the Tract, the Occupy farmers were planning to start using those irrigation tubes again.

Privatization Leaves U.C. System Impoverished
The trend of privatizing the research and knowledge produced at public institutions is systemic, according to Julie Sze, associate professor of American Cultures at U.C. Davis. A long-time supporter of social justice and student movements, Sze attributes her activism to her student days at U.C. Berkeley, where she took courses with the likes of RP&E founder Carl Anthony. She credits the university with being the “social justice innovation lab” that produced so many of the environmental justice leaders of today and argues that corporatization is an impoverishment of the U.C. system and a betrayal of the system’s legacy for California.

It is worth noting that the number of people graduating from UCLA annually exceeds the total number of people graduating from all private colleges in the state. It is no exaggeration, therefore, to say that whatever happens with the U.C. system affects the future of California.

Universities have a special role to encourage ways of thinking that go beyond the corporate workplace, says Sze. People who have fought to work with communities on the side of racial and economic justice are an important legacy of the university. People like Paul Taylor, who in the 1930s, promoted the idea of the agricultural job ladder (where farm workers could eventually become family farmers) over the agribusiness model, which depended on seasonal workers. The university is a place to explore and imagine different possibilities and different futures, which is why student activism is a global force and so deeply threatening to the existing order.

Sze believes that the move towards corporate funding of research, coupled with increasing student debt, has curtailed the ability and desire of students to participate in the creative and innovative social justice thinking and activity that is so important to the common good.
David Naguib Pellow, another movement scholar-activist and a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, observes, “Every [public] university I’ve worked at, professors are encouraged to secure external funding for their research to alleviate state budget constraints. This often involves seeking resources from corporations and foundations that have little or no accountability to the public, which amounts to the privatization of ideas, knowledge, and the commons, and is a dangerous trend if we desire to live in a democratic society.”

The tuition hikes and the cuts in programs that do not have a corporate/profit bent are a direct result of the bias towards education in the service of corporations, according to Finley, and needs to be countered by the training of people in the service of people.

Occupy the Future—Take It, Make It, Shape It
In an email sent out in early May, Adbusters urges recipients to “occupy the future;” that is, “to describe, build and sustain the post-capitalist future we want to live in.”

Dayaneni concurs with that sentiment. “People ask me what they can do to support. I say, take more land. Occupy a library, a clinic, whatever, plan it right and [re-launch] it appropriately and at scale. We need to prove that we have the ability to self govern. This is the new moment of occupy, not tit for tat, not cat-and-mouse games with cops, but full-scale intervention. Occupy the Farm is one of the first to-scale interventions.”

Projects like Occupy the Farm also create a sort of sovereignty and allow a space for larger political expression where people can articulate their demand for a more egalitarian, just society through work done with their own hands, argues Finley.

“In the first world, we have been fed a false sense of security that is imploding,” says Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan, recounting her family’s experience with the militant experiment in collective governance and self-sufficiency. “On Earth Day, our families were a part of manifesting a collective vision for a better way forward—that the land be a community educational center. We have planted strawberries in the children’s garden and feed the chickens with snails that we collect from our own garden. My partner, a cook, brings us food regularly. We are making that vision real.”

Not everybody, however, sees Occupy the Farm in the same light and on the same terms, Finley points out. For many communities of color, farmwork is both a practice of material and cultural survival and self-sufficiency, and, at the same time, deeply tied to racialized exploitation in the United States. For African Americans, farming is related to slavery and sharecropping. For recent immigrants from Latin America, farming is about the bankruptcy brought on by the dumping of subsidized monoculture products in their countries. And for Southeast Asian immigrants, farming is associated with a bloody countryside strewn with unexploded ordnance and other detritus from U.S. wars. At the same time, like other forced immigrants before them, these people have also brought with them a knowledge and identity that is wrapped up in the cultivation and ceremony of working the land.

Subsistence through the production of one’s own food is one of the most effective forms of resistance.  But the action at Gill Tract also points toward the broader challenges at the University.

The arena of struggle revealed by Occupy the Farm is not just organic farming, food justice, and food sovereignty. The classrooms, the libraries, and the research agenda of the university are being shaped to meet the needs of corporate sponsors. Groundbreaking areas in scholarship that were pioneered in the University of California, such as Ethnic Studies, Women and Gender Studies, Peace and Conflict Studies, were won by student-led protest and strikes (and occupations) in the early 1970s. They now face devastating cuts against which students are mobilizing. Battles against tuition hikes, student debt, and democratizing University governance will be key to shifting the overall direction of the university and the society.

Amilcar Cabral, the African revolutionary and agricultural engineer once said: “Culture contains the seed of resistance, which blossoms into the flower of liberation.” At the Gill Tract we can see seeds of resistance that have been planted—but it is clear that in order to blossom, they will need watering.

Diana Pei Wu is a frequent contributor to RP&E. She is a researcher, activist, organizer, and trainer with the Ruckus Society and various media
justice strategy and training organizations, as well a member of the boards of smartMeme and the Vietnamese American Young Leaders
Association of New Orleans. She has a Ph.D. from the department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management at U.C. Berkeley.

