Occupation is Gill Tract’s last chance

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Each morning for the last two weeks, I have risen with the sun, ready to get to work pulling weeds, tilling soil and planting seeds. Each night I have set up a tent and slept under the stars, reflecting on a long day of work. I am one of the many students, activists and locals who have taken back the Gill Tract, a public tract of farmland currently administered by the University of California that has been left underutilized for far too long. Before our project began, I had never planted a seed, but in the past two weeks, I have become a farmer.

Because the Gill Tract hosts some of the best agricultural soil left in the East Bay, Albany residents, farmers and local activists have contested use of the tract for the last 15 years, communicating directly with the university about their visions for a community-supported farm. For 15 years, their voices have fallen on deaf ears. Since taking over this land, the university has chopped up the original 104-acre plot and sold piece after piece out to be developed. Now, only 10 acres remain. That remaining plot has been transferred away from the College of Natural Resources and over to UC Berkeley Capital Projects, the branch of the university responsible for securing development plans. Five of the remaining acres are already fated to be paved over for a  high-end senior complex and, ironically, a Whole Foods. While the university has offered to hold public sessions to get input from occupiers and community members about what to do with the remaining five acres, after 15 years of communicating through formal pathways and seeing none of our input implemented, we have no reason to doubt that without our resistance, the rest will soon be gone. This occupation is our last chance to effectively communicate with the university about the future of this land, and it should come as no surprise.

The five acres we are cultivating are not yet slated for development but instead host several researchers who are doing basic genetic isolation research, which many believe stands only to benefit biotech corporations. We’re not here to impede their research but to demonstrate that farmland like this is meant for farming. We are currently talking to the researchers about ways to temporarily share the land until we can help them find another location for their projects, as they have indicated that they won’t need to use all the land for their research this season. However, while the maize research can be done on many nearby plots of land, there is no remaining agricultural land in the entire East Bay that compares to the Gill Tract. And, with the transfer of this space over to Capital Projects, I can’t see this as a choice between research and the farm but rather between the farm and the imminent development.

In the past two weeks, our little collection of activists and students has grown into a family of farmers. I am awed. As the time to begin the farm drew closer, I was the one in the meetings arguing that we could not just lead 200 urban dwellers onto a piece of land, shout “let’s plant” and then expect them to build a farm from scratch. I was so wrong. Within 10 minutes of walking onto the Gill Tract, hundreds of people had spread out across the fields, weeding and tilling soil. By the end of the day, we had a farm. Two weeks later, more people have become farmers on this public land than had set foot on it in all the years of UC ownership combined.

This farm aims to be an asset to our broader East Bay community. With thousands of local families living in food deserts with no access to fresh produce, this farm is an attempt to address the growing threat of food insecurity. In moving forward, we take a step away from our dependence on industrial giants and a step toward sustainable, healthy and natural food production. In the past two weeks, I have seen children put their hands in the dirt and plant seeds, many of them for the very first time. If allowed to continue, the Gill Tract farm will serve as a hub for urban agriculture and education, allowing local communities to learn how to plant and then eat what they grow. Already we’ve begun hosting forums for local residents to share ideas and advice and to express concerns so that we can be good neighbors to the people of Albany. We have been welcomed enthusiastically by community members, many of whom have become integral to life on the farm, volunteering their taps to help water the crops, cooking us hot meals, helping us organize farm festivities and laboring under the sun. We can only hope to return their hospitality.

The Occupy movement began with the idea that we could no longer depend on the powers that be to provide for us, that we should ask for nothing from this system. Occupy the Farm takes this message one step further, demonstrating that we don’t need to rely on any system, 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.

In this spirit, today I wake up as a farmer.

Lesley Haddock is a sophomore at UC Berkeley.

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  • Andy

    “With thousands of local families living in food deserts with no
    access to fresh produce, this farm is an attempt to address the growing
    threat of food insecurity.”

    If these people in food deserts are unable to get to grocery stores where they can buy produce, how do you expect them to get to the Gill Tract to farm? Farming takes much more time than going to a grocery store, and the Gill Tract is not located in a food desert so anyone who lived in a food desert would have to travel further to get to the Gill Tract than they would to get to a grocery store that sold produce.

