One Gill Tract Researcher on Why He Supports Occupy the Farm

Professor Miguel Altieri supports the activists: "I don’t think genetics is going to save us. You need to have a holistic approach to come up with systems that will resist climate change." Click the "Keep me posted" button below for updates.

When activists took over the Gill Tract on April 22, UC Berkeley Professor Miguel Altieri who works on the site, was out of the country. Altieri returned later in the week and offered a workshop at the Gill Tract over the weekend.

“I support this action as a private citizen,” Altieri told Albany Patch in an interview Saturday.

In fact, he said, many of the people involved with Occupy the Farm are former students. Asked if he knew about the group’s plans in advance, Altieri said no. 

Altieri, a professor since 1981, teaches agroecology and is part of the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkeley. His research, which can be called sustainable agriculture, looks at the effect of intercropping, covercropping weed management and crop-field border vegetation on pests.

According to his website, “Our group is also engaged in collaborative work with a number of Universities, NGOs and research centers in Africa, Asia and Latin America promoting research, training and capacity building in agrecology and sustainable agriculture.” Altieri earned his undergraduate degree in Chile.


At the Gill Tract, Altieri raises and studies dry-farmed tomatoes and also intercrops broccoli with other plants for pest management. He said he will start his tomatoes in a couple weeks, and that he will engage some of the activists to help, so they can learn about dry farming. “It has to be organized and supervised,” he said.

He has donated his produce to groups such as Food Not Bombs for 20 years, he said.

Asked about the conflict between the activists and the university, Altieri said, “it would not look very good that the university turns under crops that could feed hungry people in Oakland.”

The activists have left Altieri’s cover crop of fava beans on the largely untouched. Their farming has taken place on the section of the field previously used for growing corn (maize) for plant genetics studies by three other scientists. Those three—, and —have all because, at least in part, it has taken over their research space and left their work potentially hanging in the balance as a result.


During a talk to the activists Saturday, Altieri encouraged them to share the space with the corn researchers, said Lisch, who attended the talk.

But, when asked about in an interview later, Altieri said they could always “go to Davis” to do their work. When told that the corn researchers said the commute to Davis for their five-month field season would be problematic—time-consuming, polluting and prohibitive to student assistants without cars—and that the move would come too late for this year, Altieri dismissed the concerns.

“They have big money,” he said. “Federal and corporate.”  Sarah Hake, director of the Plant Gene Expression Center (PGEC), responded that no one at the center has corporate funding. 

Altieri said he really didn’t know what the corn researchers do—that he and they don’t have much professional contact. He and Hake are both part of UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, but in separate departments. But he added: “I don’t think genetics is going to save us. You need to have a holistic approach to come up with systems that will resist climate change.”

Altieri also said he was a university member involved with the Bay Area Coalition for Urban Agriculture. About a decade ago the coalition proposed using the Gill Tract for a Center for Sustainable Urban Agriculture and Food Systems, but it never happened.

“I’m interested in promoting that again,” Altieri said.


Click the "Keep me posted" button below for an update when we publish future stories on this topic. Read more here on the Gill Tract occupation.

If there's something in this article you think  , or if something else is amiss, call editor Emilie Raguso at 510-459-8325 or email her at albany@patch.com.