6.    The practice of planting two or more crops together or in close proximity. Benefits include structural support for climbing plants (beans and squash growing on corn), increased yields (from legumes enriching soils), natural pest repellents  (marigolds, for example), and climate control for shade loving plants (coffee grown under shade-producing trees, such as Erythrina or Jacaranda).

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Unclean Hands at the Gill Tract?

UC Berkeley researchers say they have nothing to do with Big Agribusiness, but records show that companies like Monsanto profit from their work.

By Darwin BondGraham, cross-posted from the East Bay Express

The Gill Tract in Albany - Steve Rhodes/Flickr (CC)

The battle over the future of Albany’s Gill Tract has tapped into multiple, deep-seated conflicts that perennially dominate Bay Area politics, from land use and development to food ethics. But in one area, the roots of disagreement are potentially very deep: biotechnology and its uses.

Genetic engineering has been a topic of intense debate since its emergence in the early 1970s when scientists developed methods to cut and paste fragments of DNA, creating genetically modified organisms — GMOs. Some claim that GMOs represent a dangerous leap in the technological manipulation of life. Critics also point out that GMO research products benefit large corporations, producing proprietary crop varieties designed to promote industrialized models of agriculture, at the expense of small farmers and the public. Proponents, meanwhile, contend that genetic engineering is simply a new tool that could, if responsibly applied, enable humanity to better provide for the common good.

The East Bay encapsulates the entire debate like no place else. UC Berkeley and many of its spin-off companies are on the cutting edge of biotech. This university-led academic-industrial combine has arguably done more to promote the genetic engineering of food crops than any other cluster of institutions. Paradoxically, the Bay Area is also an epicenter for GMO opposition. It’s no wonder, then, that the issue has lurked in the background of the recent farm occupation in Albany.

While saying they respect the academic freedom of the current crop of UC researchers who utilize the Gill Tract, and even inviting these researchers to continue their work alongside them, organizers of the farm occupation have expressed concern with the University of California’s wider links to agribusiness corporations. Perhaps due to these criticisms, a few of the researchers who use the Gill Tract in their experiments have fired back. They said their work, and, by association, UC’s research program at the Gill Tract, isn’t connected to the biotech industry’s profit motives, nor the genetic engineering of food crops.

In an interview with Albany Patch shortly after the occupation began, Damon Lisch, a UC researcher who uses the Gill Tract in his studies, characterized his work as having nothing to do with the agenda of corporate agribusiness. “Basic research using corn as a model is different than making GMO corn to improve profits for Monsanto,” he said. In another Albany Patch article, UC researcher Sarah Hake said her research “is not to create new products (such as in genetic engineering),” but rather, “to understand basic processes in plant biology.” Most recently, Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson quoted UC researcher George Chuck, who is a member of Hake’s lab team, as saying that research at the Gill Tract is not funded by large oil and other corporate concerns.

But are the GMO-free claims of UC’s researchers true? Is research at the Gill Tract by UC’s scientists purely a public service, unconnected to corporate profits?

A survey of biotechnology patents that cite the research of these outspoken scientists shows that some of their research has, in fact, resulted in the production of GMO technologies. While UC’s researchers might not be conducting GMO trials at the Tract directly for Big Agribusiness, some of their findings have been heavily cited by private sector researchers who are developing transgenic crops for their corporate employers. In fact, Lisch, the most outspoken researcher opposed to the Gill Tract occupation, is a co-inventor of a patent that is directly applicable to GMO research.

Lisch is a named inventor of one biotechnology patent owned by UC, “Genetic functions required for gene silencing in maize.” The patent claims to solve a problem, known as “transgene silencing,” faced by developers of GMO corn. In addition, the UC Office of Technology Transfer markets the techniques described in Lisch’s patent to biotechnology companies so they can use these methods in their GMO development operations. According to the UC’s Office of Intellectual Property and Industry Research Alliances website, the patent’s “applications” are relevant to the “genetic engineering of corn.” UC’s Office of Technology Transfer says it’s university policy to keep the names of corporations that are licensing a specific technology confidential, so it’s not clear who is using Lisch’s patented research findings to develop GMO corn.

Researcher Chuck’s insistence that his work at the Gill Tract isn’t funded by industry might be technically true, but his research has also been patented and marketed, not by UC, but by a private biotechnology company called DNA Plant Technology Corporation, which was headquartered on San Pablo Avenue in North Oakland during the 1990s, giving researchers physical access to UC’s resources, including the Plant Gene Expression Center in Albany. DNA Plant Technology’s intellectual property holdings were bought by the Bionova Holding Corporation in the mid-1990s. Bionova markets numerous GMO plant varieties, and has “major technology relationships” with Monsanto and UC, according to the company’s website.

The academic research of UC’s Gill Tract scientists also serves as an important building block in private industry’s biotech efforts. A search of the US Patent and Trademark Office’s online database reveals more than a dozen patents or patent applications that cite Hake’s research. One patent that cites Hake’s corn research involves inserting genetic material from another life form from outside the plant kingdom. The owner of the patent is DeKalb Genetics Corporation, a subsidiary of Monsanto. Lisch’s research is also referenced in patents involving the genetic manipulation of food crops by Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary of DuPont.

