Column: Urban Farm Dreams Have 15-Year History

Occupy the Farm shared this piece, written by Jeffrey M. Romm, of UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy, & Management, with Albany Patch. Click the "Keep me posted" button for updates on this topic.

[Editor's Note: Occupy the Farm shared this piece, written by Jeffrey M. Romm, of UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy, & Management, with Albany Patch. Click the "Keep me posted" button for updates on this topic.]

The Gill Tract occupation needs to be understood in contemporary context. Things have changed since earlier college rejections of two community agriculture plans for the Tract. The changes deserve credit in a perspective of the occupation because they create opportunities for the College of Natural Resources (CNR) and the campus, and may translate into growing respect for the community. Moreover, refusal in the old way no longer would be covered with the guise of earlier justifications.

I supported the first BACUA plan, about 15 years ago, that set forth a vision for the future of the Tract in community agriculture. That plan was refused. At Dean Rausser’s behest some years later, I chaired a committee of faculty, extension and community members to develop a new plan that would have created a center for urban agriculture connecting campus and community. Community members at the time included Shyaam Shabaka and Sibella Krauss, both of whom went on to create vibrant programs in community agriculture with associated educational and nutritional dimensions.

Leaders of the systemwide sustainability program were involved, as were faculty of CNR and the College of Environmental Design, including the chair of the California Food Security Council. That plan provided a viable basis for development, needing refinement primarily in the details of the university-community relationship. The plan was refused. By refusal, I mean that it was denied good-faith consideration. The justifications for the refusal deserve mention because they now are demonstrably devoid of basis, if an absence of good faith can ever be described as possessing it.

First, urban community agriculture was then perceived in the college to be a marginal enterprise, variously imaged as hobbyist, ideological, personalized, insignificant and foreign. The evidence—hundreds of small groups in the Bay Area alone—was diffuse, as yet unrecorded, and without visibility or apparent impact. Although some saw an emerging trend, most thought the evidence and organization too thin to justify a program.

Today, urban agriculture has moved into the mainstream of metropolitan conception, policy, design and behavior. This is undeniable. Tours through the Bay Area would convince the more obdurate. Oakland, San Francisco and Richmond provide classic examples, while Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C., demonstrate the tremendous innovation urban agriculture has stimulated in the use of city spaces for the production and distribution of nutritious food, as well as the creation of new jobs and educational opportunities.

Urban plans are being shaped by a desire to create agricultural spaces that provide new modes of livelihood. Trends in the federal food bill, explicitly and not, have favored consumer wellbeing, access and equity, with consequent shifts of focus in the definition and execution of agriculture. The San Francisco Chronicle even editorializes on the matter with some exuberance in this morning’s edition. While I do not want to overstate the trend, I doubt the college would choose to withdraw so as to write and analyze its history rather than to affect it.

Second, the college then lacked the faculty and extension capacity to support a Center and coordinate its community functions. The plan proposed new faculty and extension positions to build the expertise. More than a decade later, these new positions exist and are filled with wonderful scholars and specialists. Occupants of other-described positions have shifted toward the emerging research and education nexus of food, health, environmental justice and economic productivity. Faculty and centers across campus are engaged in this convergence. They have produced research, gained influence, and had tangible impact on the ground. Food and agriculture no longer are CNR propertied topics. Within the college, upwards of half the undergraduates, perhaps 25 percent of the graduate students, the vigorous , and a range of other faculty endeavors, demonstrate how far we have moved in the decade.

Third, a decade ago, CNR work on cooperative stewardship arrangements had yet to gain the visibility and current international recognition it has today. That work inevitably focused on problems created by divides between those with authority over land and those with the need and capacity for its management. The work addressed relations between Forest Service and tribes, Forest Service and communities, Bureau of Reclamation and tribal, farming and environmental groups, industrial-community partnerships, watershed councils, urban health and nutrition collaboratives, and cooperative wildlife, forest and fisheries management.

The current Gill Tract issue replicates the kind of problem that many college researchers have worked successfully to overcome, i.e. structural divides that prevent effective ecosystem management in large part by excluding those with the strongest motives for beneficial action. Faculty and students so involved cannot be expected to turn their backs on the core lessons of their careers. The mutual benefits of overcoming the divide and achieving cooperative relations between campus and community are so demonstrable and compelling that a number of faculty would not maintain their integrity if siding with the party that refuses opportunities for cooperation and adaptability.

