Resistance and resilience: Berkeley Student Farms blooms amid pandemic

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Moe Sumino/Courtesy

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When life came to a screeching halt last spring, Berkeley Student Farms, or BSF, found its purpose. 

BSF is a coalition that sprouted into existence this past summer, uniting the seven existing UC Berkeley student-run gardens under common values. By sharing resources and knowledge, the gardens can accomplish more together than they were able to apart.

“We have students that want to learn more about how to feed themselves and not be so reliant on a broken food system,” said Moe Sumino, a campus sophomore majoring in conservation and resource studies. Sumino is the gardens data and finance coordinator of the Berkeley Food Institute, a campus hub that facilitates the distribution of resources to improve our food systems. She provides structural support for all seven student farms, manages budgets, orders equipment and communicates with other organizations. Along with several other students, Sumino has served as a facilitator for the BSF DeCal throughout the spring semester. Also, as a garden manager at the Student Organic Garden Association, or SOGA, she spends a fair amount of time with her hands in the soil.

“In such an alienating world, these gardens physically and visibly show that your impact is needed,” Sumino said. “In a time when you feel needed by nobody, this is the only thing that really grounds you.”

Sumino is only one of the many student activists that have found purpose on the farms. Kathryn McNeal, a campus junior geography student, found solace in the gardens in the weeks following the campus’s shutdown and the subsequent transition to online classes. As a hush settled over Berkeley, McNeal could be found working at SOGA alongside her peers to keep the organic garden alive, even while everything else seemed to be withering away.

“I needed an outlet,” McNeal said. The gardens gave her exactly what she was looking for.

When everything else exists in the cloud, the remaining few places where students can safely learn and grow together are sacred. This is especially true for freshmen or transfer students who might be struggling to make meaningful connections with their classmates over Zoom. Take, for example, Tiena Elias, a campus freshman majoring in environmental sciences. Volunteering with BSF has given her hands-on experience, renewing her passion for natural sciences. She is also able to safely meet like-minded students while gardening.

“It’s very educational without feeling like a class,” Elias said.

These experiences take on heightened meaning in the era of COVID-19. Volunteering with BSF offers Elias a much-needed respite from her socially isolated room in the residential hall Unit 1, where she spent her first few months in Berkeley taking general chemistry and other prerequisite classes online.

The pandemic has revealed the urgency and importance of cultivating resilience within the Berkeley community. Green spaces are the breeding grounds of resistance, as those who are able to grow their own food are no longer dependent on their oppressors. The green, soft earth speckled throughout an otherwise gray landscape will have a purpose as long as there are people to feed.

“We will always have purpose,” Sumino said, echoing the importance of cultivating these green spaces. “As much as our vision and our values and the way we organize ourselves can change, we will always have purpose — and that is to feed people.”

While everything else takes place over Zoom, the importance of the student farms has been made abundantly clear. Sumino aims to integrate the farms deeper into the campus community, including the academic sphere. Contingent on COVID-19 guidelines, the farm spaces have become one of the only places where students could safely meet in person and gain real experience throughout both the fall and spring semesters. Sumino ultimately hopes that these green spaces will garner unwavering support from campus. 

Sumino’s particular life experiences have given her the ability to dream big for BSF. As a student in Japan prior to starting at UC Berkeley, she worked on the largest family-owned organic farm in the country. Sumino was living and working on the farm when it was hit by the largest flood they had seen in 36 years. Greenhouses and crops were destroyed, and some employees couldn’t even reach the farm.

“But they survived. There was no question at any point — even as the flood happened — whether the farm would still exist. That showed what it looks like when a farm is resilient, when a farm is politically supported,” Sumino said. “They know they will get subsidies. They know that they are already receiving different forms of income that aren’t just from their crops. They are less susceptible to climate change. They’re more resilient, and they know that.”

This is the vision of farm resiliency she carried with her from Japan to Berkeley. 

Sumino recognizes that BSF holds immense power in numbers and community. This makes BSF different from other organizations. There is no application process; it is a coalition home to dozens of moving parts, where anyone and everyone has the opportunity to find their niche.

“We always need more people. We want anyone to come through,” Sumino said.

Farm hours and volunteer information can be found on the BSF Instagram page and the BSF website. BSF’s COVID-19 protocols were approved by Rausser College of Natural Resources administration and the campus Office of Environment, Health and Safety. Farm visitors must have a green badge on eTang prior to entering, and mask-wearing and distancing are strictly enforced. All you need to bring is yourself, a mask and a green badge. No prior experience is necessary.

Getting outside and gardening safely alongside others can bring light and purpose to the otherwise dark COVID-19 era. But it’s also a way for students to make a difference, one seed at a time.

“Farming is an act of resistance against white supremacy, corporations, capitalism and the patriarchy,” Sumino said.

Sarah Siegel is the deputy blog editor. Contact Sarah Siegel at [email protected].