A reference to academic research within a patent does not mean the cited researcher necessarily endorses the end product, or intended to facilitate its creation. Furthermore, a few patents citing Lisch and Hake’s research do not involve genetic engineering methods, but instead employ more “traditional” means of plant breeding or modification. Neither Lisch nor Hake responded to requests for comment.

The University of California is a major contributor to the development of genetically engineered food crops, and the Plant Gene Expression Center, which uses the Gill Tract, is a large part of UC’s link to the biotech industry. UC owns more than 150 GMO plant patents, according to the US Patent and Trademark Office. UC policy states that financial proceeds from licensed technologies are shared with the inventors, and that the remainder is plowed back into research at the university or put into the general fund.

According to UC’s most recent annual report, the university earned approximately $182 million on its patented technologies on 2011. A mere 25 UC-owned patents earned the bulk of this — about $155 million. Among these are licenses for four different varieties of strawberries and a mandarin orange. Through a licensing arrangement with UC, one of the strawberries, the Camarosa, was genetically engineered by DNA Plant Technology Corporation to withstand Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. The Camarosa Strawberry patent earned the university $2.36 million last year.

Many other UC patents are routinely licensed by biotech companies to develop GMO crops, like the Endless Summer Tomato, another product of DNA Plant Technology. Such deals are lucrative for UC. The university had 627 active plant licensing contracts with industry at the end of last year. More than a few of these were developed from research conducted at the Plant Gene Expression Center. Hake is the center’s director.

Monsanto and UC have at least twenty agreements “that include licensing, sharing materials for research, sponsoring research, and utilizing their specialized, technical services,” according to Kelly Clauss, a Monsanto spokeswoman. “We’ve had a long-standing relationship with the University of California, as well as many other land-grant universities across the country, for decades,” Clauss added. “As a company rooted in science and research, we are proud to work with universities and support agricultural research through these types of collaborative programs.”

Organizers of Occupy the Farm contacted for this article said they support academic freedom, and were wary of jumping into any debates about the nature of research that has been conducted at the Gill Tract. After planting their crops in late April, Occupy the Farm organizers posted several open letters to all the researchers inviting them to continue their projects alongside the working farm.

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Filed under Bioenergy / Agrofuels, Food Sovereignty, Genetic Engineering, Green Economy, Occupy Wall Street, Urban agrciculture

How Occupy the Farm Gave a Breath of Fresh Air to the Occupy Movement and Asserted its Right to Reclaim the Commons

A Climate Connections Exclusive, by Jeff Conant

Girl with Scarecrow and Wipala. Photo: Conant

 Note: this is an update of an article first written for Climate Connections on May 8. When the original was published, the Gill Tract Farmers Collective was actively engaging local community members in reclaiming the last and best piece of arable farmland in the urban Bay Area. Today, a week later, the land is sealed off, and the core members of that collective have been arrested,  cited and released from jail, and are awaiting trial. An alternate version of this updated article has been published on On The Commons. – Jeff Conant for Climate Connections

May 14, 2012When 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.

Three weeks later, on May 14, a force of 100 police from at least 8 UC campus police forces converged on the site, blocked traffic, carted off nine of the organizers, and barricaded the 5-acre farm plot, as well as the perimeter of the 14 acre parcel of which it forms a part. Dozens of supporters arrived to watch the 7 a.m. action and to express outrage at the police. Of course, the police, in their riot shields and armed with teargas and pepper spray, are merely doing the job they were asked to do by the Chancellor of University of California – to uphold the rule of law.

In the scant three weeks that Occupy the Farm persisted as a physical occupation, it expanded the tactics, objectives, and vision of the Occupy Movement; it restored the frontlines of a local struggle to get the University of California to respond to community needs rather than corporate interests; it took an issue that is generally only spoken of in the so-called ‘Third World’ – that of food sovereignty and territorial rights – and dropped it into the heart of the urban San Francisco Bay Area; and, it asserted, in the flesh, a demand that many progressives have spoken of in recent years, but few have had sufficient vision, understanding, or bravery to manifest: Occupy the Farm was, and 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.

Farmland is for farming. Photo: Conant

Occupy the Farm Takes the Land

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. On that first day and the days that followed, 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. For three weeks, the land continued to be occupied, and, more importantly, farmed.

But with the UC unwilling to accede to the terms of the sudden occupation or its community supporters, confrontation was always imminent. Soon after the land was taken, focus turned to the several UC research teams that needed to get their crops in the ground by mid-May. The occupiers made every attempt to negotiate with the researchers, but ultimately the university, and several of the researchers, were unwilling to meet the demands of the Gill Tract Farmers Collective. At the same time, having failed to meet community needs for decades, the University was witheringly unable to maintain even a slight scractch of moral high ground. It was clear from the first that the authorities did not have public opinion on their side, and would need to resort to the use of force to take the plot back.