Michael Barnes April 30, 2012 at 10:06 PM
Jamie, while I agree with your concerns about UC in a very general way, you leave out the most important driver--cuts in state funding. Anything that "screws with them" is likely to cost UC more money, making the problems you cite worse. And be careful what you wish for--when you jerk UC's chain, you're never quite sure what sort of animal is at the other end of the leash. But your most important comment is the last one. I've often made similar comments about Berkeley in the 60s and other political movements on the left that never engaged the broader population and fizzled out. Partly due to a backlash against university protests in the 60s, the great society programs ground to a halt, Nixon was elected president in 1972, and the Vietnam war dragged on until 1975. These were not victories, and I suspect the various occupations won't ultimately be victorious until somebody thinks long and hard about how to broaden the base.
Colleen O'Neill April 30, 2012 at 10:49 PM
Your comments are great. No matter what anyone says about the action at the Gill tract plot - we are now talking about both the little picture (Little League baseball diamond/Farm at the Gill tract) and the big picture, the part played by our Public Universities in our food/agricultural system. It is important for us to understand that we play a role in this. We've been driving by this area as quietly as we've been accepting Cal costing more than Stanford.There's never a great time to take a stand. On Sunday there was only a few hundred of us at the Women's Rights rally in Sacramento, including myself & my granddaughters. Should we stop because there isn't a 'leader' and everyone seems a bit disorganized? I have my own inner compass, and it tells me to just keep on... I find myself surprised when I pick up my kid at Oceanview & see Occupy. They don't need me to know everything about molecular biology and I don't need them to know everything about the 300 & some laws being introduced throughout the United States against various women's rights. I hope they'll trust me to be honest about the anti-women laws and why I'm protesting and I'll reciprocate regarding their actions. Until there's a reason not to trust.
Amy Marsh April 30, 2012 at 11:09 PM
For historical perspective, the enormous AOUON Political Poster collection, compiled by the (late) Free Speech Movement veteran, Michael Rossman, is now on display at the Oakland Museum of California. This multi-faceted collection charts history of a number of progressive movements since the 60's. As Michael once said to me, "and not one of these movements is finished..."
Kirsten Schwartz May 01, 2012 at 12:58 AM
Ms. O'Neill: last I looked (asking my undergrads last fall), Cal is still under 11,000/year for tuition (although it's called "fees" because our state constitution says UC can't charge tuition). Stanford: over $40,000/year. You really need to think about what you do to your reputation for any facts you submit to the public when you so easily use such egregiously wrong ones. Just sayin, as the young ones put it.
Kirsten Schwartz May 01, 2012 at 01:00 AM
Well-said, Max.
John Kindle May 01, 2012 at 01:01 AM
By break eggs, I take it you mean the Turkey eggs.
Michael Barnes May 01, 2012 at 01:33 AM
Colleen, I don't think there is any income bracket for which a family will pay more at Cal than Stanford. The new middle class access plan at Berkeley caps student contribution at $8,000 and family contribution to 15 percent of income: http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2011/12/14/berkeley-middle-class-access-plan/
Colleen O'Neill May 01, 2012 at 01:56 AM
Out of state tuition for UC Berkeley is $31,000 - Stanford is $38,000...And yes I really should be careful if I say anything negative or false regarding Cal! So many Calites (?) live here that I'm sure to have my reputation ruined for life! But you added a few grand to Stanford's tuition yourself. Just make sure you don't do that in Palo Alto or your reputation will be as muddy as mine.
Michael Barnes May 01, 2012 at 02:08 AM
Colleen, I've mentioned this many times at various places on the patch, so forgive me if you have seen it before. The way UC Berkeley chose to keep tuition and fees (after financial aid) low was by adding more out-of-state students and using their full tuition payments to subsidize resident students. With year after year of budget cuts, the state now only contributes 11 percent of Berkeley's total revenue. I think Berkeley's plan was the best of bad alternatives.
Dawn May 01, 2012 at 02:57 AM
Are people really starting to complain because the farmers are "mostly young, white males"?! So, I'm assuming that if they were old black women, you'd approve? Is there something wrong with being young, male, or white? It seems like some of you are now just looking for more reasons to disagree with the action. Or, is it that you can't agree with an action that isn't racially balanced? Like, how racially-balanced Albany is? I understand being opposed to the occupation, but why the need to attack from a racial point of view?
