Gill Tract project may feed many

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Sixteen months after advocates for community urban farming took over the university’s Gill Tract agricultural experiment station on Earth Day, April 22, 2012, community members are back in the land and farming a portion of it — but this time by invitation to members of the community to get involved in a community-based participatory research project. This project is a unique opportunity not only to rebuild trust among the university and the community in the aftermath of the land occupation but also to break the linear mold of conventional research by creating bridges between scientists and communities through the use of shared knowledge and valuable experiences in urban agriculture.

Forty community farmers from a variety of groups, including Transition Albany and Berkeley, Merritt College, Albany Farm Alliance, Albany Community Garden, Albany Children’s Center and Occupy the Farm gathered at the Gill Tract on Aug. 10 to begin work on a participatory research project carried out with and by local people under my guidance and my team of graduate students. Participants will have the opportunity to learn about agroecological horticulture, but the project entails a fun challenge: 10 teams of four participants each — assigned a plot of 15 rows, 6 meters long — have designed their own crop arrangements, deciding which plants to grow and testing various plant associations, mulching techniques and organic fertilization methods.  Throughout the season, participants will assess pest and disease incidence and soil quality conditions to observe the effects of their crop management plans on the productivity and health of their crops. As plants mature, edible biomass and yields will be measured to estimate how much food will be produced in each plot. The groups will be able to visit each other groups’ plots, observing which crop mixtures or agroecological techniques work best and thus learning from others.

A threshold to surpass by all groups is five kilograms of edible biomass per square meter per year, which corresponds to one-third of what an average urban farmer produces in Cuba, a country with 50,000 hectares of urban agriculture producing about 30 percent of the vegetables consumed in the major cities of the island.  Reaching such yields would make a huge difference in solving food security problems in low-income neighborhoods of the East Bay if the lessons from our project can be extended via urban farmer to urban-farmer networks. A report released in 2009 identified 1,200 acres of vacant and underutilized public land in Oakland, that could potentially be used for food production. If only half of this land (600 acres or 300 hectares) were cultivated using intensive ecological farming methods that we are testing at Gill Tract, we estimate that these “commons” could contribute about 15,000 tons of vegetables to the local food system. Assuming that each person consumes 100 kilograms of vegetables per year, that is enough vegetables for 150,000 people per year.

One way to promote community outreach will be to hold a field day open to the public so that all interested people can visit the project and perhaps become interested in scaling up ecological urban farming in their communities. Faculty members, students from my courses — ESPM 118, Agroecology, and ESPM 117, Urban Agriculture — and students from other courses will be able to visit the plots and see what the community is doing so that local knowledge and perspectives are not only acknowledged but may also form the basis for further participatory research and planning involving more researchers and new community members. Such activities are consistent with the university’s education and public mission as a land-grant institution with a cooperative extension function. The dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, Keith Gilles, acknowledges this and has facilitated our access to the Gill Tract.

I think this community-based participatory research project represents a golden opportunity for all within the university, including the newly created Berkeley Sustainable Food Systems Institute as well as nonprofit organizations working on food justice and urban agriculture, and community members to jointly revisit the previous ideas for creating a center for sustainable urban farming at the Gill Tract. In an era of climate change, energy crisis and food insecurity, creating local food systems cannot be more strategic.

Miguel Altieri is a UC Berkeley professor of agroecology.