Even the mainstream media was sympathetic to the cause. On May 10, Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “They are, like all the Occupy groups, protesting the growing corporatization of American life and the steadily increasing wealth gap between the very rich and everybody else. UC Berkeley – which, for all the good it does, is nevertheless definitely on the side of the 1 percent, which is the location of the butter on this particular piece of bread – is moving carefully, but it ain’t listening.”

The ‘particular piece of bread’ in question is the bit of land called the Gill tract, and it 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 NovartisBP 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. As one faculty member, who asked to remain anonymous, told me, “The UC doesn’t serve corporate interests; the UC is corporate interests.”

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 forced 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.

When the Gill Tract Farmers Collective offered to work with the researchers, to maintain their position but also support the academic work that needed to go ahead, Altieri engaged.

“I have no conflict with these people,” Altieri told Dean J. Keith Gilles of the UC’s College of Natural Resources. “I don’t see any reason why research on the land and the occupiers can’t coexist.”

Altieri’s plan was to work together with the occupiers and other community members, if they wanted to join him. “After all, extension is part of our job,” Altieri said. “We’re supposed to work with the community.”

But when Altieri showed up at the tract to plant on May 9, a dozen police officers had blocked the gates, and prevented him from entering the land. When Altieri was barred from entering the site, he appealed to the occupiers inside the fence: he described how to plant dry-farmed tomatoes – the subject of his research – and gave them several dozen plants, which they planted under the scrutiny of the UC police force.

Altieri was visibly frustrated at the UC’s handling of the situation. “It could be a coincidence, but I believe the raid was timed to prevent me from planting my tomatoes,” the professor said.

“The thing about dry farmed tomatoes is, they’re adaptive,” Altieri told me. “They don’t need any tilling, and they don’t need any water. I think this drove the college crazy.”

Altieri’s position that his research can be carried out not only in the presence of the occupiers, but with their assistance, flew in the face of the UC’s stated position. A letter signed by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer argued that the occupation of the land was incompatible with the research being carried out at the tract.

“By the middle of May, college staff need to begin work on the tract in support of faculty and student research,” the letter states, quoting CNR Dean J. Keith Gilles. “This requires that full control of the property revert to the university. These complicated projects require meticulous supervision and cannot be carried out in the midst of an encampment.”

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.

Corporate Science

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?

While they have repeatedly denied that GMOs are grown on the Gill Tract itself, two of the researchers who have been most vocally opposed to the Farm occupation are deeply involved in GMO research. One of the genetics researchers on the land, Damon Lisch, 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, Lisch’s work helps solve problems blocking the further genetic engineering of corn. Put in more ideological terms, his work plays a role in furthering the corporate control of seeds.

An article from 2004 that reviewed Novartis’ role at UC Berkeley traces Lisch’s job at the university – and ultimately his research on the Gill Tract – to the $25 million grant the company gave to the UC in 1997. Lisch received $950,000 over five years under the agreement.

“It changed my life,” he told the Sacramento Bee in 2004. But he insists that the money did nothing to compromise academic freedom. “It was very hard for me to rationalize not accepting the money when there were so few strings,” Lisch said. “They never told us what to do.”

But conflicts of interests in science do not occur only by way of researchers being directly “told what to do”. They occur by way of the financial incentives and professional opportunities that come when certain research pathways are chosen, and others not. The University is actively marketing Lisch’s research to biotechnology companies through the UCOP technology transfer office; his research is cited in numerous patents related to transgenic plants being marketed by the University of California to firms including Pioneer Hi-Bred and Monsanto. It is hard to believe that such an outcome does not compromise, or even guide, the basic research.

Lisch has refused to negotiate with the occupiers, and his wife has been present at the Gill Tract daily, meditating for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. But for those who own the patents on seed and soil, in this case as in so many others, a peaceful resolution means giving in to Power with a capital P to maintain private control over Common resources – whether these resources are specific plots of land such as the Gill Tract, or whole lines of seed.

Another researcher on the plot, Sarah Hake, works with the USDA 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.

Hake, too, has said she would prefer not to have the occupation end in violence – and her preferred path toward nonviolence has been to side with university. Hake owns Gospel Flat Farms in Bolinas, CA, and is locally known less as a plant geneticist than as an organic farmer. In maintaining this apparently contradictory position, Hake may be among those who side with US Secretary of Agriculture and the biotech industry in arguing that genetically engineered crops and organics can coexist.

But can they? Can a Commons ethic co-exist with a predatory capitalist ethos determined to bulldoze the common good for the private profit?

These researchers may or may not be undertaking these processes on this particular plot of land; despite where their economic interests lie, they are perfectly friendly and approachable people, undeserving of the demonization that anti-corporate activists best reserve for the sociopathic tendencies of corporations themselves; and 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, which serves the private interest of the biotech industry rather than the greater good of the neighboring community, fails to 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.”

As I write, a few hours after the police raid, Dayaneni is in jail along with eight other organizers. He and the other organizers are also facing a civil suit. If you fall on the UC’s side of the law, they are being tried for criminal trespass. If you fall on the Commons side, their crime is exercising their rights.