Colleen O'Neill May 01, 2012 at 03:34 AM
Dawn, People ARE complaining about everything/everyone at the Gill tract. Their racial, ethnic, and gender are not balanced enough to be proper Occupiers or Farmers. They are too naive, or they play fast with facts - a cross between cunning and conniving. Of course when we look for perfection in them we do not hold the mirror up to ourselves! I guess we wanted Celebrity Occupy and wound up with just plain old Albany Farm. I may add that when we focus on the people and not the issues it makes it easier to dismiss...I myself have had to really think this past week about the Gill tract, the University (town & gown) sustainable agriculture, and I can tell you it gave me a big headache.
Brian Macker May 01, 2012 at 03:35 AM
Colleen, I guess you'd be all even handed if a bunch of self appointed homeless dictators decided to camp out in your yard, park their butts on your sofa, and eat from your refrigerator. Part of the purpose of property rights is to give a final answer as to who controls particular resources, and to prevent the kinds of distraction and endless political bickering that occurs without clearly defined property rights. In this case the property is owned by and therefore controlled by the university, and there are appropriate mechanisms in place to decide what use the property will be put to. The decision was to use it for farm research. Since people like you have now clearly made it an attractive nuisance I would not be surprised if the convert it into student housing or sell it for development.
Dee May 01, 2012 at 03:40 AM
Brian Macker May 01, 2012 at 03:41 AM
That was a moronic article that doesn't fathom technology. Technological improvements always involve trade offs. Are we supposed to just let people die now just because in the future there will be general resistance to penicillin? why not use what we can as it works and adopt new technologies to replace them in the future. Your philosophy is Ludditism with a large measure of crystal ball end of the worldism.
Brian Macker May 01, 2012 at 03:42 AM
Who cares who the "leader" is. They are all self appointed dictators and criminals who need to spend time in jail.
Brian Macker May 01, 2012 at 03:44 AM
Climate has always changed and always will. It's a catch-all excuse for functional children to do as they please to destroy the livelihoods of others.
Brian Macker May 01, 2012 at 03:49 AM
It's where PC thinking naturally ends up, at absurdity. What I find amazing (or not since this is Berkeley) is that both sides have swallowed some amazingly stupid assumptions. I'm as disappointed with the researchers as I am with the people illegally destroying the research.
Dee May 01, 2012 at 03:52 AM
Thank you, Brian!
Emilie Raguso May 01, 2012 at 05:27 AM
Hi Tom! Just as you're entitled to your view, the researchers are entitled to their view(s) as well. I would like to second the request not to call people "tools," or any other names, for having different priorities than you have. I agree -- there are a lot of women down there. There are lots of all kinds of people. Many of them are young, but I've been impressed by the diversity of the folks who've been working and meeting at the field. It sounds like you had a good experience at the site as far as getting information about Whole Foods. But you probably also know that the group released a statement that somewhat confused the site of the planned Whole Foods with the land commonly called the Gill Tract (aka the ag land). There are several news clips that show this as well -- people gesturing to the ag land and talking about the Whole Foods and parking lot, etc., that would cover it up when it was sold to private developers. This is not actually what's proposed. It sounds like you may need to do some of your own research, if you're going to assert that none of this has been the case. As for the coverage on the site: I'd be interested to hear what else you'd like to see. I have a list of stories that remain to be researched, and a lot of reporting that has yet to be written up. See all the coverage here: http://albany.patch.com/topics/occupy-the-farm-gill-tract-activists-in-albany
Emilie Raguso May 01, 2012 at 05:33 AM
I had a good talk with Altieri this afternoon. He has shared with us an op-ed that we'll run tomorrow. I asked him if he could see a future that included the senior housing/Whole Foods project, as well as the urban farmers, and he said he didn't see why not, and that he wasn't opposed to the development. I found that interesting. More of his views (direct from him) to come in the morning.
Emilie Raguso May 01, 2012 at 05:33 AM
* That he wasn't opposed to the development SOUTH of the agricultural lands, that is.
Kirsten Schwartz May 01, 2012 at 05:56 AM
Altieri WAS conveniently out of the way . . . .
Michael Barnes May 01, 2012 at 06:03 AM