  • Guest

    “…after 15 years of communicating through formal pathways and seeing none
    of our input implemented, we have no reason to doubt that without our
    resistance, the rest will soon be gone.”


  • Emilierennie

    I keep  hearing that the maize research “can be done on many nearby plots of land.” This is one of the least logical statements from the occupiers. If that’s true, then why couldn’t the occupiers farm on the other nearby plots of land? Like, say, the part that was actually going to be developed?
    Not that I support trespassing, but I am tired of hearing that the occupiers knew where the Whole Foods was supposed to go and still chose to plant on the land being used for research. The least they could have done was figured out what was actually happening on different pieces of the land before they went in. Now that they are more informed, they are moving their camp so that there is at least some space for the planned research. They should have thought of that before they planted the crops, which can’t be moved.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/XQ5F5WJBFOOVQCFWDBRAWHVEQM JR Fent

    This is the ONLY OCCUPY MOVEMENT that makes sense.  Good luck to all of you.  As a true Conservative – it pisses me off that public land can’t be used for citizen use. Good luck to all of you (except the fucking communists.)

  • Mike Freeling, Prof. and PI

    Very compelling.  It was a shame that the University could not see the value of keeping farmland farmland,  but it’s not sold-off entirely.  I’ve learned that developers develop, but maybe they will get enlightened.  What maize geneticists and urban agriculturists have is common is a deep respect for undeveloped farmland, the closer  to the city the better, and both groups know that the community is just plain interested in farming.   I’m the oldest maize geneticist on campus.  Our Genetics Department Nurseryman, Roy, and I planted the Oxford Tract in corn with pointed sticks at about this time in the summer of 1973.  It’s too bad we geneticists need to plow really soon, before the soil looses its moisture and turns hard.

  • observer

    I visited the farm as a skeptic. While I agree there are legitimate concerns about a small group taking over UC-owned (public) land, I was also impressed. Unlike many of the Occupy protesters, these activists are working hard — and constructively — to create something positive in the community. The farm was welcoming many local families with children, the students and activists had posted signs asking that the land be a drug and alcohol free zone, and the tone of the discussions was respectful. The occupiers and some professors are making the case that the best use for at least some of this prime agricultural land is  urban gardening. I’d like to see  a compromise in which the activists end the occupation and allow planned agricultural research to continue, but UC agrees to leave the “Occupy the Farm” crops intact.      

  • Marcus

    This is hilarious!  Probably the funniest thing I have read in weeks.  Keep posting, my little farmer, as it brings a smile to my face to read this stuff….wait, you’re actually serious about thinking you are a farmer?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WRACM77JT2RXUR3LMGDPPUGUYY Tony M

    [The five acres we are cultivating are not yet slated for development but instead host several researchers who are doing basic genetic isolation research, which many believe stands only to benefit biotech corporations.]

    So your personal disapproval gives you the right to seize that land for your own purposes? Sorry, you don’t have that right, despite whatever your nutty left-leaning sources of information told you.

    [This farm aims to be an asset to our broader East Bay community. With thousands of local families living in food deserts with no access to fresh produce, this farm is an attempt to address the growing threat of food insecurity.]

    What a bunch of nonsensical crap. Ever heard of grocery stores?

    This has far more to do with your ignorant and illogical hatred of business and free enterprise than any issues of “access to fresh produce” or some invented non-issue such as “food insecurity”.

    [The Occupy movement began with the idea that we could no longer depend on the powers that be to provide for us, that we should ask for nothing from this system.]

    So instead of asking for what isn’t yours to begin with, you’re taking it outright. How is that any better, you spoiled child?

  • kim

    Dear Lesley, Thank you for your accurate analysis and heart-felt words. The land has many lessons and gifts for  people who have the courage to plant, stand and act on their beliefs, and change how we are currently living on this great planet.  I am humbled by your collective courage and vision. My son is your age; he and his friends have amazed me. They are wise beyond years and have the capacity to love and be in the world that many older people have forgotten. He’s been my greatest teacher.
    Let me stand beside you with great vision for what caring for the land and  future will bring.
    All my hope and faith to you, and thank you to each of you who put love into action, seeds into the ground. Every blessing.