The Gill Tract occupation creates a huge opportunity. After 15 years of stonewall in the midst of sweeping social and ecological changes, the occupation should have come as no surprise to anyone. It does come at a time, though, when the university has become surrounded by community generated agricultural enterprise and has established its own capacity to respond in truly excellent fashion. The occupation has been conducted with utmost respect for the university, the community and the land. Equivalent responses by the university would produce a major step forward for everyone. The meaning and matter of Gill Tract extend throughout the Bay Area, with the potential for much more.

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

Albany Patch welcomes guest columns and letters to the editor. Email albany@patch.com for details.

lupe miller May 06, 2012 at 02:52 PM
There you go again with your "we," and presumption to speak (and know) for all. Thank you Dr. Romm, for an interesting and enlightening commentary. An Albany resident, I do not feel remotely disrespected by the occupation-farming. I speak only for myself and can't presume to do so for others.
lubov mazur May 06, 2012 at 02:56 PM
Is there enough coffee and Adderall in the world to make that sentence easily understandable?
Michael Barnes May 06, 2012 at 03:20 PM
Lupe, C'mon. If four people go to a pub and say, "We are interesting in beer," the barkeep does not presume that the speaker is speaking for everyone in the pub. That could get expensive. "Me" refers to one person. "We" refers to more than one person, but not necessarily all, it can mean "some." I am not the only person in Albany feeling disrespected (see other comments here, for example). However, since I have criticized Ulan for reflexively using the plural form, I guess I should take my own medicine. In my sentence above, I could have said "some of us are not feeling respected." I suppose that would be more accurate.
Michael Barnes May 06, 2012 at 03:51 PM
Damon, Here's an example that puts things in perspective. Let's say two different research groups in Molecular and Cell Biology had different approaches to a problem in biology. Because of friction or jealousy or whatever, one group gets angry and decides to damage the work of the other group. The angry research group recruits some campus "activists" (always plenty of those hanging around) and together they break into and occupy the other lab. They damage the lab and refuse to leave, insisting that the invaded group move elsewhere so the angry research can take over their space. Needless to say, there would be an immediate uproar, and the administration (and maybe to police) would step in quickly to resolve the situation. Sadly, the Gill Tract, your open air lab, is remote from the campus, so I suspect that the Berkeley faculty is not paying close enough attention. If you cut through the verbiage of Romm's post, he (along with Altieri and God only knows who else) is advocating an approach that violates just about every standard of professionalism and collegiality that universities aspire to. Let's look on the bright side. This occupation has revealed that the College of Natural Resources is profoundly dysfunctional. Once the short term crisis on the Gill Tract is over, this bigger and longer term problem will have to be addressed. I don't know why anyone--students, faculty, staff, administrators, regents, alums or donors--should stand for this.
Ellen Hershey May 06, 2012 at 04:38 PM
Lupe, Patch's comment pages provide ample evidence that there's more than one person in the community who feels disrespected by the occupiers' actions.
Dee May 06, 2012 at 06:48 PM
Dawn May 06, 2012 at 07:33 PM
I'd prefer if people spoke for themselves, only.
Dawn May 06, 2012 at 07:42 PM
So far, the only person to treat the writer with any respect is the one person being personally affected by the issue, which shows some class on his part. Why is it that whenever someone has something to say about the issue, they are attacked if they do not agree 100% with those of you who hate the occupation? A lot of what the author had to say was about other ways that the land can be used for the good of the people who live here. Can no one address these possibilities? Instead, most of you resort to questioning his right to say anything, criticizing his writing skills, and ignoring a huge chunk of what he has to say. Oh, and I guess it doesn't matter that he ACTUALLY knows the land and has been involved in its history? Nope, let's go get the pitchforks because someone else has opinions that conflict with ours!
Michael Barnes May 06, 2012 at 08:17 PM
Dawn, Well, I guess you are ahead of us, since I am still scratching my head and trying figure out what he is saying. So please, do translate. And yes, as you say, please address the possibilities.
John Doh! May 06, 2012 at 08:22 PM
