Op-Ed: Disappointed but still inspired at the Gill Tract

By Occupy the Farm

Occupy the Farm is a group of urban farming activists working for public access to the Gill Tract and protection of the land in perpetuity for community agricultural purposes.

[On Friday November 16, 2012, the University of California (UC) razed all of the publicly planted crops on the Gill Tract.]

Occupy the Farm is disappointed that the UC has unneccessarily destroyed the hard work of the community and food that could have fed it. Over the course of the last month, members of the public sowed edible winter greens together with fava beans, a popular and effective cover crop. Had the UC left these in place, the Gill Tract would have benefited from the necessary nutrient building over the course of the winter, and would have produced food for the community. The weekly distribution and harvest events could have continued that, over the course of the summer and early fall, have yielded over one ton of food from the crops planted during the occupation last Spring. This free food was distributed locally in Albany, Berkeley, Richmond and Oakland at pop-up farm stands organized by Occupy the Farm.

However, the successes of the last seven months inspire us to continue to organize. Despite the UC police raid and the destruction of over half of the crops in May, we still managed to grow and distribute thousands of pounds of free food to the community this summer. The unprecedented public access to the Gill Tract this spring allowed thousands of Bay Area residents to finally set foot on the land and farm. In August, a successful petition for referendum was submitted against the Albany City Council approval of UC development. In September, Whole Foods cancelled its development plan with the UC entirely. The UC also announced a modest ten-year guarantee to preserve the northern piece of the land and promised a nebulous College of Natural Resources program for urban agriculture.

Now is the time to compare our position to that of the UC, and to make it clear what we are fighting for.

We want to see the Gill Tract preserved as farmland, in perpetuity. 
Some of our members have been fighting to save the Gill Tract from UC development for decades. In 1997, the UC administration walked away from similar commitments – collaborative talks with a coalition of community groups called BACUA (Bay Area Coalition for Urban Agriculture), that spearheaded the establishment of a center for urban agriculture on the Gill Tract.  At the same time, the UC released a Master Plan that revealed its intention to build baseball fields and structures on the prime farmland, stating, “The College of Natural Resources now plans to relocate its agricultural operations from the Gill Tract to an off-site location. The operations are being relocated because the existing facilities are substandard, have inadequate security, and because academic research is moving in new directions that require new types of facilities.” Dean Gilles’ recent announcement of a ten-year commitment to ‘metropolitan agriculture’ on the tract is a step in the right direction, but it is not long term, toward the interest of future generations. If the UC wishes to demonstrate a commitment to urban agriculture at the Gill Tract, it should legally re-designate this land so that it is preserved as an agricultural commons, in perpetuity.

We are organizing to ensure that the public has access to the land and a say in how it is used; the UC has yet to host a single open meeting. 
Since April, Occupy the Farm has held over 10 open forums about the Gill Tract. These have occurred on the UC Campus, in the Albany community, the UC Village, and other locations in the Bay Area.  Hundreds of people have attended these events in an ongoing collaboration to develop a collective vision for the future use of the land. It is unfortunate that, despite several invitations, the UC administration continues to refuse to engage with the public at these forums, or to hold any public meeting of their own. An urban agriculture program at California’s public University should not just make reference to, but must include local urban communities, to consolidate our collective experience and knowledge as urban farmers, and educate the public at large.

We believe ALL of the Gill Tract should be used for urban agriculture; the UC intends to use only a small portion of the land.
While our cultivation has focused on the northern portion of the Gill Tract – the last substantial parcel of undeveloped agricultural soil in the East Bay – the southern portion of the tract also has nutrient rich soil. These southern portions are in dire need of soil testing and bio-remediation.  We believe that any truly comprehensive urban agriculture program at the Gill Tract must offer accessible programs to test and rehabilitate soil contaminated by industry and development.  Unfortunately, 100% of this southern portion of the Gill Tract is still slated for immediate commercial development by the UC. On the northern portion of the Gill Tract, the UC administration has not revealed the exact percentage of land that will actually be used for its urban agriculture program. Presently, the vast majority of the northern portion of the land is allocated to corn-based genetic research to benefit the biotechnology industry. The corn is grown to be inedible and the the research results in private patents, like the one that belongs to Sarah Hake, who recently patented a gene in corn that she discovered through research at Gill Tract. She applied this gene, Corngrass1, to the genetic modification of switch-grass to force to remain in its vegetative state, to never truly die, to be ‘forever young’.