  • JDev

    This truly is Occupy 2.0!  The change from being vocally hating the system to building a new one is beautiful.  Farming should be a part of everyone’s lives just as eating is.  

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WRACM77JT2RXUR3LMGDPPUGUYY Tony M

       And if everyone’s working at subsistence farming, how is anything else going to get done?

      You children obviously haven’t thought this out much in advance…

    • Andy

      So do farming in your own back yard or front yard. What gives you the right to take over someone else’s land to farm for yourself?

  • I_h8_disqus

    If there is five acres set for development, why didn’t they occupy that land instead of the land being used by researchers?  How is Lesley an active sophomore at Cal when she has spent the last couple weeks on the farm?  Don’t sophomores have classes and finals?

    Personally, while I don’t believe the Gill Tract should be sold for development, I also don’t think it should be used for a community farm.  I was told the university was given the land to use for education and research.  That is how it should be used.

    • Lesley

      Lesley here. I do have classes and finals, but it’s amazing how peaceful studying on a farm is. My experiences at the Gill Tract have really enriched my education and inform many of the things I learn in class. 
      I respect your concern for the researchers absolutely. I guess my response would be that there are several plots of land where that research could be done just as well, plots that the University will transfer those same researchers to when they begin development. Until they are able to find a place to relocate, we hope to share the land and allow them to do their research. However, in the long term, I emphasize that this is the last piece of agricultural land of its kind in the East Bay, and should be used for farming. 

      • Stan De San Diego

         “Lesley here. I do have classes and finals”

        What are you studying again?

        • Calm

          I have been studying political science, but am now declaring an interdisciplinary studies major so that I can incorporate legal studies and economics into my degree. 

          • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WRACM77JT2RXUR3LMGDPPUGUYY Tony M

            I would give up on economics, given that you’re apparently quite ignorant of some of the basic tenets of that particular discipline.

          • Stan De San Diego

             Poly Sci? Well THAT explains a lot…

      • Carlos

         So the bottom line for you, Lesley is that YOU get to decide what other people do with their property.  Nice.

        • Calm

          I definitely don’t want that to be the principle set here, and I see your concern. I don’t think it’s so clear-cut in this particular case though. The difference is that, as University property, this land is designated for public use, but as it is right now there is no room for public decision-making about the land. The Gill Tract is administered by UCB Capital Projects, which is run by the UC Regents. The Regents are appointed to their positions by the governor, and according to our California constitution are meant to be “able persons broadly reflective of the
          economic, cultural, and social diversity of the State, including
          ethnic minorities and women.” Unfortunately, this is not the case with the Regents as they are today, most of whom are wealthy males who donated large amounts of money to Governors’ campaigns. This is not democratic process. If there was a democratic avenue available to us that could decide the fate of this land, we would be taking that pathway, but as I explained in my writing above, Albany residents have been proposing alternative uses for the land and campaigning the UC for the past 15 years to no avail. This is not because a democratic process found against our favor, but because in this particular case there was no democratic process. I’m sorry that probably isn’t a sufficient explanation, I would need to talk face to face about it to really make this point well. But I do think many people have the sense that the University does not act in good faith, and therefor should not be making decisions that impact public land like this.

          • Guest

            [I definitely don't want that to be the principle set here, and I see
            your concern. I don't think it's so clear-cut in this particular case

            Excuses and excuses and then some blathering about minorities and “diversity”.

            None of this is a valid justification for trespassing.

            The proper channels would be the courts, not squatting on the land like a bunch of pests.

      • I_h8_disqus

        So you don’ think the researchers are farming or doing anything to improve farming, and that is why you have taken over the land?  Or are you just trying to keep the land from being developed, so that if the university said they would not develop the land, you would let the researchers continue their farming and you would move on?

