Gill Tract farmers celebrate 1-year anniversary as activists protest construction

G. Haley Massara/Staff

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University of California students, East Bay locals and environmental activists — including dogs, chickens, ducks and one grass-munching goat — gathered Sunday on a tract of university-owned land in Albany for the second day of weekend-long celebrations and demonstrations.

In protest of the construction on the land, locals and members of activist group Occupy the Farm, or OTF, erected a farm stand on the property Saturday and sold locally grown produce and other products from the stand Sunday. Other activities, such as yoga and group discussions, were held nearby. Simultaneously, on the 10-acre Gill Tract Community Farm on the north end of the property, volunteers celebrated the farm’s one-year anniversary, including a “birthday” party with cake.

The stretch of university-owned land often referred to as the Gill Tract is divided into sections, one of which is overseen by the campus College of Natural Resources for research purposes and is used as a community farm. Another, larger portion was recently cleared as the first step in the construction of a mixed-use project, which will include a Sprouts Farmers Market.

According to Matthew McHale, spokesperson for OTF, hundreds of parents and would-be agrarians attended the weekend’s festivities, which included tilling and planting on the portion of the tract scheduled for construction.

“As soon as you come out here and put your hands in the dirt, you’re a farmer,” he said. “The UC says this land is vacant, and there’s nothing going on.”

After Sunday, the farm stand will be transported to an Oakland community garden.

OTF and other protesters have criticized the university’s plans to develop the land on the basis that there are enough grocery stores in the Albany area already and on the basis of air quality concerns and allegations that Sprouts is a “greenwashed” supermarket, not a “real” farmer’s market.

According to UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof, the university expects development of the tract to proceed as planned and will “provide the community of Alameda with what it said it wants.”

The nearly $1 million in revenue generated from the project will be used to subsidize housing in the nearby University Village, among other uses.
Camille Fassett, a UC Berkeley freshman and OTF member, said the relationship between farm occupiers and the university is a complicated one. The university funds projects that OTF supports, such as the Global Food Initiative, which last week received a two-year extension for its student fellowship program.

Students from several UC campuses gathered at the tract to discuss university curriculum, which some said was not practical for use in real-world applications. Kiko Barr, a senior from UC Davis, said she found it “empowering” to make something — like home-grown veggies — herself.

Jennifer Sowerwine, assistant cooperative extensions specialist for the campus College of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, said that if demonstrators want the collaboration between the university and urban agriculturists to continue, they should refocus their energies on the 10-mile community farm.

“We may be troublemakers, (but we can) work with reasonable people from the UC,” said Jon Hoffman, manager of the farm. “(UC) Berkeley could be (at the) center of the world for urban aggro-ecology.”

G. Haley Massara is a news editor. Contact them at [email protected] and follow them on Twitter @BylineGraph.