Both the northern and southern portions of the Gill Tract are invaluable resources for community-based urban agriculture. We are committed to using both portions for the benefit of the community or the production of urban agricultural knowledge.

Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles of 500 to 800 words. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related and local authors are preferred. Please email submissions to us. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.

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  • Keslie

    I”m kind of disappointed that Berkeleyside would publish this without identifying the “guest” contributor.  Do Berkeleyside editors agree with the position put forth in this piece?  I have friends at UC who say grad students lost a years worth of research due to occupy the farm last year.  This is such a no brainer even for Berkeley.  The property belongs to the UC and they are using it for purposes of student research, a completely legitimate use.  People can disagree, they can picket, they can write their representatives, but they can’t seize land that doesn’t belong to them.  

  • The guest contributor is Occupy the Farm, which is, I thought, clearly identified.

    We publish a range of opinions, and our publishing them does not reflect our endorsing the position. We’ve published pieces against the Occupy the Farm people as well. We’d be happy for you to make a submission on your point of view.

  • The Sharkey

    Who is the official spokesperson of Occupy the Farm?
    Were they elected to this position?
    Is there a list of official members of Occupy the Farm?
    Did every single person who considers themselves part of Occupy the Farm have a chance to review and edit this before it was presented?

    With such a nebulous, free-form group like Occupy the Farm (or any Occupy group) it seems to me like it would be impossible to label anything as being from Occupy the Farm as a whole.

  • The Sharkey

    Despite being told repeatedly that the fields they have been taking over are not slated for development and that the area scheduled to be developed is literally right next door, Occupy the Farm continues to stage occupations of the wrong part of the property.

    If Occupy the Farm can’t even figure out where the part of the Gill
    Tract that is scheduled for development is, why would anyone listen to
    any of their comments about how the property should be used?

  • guest

    This statement is not responsive to the point.  Let’s say that the NAACP or the US Marines submitted a piece for your site.  The document would identify the organization and be signed by an individual or multiple officers of the organization.

    This Op-Ed uses terms such as “the hard work of the community” as if they are “the community” or speak for “the community.”  I do not live in Albany but I do live in Berkeley within easy walking distance of the Cal campus. This makes me an actual member of said community.  I am concerned that you would publish this piece which pretends to speak for and about me when it so clearly does not.

  • This is an opinion piece — an op-ed published in our Opinionator section. Publications routinely publish opinion pieces. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors.

  • The Sharkey

    Well, maybe Berkeleyside is willing to publish opinion pieces from anonymous contributors? That’s essentially what this is, since nobody is actually identified as being an “official” member of the group.

    An interesting idea, even if that’s not what they intended.

  • guest

    There is simply no satisfying these people.  Why even try?

  • Luudes

    Occupy may have transplanted into Gill but they are not responsible for the veggies.  The university, who supplied the water lines and graciously kept the water ON throughout the summer are responsible for the growth of the veggies. Occupy collected and distributed.
    Additionally, I find it rather humorous that they are now interested in the south side because when they were actually occupying the field they seemed to be completely uninterested in mediating the south side (where the development is actually proposed).  I remember one member said that was because it was too much work…. you can’t say farmers aren’t hard working folks (because these are NOT farmers!)

  • NadiaBlaine

    Buy some land and make your own community garden. Leave UC Berkeley’s property alone.

  • guest

    Maybe an anonymous opinion would even be OK.  The problem here is that the piece is false and therefore unworthy of publication.

  • guest

    “Did one of the protesters legally change their name to ‘Occupy the Farm?'”

    English response:  Probably not since s/he would have to reveal her/his from name thereby revealing her/his identify.

    OTFish response:  Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!

  • franhaselsteiner

    I’m afraid I haven’t supported OTF at Gill Tract (although I support Occupy generally, except for the masked anarchists who destroy property), because–how would you feel?–they have damaged graduate students’ research. I wonder how the university would view OTF, however, if they had located at Peoples Park? Just curious. 

