Documentary explores local Occupy the Farm movement

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Ignite Channel/Courtesy

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On Friday, “Occupy the Farm” had its world premiere at the United Artists cinema on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. Crowds packed the theater, eager to hear the story of the 2012 land-use scuffle between the UC Berkeley administration and a group of community farmers seeking to use acres of university-owned land in Albany — referred to in the film as the Gill Tract — for public, organic-produce farming.

The UC Regents in control of the land under dispute — located at Marin and San Pablo avenues in Albany — have plans to develop sections of the space into a blend of commercial and residential buildings, with features such as a shopping mall, senior housing and a grocery store. In 2012, locals concerned about the future of public land use heard about the university’s plans and set up tents on the land slated for development.

This Occupy movement is different from the others, however, because of its focus on saving something physically tangible from privatization: farmable land. The film advocates the use of the Gill Tract as public urban farmland. The film’s director, Todd Darling, spoke on the issue to the audience in the theater after the premiere, stating, “It’s about food and people’s right not to be hungry.”

“Occupy the Farm,” produced by Steve Brown, reveals a fight for urban farming as not only highly political but also as requiring consistent community advocacy and labor. The film shows scenes of the struggle on all of its fronts — from the logistical challenges of watering plants to how the farmers structured their internal meetings and collective governing body. “Occupy the Farm” portrays the farmers as kind-spirited and collaborative, earnest in their efforts to convert the tract into an accessible urban farm yielding organic and locally grown produce.

But in the tradition of civil disobediences and the Occupy movements before them, the Occupy farmers soon found themselves facing an assembly of police in full riot gear determined to remove them from the land. As some farmers held seedlings and plastic watering pails, the police asserted to all Occupiers who continued to cultivate or remain on the land that they would be arrested. When some farmers refused to cooperate, they were arrested.

According to Effie Rawlings, a representative for the Occupy farmers, “people were scraped, bruised and traumatized from the excessive force used during the raids.” The university administration that had summoned the police to dismantle the farming activities remained persistent in its efforts to control the land.

“Occupy the Farm” follows the journey of more than 200 farmers as they struggled to maintain their spirits, often while carrying hundreds of gallons of water over the fences that separated the community from the land. After the arrests, some of the farmers, who had moved their tents off of the tract, continued to sneak back in to water their crops. While the farmers grew more than 9,000 pounds of produce in five months, legislative developments were delayed. At one gathering of political figures for the town of Albany, the film shows farmers giving away jars of pickles that had been grown during the occupation on the Albany Gill Tract land.

The film presents the farmers as innocent and free of wrongdoing. From the university’s perspective, however, as campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof explains, the occupying farmers were “trying to dictate to the university how the land should be used” and “ignored requests to leave voluntarily.” According to Mogulof, they “only summoned police after every other effort failed” because the campus “would not allow (the occupiers) to violate academic freedom” of the faculty researchers.

The Occupy the Farm movement was, from the university’s standpoint, a primary concern for researchers such as UC Berkeley plant development and architecture professor Sarah C. Hake, who needed some of the university’s Albany land to conduct funded research. The campus says the Occupy farming and encampment unintentionally “damaged research,” as farmers “inexperienced and untrained with agricultural research” interfered with plants without researchers’ permission. According to the campus, the majority of Gill Tract research faculty “made clear to university administration that what was happening was intolerable.”

The film presents Occupy farmers, however, as quick to coexist with the researchers. Rawlings explains that farmers “clearly expressed to the researchers that (Occupiers) were open to collaborating from the first day.” The film suggests, through interviews with professors and farmers, that the university corn research was being conducted not for human food security but for nonedible uses, such as biofuel development for private companies. In spite of opposing motivations and purposes, the film presents researchers and farmers as having worked in cooperation, thus challenging one of the university’s biggest contentions over the Occupy farming.

While the film presents interview and video footage of university representatives, the documentary supports the Occupy farmers and their continued efforts. Overall, the film presents the farmers as having succeeded, suggesting that it was the Occupy the Farm movement that led to the establishment of the Gill Tract Community Farm that now stands on the university’s Albany property. The university, however, begs to differ, asserting that the Gill Tract Community Farm was established by the university and was “not formed as a result of the occupation.”

At the film’s premiere, Occupy the Farm movement supporters distributed leaflets and spoke on their current fight for “ALL 20 acres” of the Albany Gill Tract university lands as urban farm, continuing their protest against the development plans. According to Rawlings, UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources “has remained uninvolved” in the effort to prevent the south side of the land from being commercially developed. Rawlings explained after one of the film’s premiere screenings that “the struggle is still ongoing. (Soon) nothing will be standing in the way of the bulldozer except for us.” The farmers hope that “Occupy the Farm” will spread awareness and inspire audiences to support the farmers’ efforts as they continue to do outreach to expand the Gill Tract Community Farm, which is currently open to the public five days per week.

“Occupy the Farm” is playing at UA Berkeley 7 until Tuesday.

Contact Kate Irwin at [email protected].