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 was – and still 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 had on hay bales and under impromptu tarps fluttering in the Bay breeze, this is what the Gill Tract Farming Collective was – and is – proposing. And like so many others who have challenged the power of private property in the interests of the public good, this is why, today, they are sitting in jail.

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

A week ago, the university administration expressed alarm at Occupy the Farm’s tactics — ignoring property rights and establishing an illegal encampment for starters — and charged that the young farmers were 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 charges were made with an eye to discrediting the Occupiers, but that effort failed. Now, the university has acted the way any property-owner acts when its interests are threatened – by calling in the Law.

When the alarm went out that a raid was underway, Gopal Dayaneni, one of the spokespeople for the Gill Tract Farmers Collective, rolled out of bed and headed straight to the Farm. An hour later, along with eight others, he was being carted off to jail. As Dayaneni said multiple times in the days leading up the raid and the arrests, “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 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 this morning, when the police arrived in their militarized gear, being on the Occupied Gill Tract felt nothing like breaking the law. The plot 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. As of a few days ago, a mixed and scrubby bunch of people – occupiers, UC faculty, permaculturists, neighbors, children – sat on straw bales or under tent canopies talking, or walked 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 were prohibited, and dogs had to be leashed – after all, farmland is for farming.

During the family farm days they’ve held for the three weekends of the Farm’s existence, children dug and planted, musicians took the stage to strum or simply stroll through the fallow stretches of the land, folks sat 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 – just after the Novartis deal went through, when the university first prioritized genetic research over agro-ecology. The seeds had 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 on many occasions 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. Now, at least for the moment, that feeling – and that place – is gone.

When I drive by later, my daughter will be surprised to see that the land is barricaded and guarded by police in riot gear. If I have the parental guts, I may use the occasion as her first teachable moment to discuss private property and the Commons. It certainly is a poignant one.

There is no doubt that the joy of being on this little parcel of farmland during its three-week run was 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 there was that it was against the law? That it was 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 were not supposed to be there?

Despite the enclosure of the land, the struggle of Occupy the Farm continues. In fact, it has only just begun. Now, with the Farmers facing criminal and civil charges, and with the crops trampled, and with the UC calling the shots, the struggle will take 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 will be glad to see the farm back in private hands. Sarah Hake, the researcher with the biofuel interests and the organic farm, may find herself in an uncomfortable position as she commutes from her private family farm in the country to her private research station in the city, guarded by police.

Damon Lisch, the researcher with intellectual property rights to the technique that allows corn to be more efficiently modified, and whose wife prayed for a peaceful resolution, 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 in the Daily Cal last week “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.” And it’s one that for now, looks extremely tenuous. But it’s the if that holds open the door onto the Commons.

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UC Police Assert Private Control Over Gill Tract; Farmers Respond: Farmland is for Farming

Albany, CA, May 14, 2012 - This morning, over 100 police officers armed with projectiles, batons, and pepper-ball guns descended on the Gill Tract Farm to attempt to force an end to community efforts to reclaim the Gill Tract for community use. The land, which is owned by UC Berkeley’s Capital Projects Development arm, was reclaimed by Occupy the Farm on April 22 and has been used for community-friendly farming education for the three weeks since. Today, using all the power at its disposal, the University of California has reasserted its control over the land.
“This land has been fought over for decades,” said Anya Kamenskaya, a spokesperson for the Gill Tract Farmers Collective. “UC needs to let go of control and supervision of this land. For decades, it has fenced off this land from use by the community. Today’s show of force is merely another in a long history of the UC’s rejection of community access to this prized piece of farmland.”

Using a mixed force made up of eight UC campus police forces, along with Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, police blocked traffic, barricaded the Gill Tract, and arrested nine people. Two of the arrestees had entered the farm after the raid began, to water plants. Seven additional people were arrested while watching the police operation from San Pablo Avenue. 

UC representative Dan Mogulof incorrectly told media that ten people were sleeping on the land at the time of the raid. However, the Gill Tract Farmers Collective ended its encampment on the morning of Saturday May 12th by moving all camp infrastructure outside of the Tract. No one was camped on the land when the police force surrounded and enclosed it. Consistent with agreements made with faculty and adjunct research scientists over the past three weeks, every effort was made by the Gill Tract Farmers Collective to make room for the need to plant their research crops.

The Gill Tract Farmers Collective has called for a reconvergence at the Albany Community Center, 1249 Marin Ave., at 5 PM tomorrow, Tuesday May 15th.

Farmland is for Farming!


Anya Kamensakya: 415 812 4793

Ashoka Finley: 310 404 1586

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Breaking News: UC Police Descend on Gill Tract Farm Collective, Evict Farmers

May 14, 2012 – This morning beginning at 6:00 a.m. 100 police from at least 8 different University of California campuses and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department blocked access to the Gill Tract, the UC-owned property that has been occupied, and farmed, for the past three weeks, by community activists.