  • guest

    I’m wondering if these people will ever get at clue.  Everything they do just makes them look worse, and yet they keep doubling down.  I am (or was) sympathetic to Occupy, but these people are a bunch of lying assholes.  OTF and Occupy Oakland have screwed everyone who believes in progressive causes, because they have no integrity.  Lying has consequences.

  • guest

    Yeah, right.  One ton of food. Because you weighed it.  Sure you did.   We all watched your stupid video as you tried to push veggies on drivers on San Pablo, and your own supporters told you that the food banks had more than enough veggies already.  You were in CALIFORNIA during HARVEST SEASON, you simpletons. and you appeared to be surprised that food banks had more than enough fresh produce.  In California.  In Fall.  And you keep trashing the scientists who work at Gill.

  • The Sharkey

    Also, it’s not an opinion piece written for Berkeleyside, it’s a press release that was also published word-for-word by the Berkeley Daily Planet.

  • The Sharkey

    I can’t speak for the University, but as someone who generally doesn’t like Occupy I would actually support them if they took over some of the empty lots around town and tried to do something with them. That big empty lot at the corner of San Pablo and Ashby, for instance, isn’t being used by anyone and would be a great place for a temporary community garden.

  • LiamCooke742

    This topic has been discussed at great length on albany.patch.com.

    The bottom line is that OTF is taking actions based on ill-defined goals that make unsupportable claims of benefits. The actions are based on dogma, and not on clear, achievable goals that would benefit a community. They are also engaging in a form of protest that violates the law in a number of ways, for which they can reasonably be held accountable.

    Finally, Albany recently held a referendum-by-proxy in their city council vote which pitted 2 very pro-OTF candidates against others who were against OTF actions. The pro-OTF folks, while perfectly pleasant and no doubt well-intentioned, did not even come close to claiming a city council seat. OTF has meager support amongst the residents of Albany, where the Gill Tract is located.

  • emraguso

    They have in fact said that they want the land south of the current research field, which is part of the original Gill Tract, to be preserved. The issue is complicated because people use the term “Gill Tract” to refer to different geographical spaces. 

  • emraguso

    For background — We had been in touch by phone with members of Occupy the Farm who said Saturday they would like to post a response to UC’s letter, which was released Friday. 
    It seemed to me that, since we published UC’s letter, it was somewhat equitable also to post a response to that letter from a group that has been actively taking action in opposition since April, or even earlier. I do hear the question of whether or not it’s OK to post letters from organizations rather than individuals. I think it’s a good question and one we likely will discuss at our next editorial meeting. (In fact, Berkeleyside may wall have a policy on this but I’m a new member of the team, so hopefully I’m not speaking out of turn.) I can think of many instances where an organization takes a position on something…. I guess the pertinent question is — what is the value of having a specific name or names associated with that? Occupy the Farm’s letter represents the interests of its group, or the decision-makers of its group… not necessarily the broader community. 
    This post is clearly (to me) marked as an opinion piece from a group/guest contributor — so I’m not totally sure why there is confusion about whether this represents Berkeleyside’s views. 
    Can anyone elaborate about why this was confusing, or offer suggestions about how to make this more transparent than it appeared to be to us?  

  • guest

    Yes, that’s true, but when they first occupied the research field at Gill and were interviewed they repeatedly pointed to the research field where they were planting their veggies and said that “this land will be turned into a Whole Foods”.  When they were caught out in that lie, they said, “Oh, no, we didn’t mean this field, we were referring to the entire Gill tract”.  When asked why they didn’t plant in the empty lot where the Whole Foods was supposed to go, instead of planting directly over space allocated for researchers, they said that it would have been too hard and the soil on the empty lot is not suitable for planting.  The issue is complicated in part because OTF wants it to be.

