Campus dean outlines plans to develop Gill Tract

Kevin Foote/File
A man talks on his cell phone while tending to the Gill Tract farm during "Harvest Day" which took place on September 9.

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UC Berkeley leadership has transferred administrative authority to develop UC-owned research land in Albany to the campus College of Natural Resources, the college’s dean announced at an Albany City Council meeting Sept. 18.

By gaining the authority to oversee the agricultural support services and growing grounds on the Gill Tract for the next 10 years, J. Keith Gilless, the college’s dean, said the college is currently moving forward with coordinating activities that deal with urban agriculture, food policy, food justice and sustainable food systems at the tract, which has been the site of protests by members of Occupy the Farm, who have planted and harvested crops on a portion of the land since April.

“I do think, given that the authority over the tract has been transferred to me for the next 10 years, that I can reasonably invest time and effort into trying to come up with a way that our existing research activities on the site can co-exist with an effort that is more aligned with urban agriculture and community gardening,” Gilless said.

At the meeting, Gilless also announced the appointment of Kathryn DeMaster as the college’s first assistant professor of agriculture, society and food security. When she starts in January, DeMaster will play an integral role in developing the tract to support local farm systems, according to an open letter to the Albany community and City Council by Gilless dated Sept. 18.

Plans for which types of projects will be developed on the tract are still tentative, Gilless said, but he added that he wants to create facilities to help faculty and students who are interested in the nexus of food systems, urban agriculture, regional food safety, food justice and food policy have research, instructional and outreach opportunities.

However, Corey Scher, a member of the Occupy the Farm movement, said that there is no room for interaction with a college with which the movement has had a rocky relationship.

Protesters first began farming on the land in April after they got word of proposed construction plans that included a senior housing complex, mixed retail center and a Whole Foods market. The area that was occupied is not the particular section of the land  where the University Village Mixed Use Project is set to be built.

Since then, researchers have contended that  protesters’ repeated break-ins to the tract to harvest crops have adversely affected their work, leading the university to file a lawsuit against the protesters in May. Although the lawsuit was dropped in July, researchers and protesters continue to disagree over the appropriate use of the land. Whole Foods cancelled its plans to build a store on the UC-owned land after years of delays for the proposed marketplace, according to a statement released by Whole Foods spokesperson Jennifer Marples Friday.

Campus officials said Friday that they are beginning the process of finding a new retail grocery store for the location.

As a public land-grant university, Scher said, the university should facilitate public access to the land and let others besides researchers use it as a public resource.

However, in the letter, Gilless said that the tract is “not ‘fallow land’ in-between growing seasons” but rather remains an active research area.

He added that the college will consider input from members of Occupy the Farm as plans for how to develop the land become more concrete.

“Even as we analyze other options to preserve our values and rights, we have not abandoned the hope that these individuals will turn from occupation and unilateral action to give collaboration and cooperation through a democratic process a chance,” the letters states.

Contact Shannon at [email protected].