Hope blossoms among researchers for future of urban farming

Arya Aliabadi/Staff

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Rippling in Wednesday’s wind, a bright yellow banner beside California Hall hangs from a tree, reading, in bright green capital letters, “Farms are for Farming.”

Beside it, more than a dozen students and community members have gathered, yielding flyers and asking passers-by if they want to learn more about the Gill Tract, a university-owned piece of land in Albany that has for years been a point of contention among the campus and the surrounding community. While the tract was once larger, the university now only refers to a small portion of the land as the Gill Tract.

“Let’s tear down Wheeler Hall and build a Target,” said UC Berkeley alumna Krystof Lopaur through a megaphone. “Let’s replace the library with a Barnes and Noble.”

The rally, hosted by members of the Occupy the Farm movement, was held in protest of the Albany City Council meeting last week in which council members voted unanimously to continue with proposed development on a plot of land just south of the Gill Tract.

But the Occupy members and UC Berkeley faculty — more docile, but no less passionate on the potential for urban agriculture — have a different idea.

A growing center

Those in opposition to development argue that the Gill Tract is the only remaining plot of Class 1 soil in the East Bay Area, making it ideal land for potential urban farming and agriculture research.

Though development is only planned for the plot just south of the tract, Magnolia Barrett, UC Berkeley senior and Occupy member, said that the plot could be agriculturally viable as well.

The Gill Tract is under the purview of UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, whose dean, Keith Gilless, was unavailable for comment.

Christy Getz, a cooperative extension specialist for CNR, and Jennifer Sowerwine, recently hired as the metropolitan agriculture extension specialist for CNR, are currently leading a council between the university and community to develop a “learning lab” on the Gill Tract. But this is merely a step toward their long-term goal: a physical center for urban agriculture research on campus.

“We’re taking baby steps towards that vision,” Getz said.

The idea for a center is regularly negotiated among groups such as the Berkeley Food Institute, a research and policy institute on campus. But Ann Thrupp, the institute’s executive director, said it is concerned about both the stability of the Gill Tract and the necessary funding – which campus agroecology professor Miguel Altieri, an avid supporter for a potential center, estimates to be about $1 million.

Still, faculty members and students alike are determined to pursue urban agriculture research, with or without a center.

A social mission

Last semester, Altieri led community members in a participatory research project testing which farming methods would maximize crop yields in an urban environment. They tested techniques like intercropping — mixing plants that benefit one another throughout their growth. Cilantro, for example, has an odor that drives away tomato pests, Altieri explained.

Altieri will soon begin a new research initiative, assessing the productivity of urban farms across the Bay Area in an effort to identify and tackle common obstacles urban farmers face.

“I feel like, as a scientist, you have to have a social mission,” Altieri said. “My mission is to provide for people who are disadvantaged. That’s my vision. That’s my dream.”

Altieri is collaborating with Celine Pallud, a campus professor who studies the biogeophysics of soil but has recently found urban agricultural applications for her soil projects.

“We had the idea of combining our expertise — my expertise of what is happening below ground and his expertise of what is happening above,” Pallud said.

In her work, alongside doctoral student Sarick Matzen, Pallud is testing soil remediation techniques, using fern to absorb arsenic. Matzen explained that if their technique proves successful, it could provide community members an accessible way to decontaminate soil in urban farms.

Though Pallud and Altieri both work through CNR, urban agriculture expands beyond one school. The center, if formed, could unite researchers from the schools of education, public health and engineering.

“Urban gardening is a way of reaching people … on the things that are important to their health,” said Vanessa Raditz, a graduate student in the school of public health. “When you get kids digging into the ground with their own hands, pulling out food by its stem, they’re much more likely to eat it.”

Education in the field

Some students are going outside the classroom to gain hands-on experience in urban farming — something many students complain is not offered enough in UC Berkeley courses.

“We need to get students out of the classroom,” said doctoral candidate Houston Wilson. “We talk, talk, talk about agriculture, but there are very few people who are actually farming.”

The campus has already taken steps to address student interest in the field by conducting a search for a new assistant professor of sustainable agriculture. Students say they are thus far disappointed in the candidates who have been presented due to their lack of farming experience. Members on the search committee declined to comment.

The Berkeley Food Institute is stressing hands-on experience and urban agriculture as it works on a proposal for a food systems and sustainability minor. Thrupp said a proposal committee for the minor met for the first time last week.

A blossoming hope

According to a report on the importance of urban agriculture by United Nations Special Rapporteur Olivier De Schutter — who spoke at UC Berkeley earlier this month — more than two-thirds of the world population will be living in urban communities by 2050. Getting food to these urban communities from rural farms requires trucks and planes that come with severe financial and environmental costs, Altieri explained.

Growing food in cities, researchers say, could not only reduce reliance on rural farms but may also simultaneously tackle the systemic problems to which many cities fall prey. Altieri noted that underprivileged families in cities such as Oakland often do not have access to organic food, leading to pantries filled with cheap “junk food” and a society plagued by health and obesity concerns.

“We’re in a metropolitan area, and I think that’s our niche,” Altieri said. “Berkeley, because of its location, its history … and the fact that we’re near neighborhoods that are food-insecure, we are in a position to show the world what can be done with urban agriculture.”

Tahmina Achekzai covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tahminachekzai.

A previous version of this article stated that a development would be built on the southern portion of the Gill Tract. In fact, while the development is slated to be built on land that was historically part of the tract, the university now defines the tract as the area east of Jackson Street, south of Buchanan Street, west of San Pablo Avenue and north of Codornices Creek.