  • emraguso

    That’s been my experience as well. To be fair, the university has been somewhat vague and hard to pin down on the boundaries of the Gill Tract too (in my experience). I’ve found myself at times (not always) tending to refer to the research field, and areas around it, rather than using “Gill Tract.” 
    I thought it was interesting in this piece that they made a very clear statement about wanting to remediate land south of the field though. In the last days of the occupation, they were beginning to migrate south to that area, and look into what they saw as projects they wanted to do down there. 
    There was definitely a lot of confusion (intentional or otherwise) in the early days of the occupation about where the Whole Foods was going, and whether the university planned to develop the research field itself. Fortunately, I was not confused about that because I’d been covering the issue for awhile, but it seemed that many of the media outlets took the word of OTF and spread a lot of false information that local residents are still struggling to recover from. 

  • guest


  • guest

    Yes, and to be fair, the University had every reason to imply that the Gill tract does not include the empty lots to the south of the agricultural research fields north of the creek.  Part of the land south of the creek had research facilities, and part had old housing, most of which has been torn down.  I doubt there is much in the way of toxics in the south, but to the extent that there are, the idea that a group of self-appointed experts would know how to ensure that the land is safe to plant on is scary, particularly if they want to bring kids to help.  It’s ironic that the reason that site cleanup is so expensive in general is because of complicated rules established in response the the last generation of environmentalists.  It requires a high level of expertise, money and time.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it means that you can’t just depend on the wisdom of the ancients and a vague understanding of bioremediation to make sure that land is safe for agricultural use.  Which of course is the point.  We developed something called Environmental Science so that we could actually understand how our environment worked.  Now it would appear that the latest generation of environmentalists is willing to toss all that accumulated knowledge out the window.  I can’t believe that anyone would trust these folks knowledge and experience enough to feed their kids what they end up growing on the “bioremediated” south sections of Gill.

  • Luudes

    Could someone associated with the occupy movement please cite a source (reliable) demonstrating that biotechnology industry is currently benefiting from the land

  • guest

    I can say more about your question if that would be helpful to you, but suggest that you can understand my point of view if you think of OTF as a charade rather than the legitimate organization you credit them for being.  If you consider this perception, you might be able to understand my concern.  It arises from my conviction that OTF is fake and that its/their words are meant to perpetuate an illusion rather than to help anybody, clarify anything, or cause productive discussion.

    (Some posters say that OTF lies.  I purposely do not use that word, but I think this expresses exactly the point of view that I hold.)

    PS  I understand and appreciate your point of view, especially since you are speaking with actual people whose names you might actually know.

  • emraguso

    I would definitely like to hear more on your thoughts about transparency and posting letters / columns from organizations. 
    In response to your question — I don’t think it’s my role here to say how I perceive Occupy the Farm as an organization. I have had a lot of interesting conversations with people who are involved with that effort in many ways and at many levels. The group has been effective at engaging a lot of people and building community action… though many people I know also have taken issue with the way the group frames issues and, in certain cases, presents information and facts. 
    I can certainly understand your point of view, and why you would feel that way. 

  • The Sharkey

    They are, in fact, farming on the section of the land that is used for research rather than the section of the land that is slated for development.

    I don’t really care about what they say, I care more about what they do. And what they do is repeatedly occupy the wrong space.

  • The Sharkey

    I think it was clearly an opinion piece as well and not necessarily the opinion of Berkeleyside or its staff. I think the confusion sets in because the attribution is extremely vague and essentially anonymous. Most of the time when a group puts out a press release, there is still an attribution to an individual or individuals. Not having that attribution attached to this op-ed deviates from the norm a bit.

  • guest

    They are using the fact that Novartis funded some of the research for several years back in the early 2000s, and the Hake lab has leveraged some of the work they have done on corn development to develop switchgrass strains that may, potentially, serve as a better source of biofuels.  Oh, and they note that there are some patents that involve GMOs that site some of the basic research done at Gill.  

    As far as I know, the Novartis “investment” at UC didn’t make a dime for Novartis, probably because funding basic research isn’t a very smart way to make a quick buck. Hilarious that Novartis essentially got rolled by a bunch of U.C profs, and then got blamed for corrupting the poor academics (see “The Kept University” in the Atlantic a few years ago).  

