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.