Community activists rekindle Occupy the Farm in Gill Tract

Zach Johnson/Staff

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More than 100 community activists occupied and farmed a portion of university-owned research land in Albany this weekend in the latest iteration of the Occupy the Farm movement.

The group assembled to oppose recent proposals to develop the southern portion of an Albany plot of land known as the Gill Tract, owned by the Regents of the University of California. The proposals suggest developing the lot into a national chain grocery store, Sprouts Farmers Market while another parcel is slated to become a senior housing complex.

Occupy the Farm activists said they would rather see the land developed into a urban farm that could be used to educate the community and to conduct research on how to improve soil quality.

“This piece of land is unparalleled in terms of being an agricultural resource,” said Matthew McHale, an Occupy the Farm spokesperson. “We envision not only a resource for growing food but for community resilience.”

Around 1 p.m., Occupy the Farm activists congregated in front of Albany City Hall before marching south on San Pablo Avenue to the portion of the Gill Tract north of Monroe Street. The group walked behind a banner that read “Sprout Farms Not Grocery Stores.”

Several cars met the group at the property, bringing truckloads of dirt, an assortment of plants as well as some chickens and goats. The group tilled the soil and planted hundreds of plants, including lemon cucumbers, mustard greens and Yukon Gold potatoes, into the afternoon.

Saturday’s movement is the first major effort to cultivate the Gill Tract since last spring, when the group assembled farther north on the property to protest the development of the same senior housing facility and a different grocery store, Whole Foods Market. In September, Whole Foods canceled its plans to build on the Gill Tract, citing project delays.

Urban-farm activists continued to break into the property throughout the summer and into the fall to care for their crops, arguing that the land should be accessible to the community because it is owned by a public university.

The northern portion of the tract farmed last spring is a Class 1 agricultural land, and it is extremely nutrient-rich and conducive to farming. In September, it was placed under the purview of the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources and is currently prepared and ready for planting, according to Claire Holmes, campus associate vice chancellor of public affairs.

This spring, farmers hope to prove that the southern plot of land, which was once host to military barracks, is also agriculturally viable.

Some community members and Albany city officials, however, believe the land would be better be served with commercial development that would bring economic growth to the area.

“We could bring life to San Pablo,” said Albany Mayor Peggy Thomsen.

Campus officials issued a statement Thursday urging city residents to prepare for an occupation, noting that they would closely monitor the situation. UCPD was at the tract on Saturday and advised the group several times that the property is closed to the public, but no action was taken.

Last May, three weeks after the initial occupation began, nine Occupy the Farm protesters were arrested — two who remained on the Gill Tract and seven who were outside the entrances to the encampment. Charges were never filed against the protesters.

Some Albany community members staged a counterprotest on Saturday, riding bicycles around the Gill Tract and carrying signs with the name “Occupy the Farm” struck out.

Albany resident and counterprotester Preston Jordan sees Occupy the Farm’s actions as an attempt to circumvent a democratic system that is already working.

“There are issues throughout history that call for civil disobedience,” Jordan said. “But I don’t think this calls for that.”

Occupy the Farm activists set up an encampment Saturday night on the property, and six tents were still standing as of 10 a.m. Sunday morning.

In the immediate future, the group plans to continue planting, cleaning up the land and being “good stewards,” McHale said.

“Farming is about the long game — setting down roots,” McHale said. “Putting plants in the ground is hope. It is inherently oriented toward the future.”

Megan Messerly covers city government. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @meganmesserly.