        • Calm

          Myself and the folks occupying the Gill Tract, as well as many community members who have organized around this land before me do want to see this land used as farmland. The maize research being done is not farming research, but genetic isolation research, and the corn grown on the land for that purpose is not edible. The problem I take with this is not with the research itself, but just the fact that it could be done other places that are not such ideal farming spots. Like I touched on above, I would like to share the land with the researchers until we can work with them to find a suitable alternative plot. 

          • I_h8_disqus

            That sounds like instead of just ensuring that the land is used by the university for plant and farm research like the intention of the land owner who gave the land to the university, you want to steal the land from the university.  I am having a hard time seeing any difference between the Occupy group and the university.  Both want to use the land in a way that the original owner did not intend when he donated the land.  Back in 2003, professor Altieri commented that the alternate plots the university offered him were unsuitable, because for one they would require students to have access to cars.

            My point is that whoever kicks the researchers off the land is the antagonist in the story.  If Occupy makes the researchers and their students move their research, then they are no better than the university.  Research and education lose out to one kind of development or the other.

          • Calm

            Professor and Gill Tract researcher Altieri has publicly supported the farm and has conducted workshops on farming and urban agriculture, as well as issues of food security, since the creation of the farm. 

            Also, the Gill family did not donate the land to the University, the UC bought the land, which was specifically stipulated by the state of California to be used for agriculture. I don’t think this farm will be a loss for education. Already students from elementary schools all around the tract have come out to plant seeds in our children’s garden and do art projects, see live performances, and play with animals. If this project is formalized I think many more will come and the farm will stand to promote urban farming and education. This land is home to the best soil we have left in the East Bay, and should be used for growing food. If this can happen in conjunction with the research, then I am wholly in support.

          • I_h8_disqus

            Altieri supports the farm, because you left his land alone, and it gives him a chance to avoid getting relocated to less desirable land.  However, Cal came to own the land, it seems to be rooted in a purpose for agricultural research.  The current occupy farm doesn’t meet the high standards of a Cal research project.  I am sure it is cute for the kids to plant some seeds, but maybe you should occupy a school playground if you want to educate children.  If seems that you have tried to steal property instead of trying to make sure it stays as agricultural research land.  I am not happy that you seem to be bullying the researchers.

          • http://www.facebook.com/thisisjeffwong Jeff Wong

            But how do you these facts about what the research is? Why not present your case that this research is without merit and present it in a public forum?

            You really need to step back and look at your situation skeptically and consider that your rhetorical and moral position is unclear. Too much passion, not enough reason. This is completely counter-productive to the causes that you are advocating for.

      • http://www.facebook.com/thisisjeffwong Jeff Wong

        This is crazy. Why didn’t you just change your major to plant biology and work the land as an undergrad research assistant? If you just started farming last week, how do you know what you’re doing? Is this even sustainable for you personally. Are you sure you’re not simply against specialization?

        I hate to sound like Fox News watching person, but did you ever hear of the time in the PRC where Mao instructed everyone to make their own steel in their backyard? Turns out it was a complete waste of time because people don’t know how to make steel at home and it doesn’t make sense on those small scales. Have you heard of economies of scale?

        Yes, there are poor people but your activities won’t help. You need to question whether you have done your due diligence about the topic or whether you simply jumped to action without considering overall strategy.

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WRACM77JT2RXUR3LMGDPPUGUYY Tony M

           [I hate to sound like Fox News watching person, but did you ever hear of
          the time in the PRC where Mao instructed everyone to make their own
          steel in their backyard? Turns out it was a complete waste of time
          because people don't know how to make steel at home and it doesn't make
          sense on those small scales. Have you heard of economies of scale?]

          True, but the Lefties who are brainwashing these young sheeple never learned the real lessons of collectivization, the “Great Leap Forward”, or the Cultural Revolution. In their minds, the failure of those programs wasn’t the result of them being contrary to basic economics or common sense, but due to their opinion that those who engaged in the programs weren’t sufficiently committed to the struggle. These idiots believe they could actually make those programs work, provided that they were the ones in charge…

      • Guest

        Why did you set up the occupation on the part of the land used for farm research and that will be used for farm research for the foreseeable future instead of occupying the area where they want to put in a Whole Foods store?