    The Hake lab’s work on switchgrass isn’t done at Gill, but the basic concept did come from work on corn at Gill.  Since that work is done by the USDA and funded in part by the DOE, both of which are being told by the Feds to look into biofuel technology, it’s hardly surprising that USDA researchers might actually be researching potentially useful biofuels like switchgrass. Ironically, biofuels were pushed heavily by environmentalists until corn farmers started to get into ethanol in a big way and people started to realize that all the inputs in terms of fertilizers and so on make corn ethanol a pretty bad return on an investment energy-wise. In response, a bunch of people have been looking at switchgrass, which doesn’t require fertilizer and can be grown on marginal land, making it less likely to displace farmland.  Hakes work suggests that you can even engineer switch grass so that it won’t flower (so no spread of evil transgenes) and it will produce more biomass for conversion to ethanol.  Clever, but it involves the use of transgenes, which our Leaders in the environmental movement have decreed are evil in all cases. Because they say so, and their are Web Sites that prove it (check out “Natural News” for the kind of sources the occupiers rely on – and don’t forget to shop for all the products they make available!).  Plus, God forbid, if it turns out to be useful, someone might actually commercialize it.  Again, since OTF is firmly against commercialization, any research done by USDA researchers that might potentially be useful to people interested in making a profit is inherently bad.  

    So, Luudes, I think it is reasonable to say that some research at Gill may, eventually, result in profits for some as yet unnamed corporate entity, maybe. Nothing yet, but it is certainly conceivable.  And of course, for many tax payers the idea that some of the money they pony up for basic research might lead to useful things is not objectionable. Indeed, they might even say that that is the reason we fund basic research.  But that, according to the Occupiers and their academic allies, is entirely unacceptable, and demonstrates that everything done at Gill is a monstrous corruption of our education system.  Indeed, I’m pretty sure that a lot of them don’t care for any kind of science or medicine, suggesting instead that ancient “ways of knowing”, along with a radical restructuring of our economic and social system, are all we need to keep us healthy and feed a few more billion mouths.    

  • guest2

    Not to worry, Liam, because they will explain that by “local community” they meant “the public”, which means anyone, anywhere, that agrees with them. Or poor people. In Mexico. Seriously. Or they will then tell us that the local election was bought by rich people, and so it doesn’t actually represent the will of the public. Or they will explain that the local community is a bunch of provincial assholes who don’t care about the poor. And so on.

  • guest2

    I agree. What if they simply found every lot that has been empty for, say, two years, and farmed it unless and until the owners actually decided to do something with it, in which they would agree to move to the next empty lot? Or, even better, they could raise the funds to actually buy a bunch of empty lots (there are plenty of foodies in the East Bay with deep pockets) and farm them, free and clear. I guess they could retain their street cred by simply declaring that these empty lots had been illegally “liberated”.

  • guest

    “Presently, the vast majority of the northern portion of the land is allocated to corn-based genetic research to benefit the biotechnology industry” is a flat out lie. The research there as nothing to do with the biotech industry.. The efforts by OTF to twist Sarah’s research into some corporate conspiracy in order to advance their political agenda is pathetic. There are many, many examples of corporate influence on research, but this isn’t one of them, unless you believe that all basic research should be banned because it might turn out to be useful to someone. Then again, these are folks that depend on sources like “Natural News” for their scientific “evidence”. Check that web site out, then decide how serious these people are about science.

    Funny that these people have lots to say about the research done at Gill, but they are totally vague when it comes their actual plan for Gill, “visioning” meetings with the “public” (people who agree with them) notwithstanding. It seems to be some kind of variation on 60s communes, or People’s Park, or bottom-up collectivization, or something. One thing seems pretty clear, though. Nobody involved is going to be able to make a living wage working on their “farm collective”, because no income will be generated. That means all the money required will have to come from grants or donations, but they have given no indication as to where those grants or donations will come from, no indication as to how the money will be managed, and no indication as to how they would organize the “research” they propose to do.

    And why should they have a say? Because they act unilaterally, and they know better than the rest of us how to organize our farms and our society. Trust them. I just hope they don’t actually drag kids onto the South part of the field and have them assist in “bioremediation” projects, or try to feed poor people veggies grown on potentially toxic land based on their assurances that they have indeed restored the land. The holy Precautionary Principle dictates that they should never do anything with potentially contaminated land, since proving that it is safe for farming is impossible. Imagine the law suits!