Ashoka Finley of the Gill Tract Farmers Collective, on the morning’s events:

For three weeks, the Gill Tract Farming Collective and its supporters have used ongoing civil disobedience to demand that public land be made accesible to the public. The University of California regents have not respected past community demands to give the public access to the land, so the occupiers have raised the stakes by remaining persistent in their presence on the Gill Tract. They have been consistently peaceful and non-confrontational.

This mornings raid has resulted in the arrests of at least nine people. UC Police have been filmed inside the tract trampling the crops planted by the Occupiers.

UC Police standing guard:

The UC has filed a civil suit against fourteen of the organizers — several of whom now also face criminal charges following their arrest. For its part, the UC has not yet indicated how it hopes to resolve the dispute over the land itself, beyond posting police at the Gates to prevent access.

When asked what happens next, Ashoka Finley, one of the movement’s spokespeople, said, “The squash we planted need fertilizer. We’re hoping to get back in to take care of the plants, if there are any left after this.”

Police and sunflower. Photo: Conant

Occupy the Farm Eviction: End Violence. Photo: Conant

Farmland is for farming. Photo: Conant

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University of California Police Seal Off the Gill Tract: Rally Called for 5 PM

Thursday, May 10th, 2012, Albany, CA – Today at noon, the UCPD closed off the last remaining pedestrian access to the Gill Tract by chaining and locking the gate at San Pablo and Marin Avenues.  For the past 24 hours, that gate had remained open. Despite a heavy police presence, people had been able to enter and exit freely.

This represents the latest in a series of measures taken by the UC Administration to force the Farmers off of this piece of public farmland. To date, the UCPD has cut off all water to the Gill Tract, incapacitated the fire hydrant on the land, placed concrete barriers around the land to prevent vehicular access, and locked all entrances shut.

Farmers note that these actions threaten more than just their plants: that in this dry, windy weather, which poses a high fire-risk, there are no working fire hydrants on the land, and significantly restricted access points for firefighters and exits for people on the land.

“The UC Administration is preventing scientists from carrying out their research on the Gill Tract,” said Effie Rawlings, one of the spokespeople for the Gill Tract Farmers Collective.

For the second day, UC Berkeley Professor Miguel Altieri has come to the Gill Tract to attempt to plant his crops. Whereas the Gill Tract Farmers Collective has directly assisted Altieri with his planting effort, the UCPD has physically prevented him from planting his dry-farmed tomato crop, saying he has no authorization to do his research.

“I am disappointed that the University has missed this opportunity to acknowledge that a coexistence of researchers and occupiers is possible, and that they have blocked access to my experimental plot,” Professor Altieri said.

A support rally has been called for 5pm TODAY at the San Pablo and Marin Avenue gate to the Gill Tract  to resupply the farmers inside the GIll Tract with water for the crops, as well as food and drink. Supporters are encouraged to bring food, drinking water, large water containers such as gallon jugs, duct tape, and farming supplies to pass to people inside the fence. Supporters are also encouraged to bring camping supplies, to stay overnight, and help maintain a permanent presence outside the fence to defend and supply the farmers inside.

Effie Rawlings: 
Marika Iyer: 

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KPFK Earth Segment: Ashoka Finley on Occupy the Farm

Global Justice Ecology Project partners with Margaret Prescod and the Sojourner Truth show at KPFK Pacifica in Los Angeles for weekly Earth Segments and weekly Earth Minutes.

On this week’s Earth Segment, Ashoka Finley of Urban Tilth in Richmond, CA and the Gill Tract Farmers Collective shares the news from Occupy the Farm, where radical sustainability is being put forth as a means of political resistance.

To listen to the Earth Segment, click on the link below and hit the play  button:

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Breaking News from Occupy the Farm: Farmers to Remediate Neglected Portions of Gill Tract

Thursday, May 10th: Albany, CA – Professor Miguel Altieri, researcher at the Gill Tract for 31 years, planned to begin planting his research plot with his students yesterday morning. An hour before he was scheduled to begin, the UC administration barricaded the Gill Tract with concrete, metal barriers, and dozens of police who threatened farmers with “chemical agents and impact force.” In a blatant affront to academic freedom, Dr. Altieri was told he lacked the “authorization” to conduct his research.  A bulldozer loomed on the edge of the farm for the majority of the morning.

Despite the blockade, Professor Altieri, with the help of the farmers, managed to plant a token portion of his research area with organic, drought resistant crops that have benefited East Bay soup kitchens for years. The majority of his planned workday, however, has been disrupted by the UC Administration’s intervention.

The Gill Tract Farmers Collective continues to believe that urban farming and academic research can coexist and benefit one another on public farmland.  Yesterday evening, in order to free up as much space as possible for researchers, the farmers began relocating the temporary camp to a more southern portion of the Gill Tract which has long been vacant, not used for agricultural research. The move was completed on the morning, after the scheduled planting with Professor Altieri, and offers a win-win scenario, where the farmers can maintain access to the crops and the researchers can begin their research unimpeded.

On the south side of the Gill Tract, the farmers are beginning a community research project to find solutions that can heal damaged urban land.  Whereas the land already under cultivation by the farmers is Class 1 soil, the soil they are beginning to remediate has been impacted by concrete and contaminated by heavy metals and chemicals due to years of UC negligence.