        If you are protesting the development of the land, why not set up camp in the area they are actually planning on developing? It’s all part of the Gill Tract.

        Setting up where you did makes no sense at all.

  • Adsahjh

    This is anarchy. Maximum force ought to be used against those who so blatantly violate property rights.

    • Russell Bates

       If you have your tongue in your cheek your comments are funny.If you are serious i feel sorry for you.

      • Guest

        I feel sorry for you who seem to support these people.

        Have you lived in Berkeley all your life? Do you have a real job? It doesn’t seem like it.

  • GeorgeM

    I can go to a hospital and put on some scrubs and that does not make me a doctor.

    Play time is over, little girl.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WRACM77JT2RXUR3LMGDPPUGUYY Tony M


      • Catman

         If you don’t stop calling her her “little girl,” I’m going to start calling you “tiny penis.”

        • Guest

          Little boy, you need to pull yourself together and cease making puerile threats.

          • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WRACM77JT2RXUR3LMGDPPUGUYY Tony M


    • Calm

      If you put on scrubs and then start effectively treating their illnesses it does.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WRACM77JT2RXUR3LMGDPPUGUYY Tony M

         What have you solved so far, little girl?

    • Catman

       This “little girl” stated her position calmly and without condescension – unlike you, who resort to personal ridicule. It’s you who needs to grow up.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WRACM77JT2RXUR3LMGDPPUGUYY Tony M

         The little girl doesn’t have a clue if she thinks playing farmer is going to solve some imaginary “food insecurity” issue. She doesn’t have enough common sense to recognize that she is in the company of kooks.

        • Catman

           What is wrong with you guys that you feel compelled to call this young person bad names? She responds to your insults with calm, reasoned arguments, and all you do is fling poo at her. Makes me wonder who is the grownup and who is the child.

          • Guest

            Filthy hippies need to be shunned.

            Ignorant little girls who blindly follow those hippies need to get wise before they grow into filthy hippies themselves.

          • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WRACM77JT2RXUR3LMGDPPUGUYY Tony M

             They ARE kooks – just listen to them. In their minds, large agribusinesses are evil and trying to poison people. In addition, they think they can grow veggies cheaper than large farms using the latest agricultural techniques. They also believe that the Bay Area is a “food desert”, and that little 5-acre patches of land in the middle of the city are the solution to food shortages. All signs of people who clearly don’t have both oars in the water.

          • GreenEngineer

            Are you a paid corporate shill, or are you just that brainwashed personally?

            Industrial agriculture is not really farming.  It’s more like mining: it depletes the soil and poisons the water, and tries to make up for it by dumping fertilizers on the land.  (Hint: NPK is not the be-all, end-all of plant health.)

            Shall we talk about methyl bromide (used to fumigate strawberry fields)?  Or methyl iodide, which is worse?

            How about the replacement of glyphosate by 2,4-D?  Glyphosate is a relatively benign herbicide, but it’s becoming increasingly ineffective: the industrial ag herbicide protocols associated with Roundup Ready crops.  2,4-D, a much nastiest toxin, is being offered up in its place.  And where do we go when 2,4-D loses its effectiveness due to overuse?

            And, yes, before you ask: I AM a farmer.  As well as an engineer.  I know what I am talking about (as does the author of this article).  You, on the other hand, are an ignorant, sexist twit.

    • Calm

      To clarify, I am not using the word farmer in the sense that would imply I could actually run and operate my own farm, or in the professional sense. All I mean by it is that I am, for the first time, doing work on a farm, taking instructions from people who know how to grow food, and learning how everything works. I didn’t mean to come across as pretentious. 

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WRACM77JT2RXUR3LMGDPPUGUYY Tony M

         [All I mean by it is that I am, for the first time, doing work on a farm,
        taking instructions from people who know how to grow food]

        How do you know these people from whom you are “taking instructions” know anything about growing food?

      • guest

        Although I completely disagree with everything you are doing, I do appreciate you demeanor and civility.  Keep it up (the civility, not the occupation)!