On Monday afternoon, a group of several dozen activists were working the land, tending to tents, working at a welcome desk and makeshift food preparation area, and fielding media interviews on a plot of agricultural land on the Albany-Berkeley border that is owned by UC Berkeley.
The action to plant a renegade farm on part of what is known as the Gill Tract began on Sunday when several hundred members of a movement calling itself Occupy The Farm broke into the property, which is on the corner of San Pablo and Marin avenues, and planted carrot, broccoli and corn seedlings on a section of a 77-acre lot that comprises the Cal-owned University Village.
The part of the land being occupied is used by UC Berkeley for agricultural research by UC Berkeley’s School of Natural Resources and by a group under Prof. Miguel Altieri from Cal’s Department of Environmental Science.
The university has plans to build a for-profit senior housing complex and a Whole Foods grocery store on a separate portion of the Village land. In addition, a Little League fields that currently stands on Village land will eventually be moved to the Gill Tract, occupying about half of the 10 acres, with the rest of the land to remain open in some form, according to Albany City Councilman Robert Lieber, as reported in Albany Patch. [View the 2004 master plan for University Village.]
UC Berkeley officials have said the protesters are in violation of campus policy and state law which they would take steps to enforced, but they stressed they wanted a peaceful resolution “when we determine it can be done safely and effectively”.
In a statement issued Monday, Cal said it was concerned its agricultural research would be impeded if the occupation continues, in particular if there is a failure to maintain sanitary conditions which could lead to a contamination of the soil. They added that a Cal faculty member “grows produce on the same land that is distributed to the needy”.
The statement continued: “The parcel of land currently occupied by the protesters is not slated for commercial development… There is proposed commercial development for another portion of the land in the general area. That project awaits approval from the Albany City Council and planning commission.”
The occupiers would like to see the entire Gill Tract be saved as open space or an urban farm. Anya Kamenskaya, a UC Berkeley alumna who studied agro-ecology and is acting as a spokesperson for the group, said the land represented a rare opportunity to create a sustainable urban farm. She said groups have been advocating for more than 10 years for the land to be preserved and used for that purpose.
“We are not trying to create a conflict, and we are not trying to demonize the researchers who work on the land,” she said. “Our beef is with the university.”
Kamenskaya said the group would be issuing an official response to UC Berkeley statement, but that it took issue with its two main points, namely that the portion of land being occupied was not up for rezoning and that the research being done there was agricultural. “Mechanistic gene research is not directly related to farmers,” she said.
Kamenskaya said researchers using the plot were regularly given notice by the university. Prof. Altieri is out of the country and unavailable for comment.
At around 4 p.m. Monday afternoon, Albany Patch, which is covering the occupation closely, reported that one protester said that UC Berkeley had shut off the water supply to the lot.
A potluck was planned for tonight at 6 p.m. open to anyone interested in knowing more about the effort.