Corey Scher, an Albany native, is joining the farmers for the remediation process. “Look around here. There’s trash everywhere, big pieces of rusty metal, abandoned structures, open plastic barrels of liquid chemicals. The University has not taken care of this place, so it’s up to us to clean up their mess.”

The farmers intend to set an example of how to remediate damaged land to make it safe for growing food, and have scheduled a community visioning meeting for 5pm on Saturday, May 12th, to flesh out long-term plans for the farm.

The police presence has unnerved parents at Ocean View elementary school across the street from the Gill Tract. Kristin Vorhies expressed concerns about sending her asthmatic daughter to school this morning due to the UCPD’s reputation for deploying chemical agents on peaceful protesters. She, “loves the idea of having a farm across the street from an elementary school.” Vorhies “called the superintendent and requested that [the superintendent] work with the UC and the City of Albany to make sure that the situation is resolved peacefully, and without chemical agents or the threat of chemical agents.”

“I hate to imagine the potentiality,” Vorhies concluded.

Community outrage has bolstered the farmers with a steady stream of new visitors and community support. They believe this response has dissuaded the UCPD from forced evictions or arrests, and have called for a show of additional community support this evening.  Asked how they plan to respond to this new development, the farmers reiterate that their plans remain unchanged.

“Basically, it’s just another day,” said Ashoka Finley, an urban agriculture teacher at Richmond High School, “we’re still planting, still seeding, still watering, still weeding.”

The farmers said their encampment remains temporary, existing to maintain space for farming, education, and collaboration with the East Bay community, and to ensure open access and input into the future of these public lands. The farmers’ vision for this land, however, is anything but temporary: Farmland is for farming.

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Gill Tract Raid Results in Standoff, Enclosure…and Dry-Farmed Tomatoes

NOTE: Yesterday, we posted this lengthy look at Occupy the Farm in light of the Commons. Less than twelve hours after posting that piece, UC Police raided the Gill Tract. As this breaking news report reveals, the Farm continues — but for how long is anybody’s guess. – Jeff Conant, for GJEP

By Jeff Conant

May 9, 2012, Albany CA – When University of California Police arrived at the Occupied Gill Tract this morning at 6 a.m. and began barricading the gates, with some two dozen members of the Gill Tract Farmers Collective inside, word spread quickly that Occupy the Farm was being raided.

How did the Farmers react?

By planting tomatoes.

According to reports, after the police sealed off several escape routes from the five-acre plot of land that has been occupied, and farmed, since April 22, they announced over a bullhorn that any interference with their activities would result in the use of chemical dispersants.

On the west side of the field, parents walking their kids to Ocean View Elementary School became concerned about the police action. After one parent called the City Council, a city council member showed up and urged the police to stand down.

Ulan McKnight, an Albany parent, member of the Gill Tract Farmers Collective, and co-founder of the Albany Farm Alliance, which supports the occupation, said, “We are absolutely appalled that the UC decided to ratchet up the conflict by threatening to use chemical weapons. Everything we’ve done has been peaceful and non-confrontational. Everything we’ve said we’d do, we’ve done. We’ve taken every opportunity for dialogue. Yet they want to make this into a police action. There’s no need for that. We’re farmers, and we’re here to plant.”

And plant they did.

Professor Miguel Altieri, faculty at the College of Natural Resources which managed the site before it was transferred to the University’s Capital Projects Development arm, showed up at the site at 6:45, accompanied by several students and armed with several flats of tomatoes. At a public forum the night before, Altieri, who teaches agro-ecology and has been conducting research on the Gill Tract for many years, announced that he would go ahead and begin his research with dry-farmed tomatoes the next day. He also let the Dean of the College, J. Keith Gilles, know of his intentions to carry on his research,

“I have no conflict with these people,” Altieri told the Dean earlier in the week. “I don’t see any reason why research on the land and the occupiers can’t coexist.”

When I caught up with Professor Altieri shortly after the police raid, he said his plan had been to come to the tract with his students, and work together with the community members if they wanted to join. “After all, extension is part of our job,” Altieri said. “We’re supposed to work with the community.”

But when Altieri showed up at the tract this morning, a dozen police officers had blocked the gates, and prevented him from entering the land.

When Altieri was barred from entering the site, he appealed to the occupiers inside the fence: he described how to plant the dry-farmed tomato crop, and gave them several dozen plants, which they planted right away, under the scrutiny of the UC police force.

Altieri expects to return to monitor the tomato crop throughout the season. But the events of the week have caused him to throw up his hands about undertaking his full research plan. The change of plans, he says, is not due to the occupation, but to the contrary – because of their likely expulsion.

“I’m not going to plant my research plot this year – I can’t plant beside their corn,” he said, referring to experimental corn plots being planted by USDA-funded researchers also associated with the UC’s College of Natural Resources.

Altieri was visibly frustrated at the UC’s handling of the situation. “It could be a coincidence, but I believe the raid was timed to prevent me from planting my tomatoes,” the professor said.