Folks, forgive me if I am getting cynical, but just for the sake of argument, let's just call the invasion of the Gill Tract a crime. Now like detectives in a crime movie, let's analyze the crime scene and the statements made by the witnesses and suspects. Who really stands to benefit from this crime? The answer is clear. Altieri, who is in line to become the Guru of the Gill Tract. It all fits. There are other researchers on the Gill Tract who are using land he could use, and who don't share his ideology. He says he didn't know the invasion would take place, but his denial is not convincing. It's pretty simple, put together your little party of supporters, have them take over the Gill Tract, but somehow magically spare your own research area. A good scientist would urge people not to mess with any of the research land. Altieri made a token effort, and then just said the other researchers could move to Davis. He claimed they had corporate funding, the kiss of death from his perspective, but it turns out he was lying or not paying attention. So what happens if the trespassers don't leave? The other researchers forfeit their land, and Altieri and supporters get to take over. Altieri's lack of remorse or compassion for this fellow researchers has seemed odd to me, but now I understand it. Personally, I am not cool with this, and I sure hope UC Berkeley doesn't let him get away with it. It's just a theory, but it sure fits.
Michael Barnes May 01, 2012 at 06:11 AM
Of course he doesn't object, they weren't going to let him have that land anyway, so why should he care what happens to it?
Michael Barnes May 01, 2012 at 06:21 AM
Martha, I'd like to disagree. I don't this this action rises to those ethical standards. As I've mentioned in other posts, Gandhi used civil disobedience effectively to thwart colonialism. But in this case, the occupiers are the colonialists, while Albany residents are the local people whose traditional customs and land use agreements are being ignored. The occupiers simply marched in, took over land and decided to use it as they see fit. What is ethical about that?
Colleen O'Neill May 01, 2012 at 03:45 PM
Ms. Pettit, I see I'm not the only one who has noticed the snide comments & attitudes of many of our neighbors. Makes me want to pass on doing my big HalloweenHouse/snicker bar pass out this year! I had no idea how patronized and ridiculed I am. By that I mean I don't blindly support UC & I have progressive politics. I've gone from sad to a little mad at all the conjectures of many Cal-ites. I hear no solutions ever. If I were more cynical I might believe that these posts come from someone at the UC Capitol Development Dept...Oh my - I too can put on my tin - foiled psychic hat! Yes Mr Barnes there's never been a decent movement, especially from your armchair...But you all should stop ascribing YOUR motives for doing things (greed, avarice, etc) to the rest of us. By the way - the Constitution allows me to dissent from your point of view/s - and it allows you to continue to mock me! So I guess we're even!
Michael Barnes May 02, 2012 at 04:00 AM
Colleen, I not sure why you have the impressions you do. In my replies you to personally, I have given you more information in a respectful manner. There are many of them above. I think it's obvious from my posts that I respect Gandhi. I've said it many times. But I don't respect the occupiers. Not all forms of protest or illegal activity are worthy of being compare to Gandhi.
Michael Barnes May 03, 2012 at 08:11 AM
Martha, time will tell, let's see where we are in a year or two. Meanwhile, I suspect that when the occupiers leave the Gill Tract, they will leave behind a huge mess. Since you consider this a successful act of civil disobedience, are you willing to help clean up after them? I don't think UC should have to pay for it. Or do you consider letting someone clean up after you (which I consider childish) a form of civil disobedience?
Ellen Hershey May 03, 2012 at 08:45 AM
Ms. Pettit, I don't think we can assume that the majority of Albany residents necessarily want the entire Gill Tract reserved for a farm. Some Albanians want baseball and soccer fields for their kids to play on. Many Albanians want a Whole Foods store, senior housing, and a childcare center. And please note that the plan does include a community garden. The future of the Gill Tract has been under discussion for a long time between the University and the Albany community, and community interests have been brought to the table. The occupiers seem to think that their interests should trump everyone else's.
Tatter Salad May 03, 2012 at 09:26 PM
Me thinks the Professor doth protest too much. “I support this action as a private citizen,” Altieri told Albany Patch in an interview Saturday. When a non-tenured professor wishes to speak as 'a private citizen,' then he should leave his Departmental affiliation, and PhD (in bugs) out of it. I wish you good luck when your review for 'tenure' comes up; - you may get a Chile reception, lol!


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