“The thing about dry farmed tomatoes is, they’re adaptive,” Altieri told me. “They don’t need any tilling, and they don’t need any water. I think this drove the college crazy.”

Altieri’s position that his research can be carried out not only in the presence of the occupiers, but with their assistance, flies in the face of the UC’s stated position. A letter signed by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer argued that the occupation of the land is incompatible with the research being carried out at the tract.

“By the middle of May, college staff need to begin work on the tract in support of faculty and student research,” the letter states, quoting CNR Dean J. Keith Gilles. “This requires that full control of the property revert to the university. These complicated projects require meticulous supervision and cannot be carried out in the midst of an encampment.”

The letter, which was issued Tuesday night, also cites Professor Bob Jacobson, chair of the Academic Senate, who said “faculty research had been ‘usurped’ by the protesters’ unilateral actions,” and was in violation of academic freedom. Provost Breslauer closes the letter by saying the university has every intention to make sure research goes unimpeded, and the rule of law is maintained.

This morning’s actions show that the university means business.

Accompanying Professor Altieri at the Gill Tract was Claudia Carr, Associate Professor of International Agricultural Development in the Environmental Science, Policy and Management program within the College of Natural Resources. Like Altieri, Carr supports the Gill Tract Farmers Collective.

“I think the bottom line here is that what these people have accomplished, with precious urban land, is to raise the question of development: what type of development, toward what, and for whom? That’s what they intended to do and that’s what they’ve done. This will have a lasting influence on the community,” she said. “This will not be forgotten.”

Professor Carr’s internationally-focused work examines how development projects led by the World Bank and other International Financial Institutions often lead to displacement, environmental disruption, and human rights abuse.

I asked Altieri what he thinks the university will do with the land if it manages to dislodge the occupation.

“They’ll take it over and do what they want,” he said.

Carr agrees: “The university’s line about managing this as a multi-stakeholder site is disingenuous,” the professor said. “Once they transferred the land to Capital Projects, there’s no getting it back.”

Carr pointed out that the same thing happened several years ago with a nearby site called the Richmond Field Station. That site is the planned location of the second campus of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

Anya Kamenskaya, one of the spokespeople for the Farmers, underlined Carr’s points. “They wouldn’t even be talking about urban agriculture if we hadn’t come here and done this,” she said.

“Now they’re playing it up as if they’re great stewards of ‘metropolitan agriculture’. They’re not. Unless there is student pressure and community pressure, they don’t do anything like this. Now they’re making this a contentious battle between researchers and occupiers – that’s not what this is about. This is about preventing this land from being sold off and developed into a high-priced national supermarket chain.”

Pointing to the plots of fava beans and the newly planted tomatoes, Kamenskaya said, “We should remember that Miguel Altieri is the only actual UC faculty working here. The others are USDA adjunct faculty.”

As I left the sight, four police officers stood by the gate watching a crew of Farmers pulling a trailer loaded with water jugs toward their field of vegetable seedling beginning to curl up in the mid-morning sun. Water at the site has been turned off for two weeks.

Before leaving, I stopped to speak with Ulan McKnight of the Albany Farm Alliance. I asked McKnight what the best possible outcome would be:

“The best result would be a sustainable farm in Albany. We want a permanent easement. If the UC can show they have the trust of the public, then they can manage it. But so far, they have failed to show that,” he said.

McKnight cited the fact that “part of the $25 million investment bought Novartis two seats on the board of the CNR research committee. (For more on that deal, see here, here, and here.) So what do they do? They vote to put genetic research on the land. In 1998 they kicked off the local organic pest management project, and decided they would do gene research. What was here before directly benefitted the people of California; now what they do here directly benefits biotechnology companies. Instead of doing things that can help people, they are doing things that benefit the one percent.”


Filed under Occupy Wall Street, Posts from Jeff Conant, Urban agrciculture

Update on Occupy the Farm

Excerpted from Berkeleyside

Entire article from Berkeleyside: UC Berkeley police block access to Occupy The Farm

by Tracey Taylor

At around 7:30 am, activists began moving supplies, tents, the on-site kitchen and camp items to a lot south of Village Creek. Occupy the Farm spokesperson Anya Kamenskaya told Christopher Yee of the Daily Cal that the intention of the group had never been to prevent Cal researchers doing their planting and work on the land. “We began discussing moving things south last week. We have no desire to impede research,” she said.

By 8:30 am, several of the activists at the site were working alongside Cal Professor Miguel Altieri on his plot of land. Altieri conducts research there growing crops without external inputs. He had stated that he would come there today with a group of students to plant about 1,500 dry-farm tomatoes.

Just a couple of UCPD officers remained on the site by 8:45 am, keeping an eye on the entrances and filming people who walked in and out of the site on the eastern side of the access road, according to Albany Patch.

The development follows close on the heels of a statement issued yesterday afternoon by UC Berkeley in which it made plain that, while it hoped the occupation could be resolved peacefully, it would take legal action if a collaborative solution could not be reached.

The farm activists have been on the UC Berkeley-owned property since April 22.

Berkeleyside will report on developments.

News helicopter over Gill Tract. Photo: Ira Serkes

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