"The City's democratic process" is not a "democratic" process when so very few citizens are involved. I'd guess that less than 100 people have attended the Council and P&Z meetings on the UC Village development project on a regular basis. Many of those who have raised questions are frustrated that the questions are not addressed. Many don't know the project even exists. Patch has a small % of Albany residents reading it, and even fewer participating in the comments sections. UC and the City seem to want to keep the exact details as quiet as possible. Has the city conducted a statistically sound survey of residents? Even people who are "in favor of Whole Foods" are surprised when they hear the details and size of the entire project; 85,000 sf of total retail space, the traffic and pollution impact, if zoning is changed, any company may occupy the space, it's not designated for Whole Foods only. I am most disappointed by the City's stewards lack of skepticism in dealing with UC's lobbyist. UC has been threatening that if Albany doesn't change regulations, they will pack up their toys and go home (if we don't get to have this huge commercial project, we won't even consider developing the porperty within existing zoning regulations.) UC threatens that they will use the land for some other educational purpose- meaning, No taxes for Albany. I suspect they'd rather make some rent. Would there be any opposition to a grocery store and housing that fits the existing zoning?
Michael Barnes May 06, 2012 at 08:42 PM
John, You have made this point many times. I'm curious. My understanding, and I could be wrong, is that strictly speaking, UC is not bound by Albany zoning ordinances, or is bound only in a limited way. Same goes for the USDA labs. UC is cooperating with Albany because it chooses to do so, not because it has to. Although I attend city council and P&Z meetings on other issues, I've not been too concerned about details of the plan. Anything is an improvement over the lack of walkable retail when I was living in the village from 1995-2000. For what it's worth, I did visit Pasadena recently, where I stayed in a motel across the street from a huge Whole Foods. Pasadena is small city with a big university, Caltech. I went to Whole Foods there a few times to buy stuff. Not my cup of tea really, and I probably won't shop at the one in Albany, but the store had its own parking underneath and there were no traffic problems that I noticed. BTW, why don't you use your real name? The content of your posts seems serious and credible enough.
Ellen Hershey May 06, 2012 at 09:02 PM
The city's democratic process is a democratic process because it gives any citizen who wants to be involved an opportunity to make his or her voice heard. And in our little city, that's not hard to do.
Doris Meier May 06, 2012 at 09:09 PM
this really is a no brainer, isn't it? Why are we still discussing this? Why have these intruders not been ejected? Makes me fear for the process of law in our community
Alan Riffer May 06, 2012 at 09:52 PM
Michael, UC is subject to Albany zoning and approval processees for a project which is outside the UC educational mission, *eg, the Mixed Use Development at Monroe and San Pablo. UC is the lead agency on projects within its mission, eg housing at UC Village. In the latter case, City of Albany may comment as affaected public, but has no legislative role. Similarly, City of Albany had no legisllative role in the construction of Albany Middle School or Albany High School. John Doh!'s comments about Whole Foods are as irrelevant to the discussion of the Gill Tract as the occupiers' due to the lack of nexus between the adjoining properties.
John Doh! May 06, 2012 at 10:38 PM
This is a link to an article titled "UC report calls for more tolerance of protests" http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/05/04/BA3P1ODI4S.DTL That may help answer the questions raised about why UC hasn't "ejected the intruders."
Lisa Schneider May 07, 2012 at 12:24 AM
OTF missed the deadline. For details, please see link. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/05/06/BAQK1OE350.DTL
Ross Stapleton-Gray May 07, 2012 at 01:03 AM
"At one point, Mogulof said, the squatters pruned some fruit trees on the property and explained to the dean of resources that they had to do it because the trees were diseased. Turns out the pruned greenery were part of a research project on how diseases affect fruit trees, he said." Reminded me of that joke about the light airplane which crashed into a cemetery, and the local sheriff's team had already recovered 27 bodies, but feared even more casualties would be discovered.
Michael Barnes May 07, 2012 at 01:37 AM
Alan, Thanks, this makes sense. Let's continue discussion off-line sometime, not relevant here, as you say.
Michael Barnes May 07, 2012 at 01:41 AM
John, This is not a protest, this is an attempt to alter or destroy research projects for which UC is already under contract with federal funding agencies. There is a big difference.
Emilie Raguso May 07, 2012 at 01:55 AM
We reported on Friday that the activists plan to begin community discussions Monday.
Kirsten Schwartz May 07, 2012 at 04:42 AM
Dawn, I think you are putting the case too dramatically: no one is raising pitchforks (appropriate metaphor, by the way). In fact, your letter is probably the most imflammatory of the bunch. Now, with that said, let me repeat: the problem is with the Occupy The Farm people first, as far as all this goes. They are not "Occupying: they are not sitting around Wall Street. They are changing the soil. They have not "occupied" a street or a city square; they have illegally broken into a working lab and have vandalized it, to the detriment of the people wanting to work the lab (as they are due to) in the very near future. The Burden Lies On Them, not on us, to make reasonable justification of these actions; when they fail, we get to criticize them. They have brought their problem into my community, and (my personal fave here) have told me that I support them, "I" being an Albany resident, when I don't. That's tyranny by deceit. They are burglars, no more, no less, and to try to distinguish themselves in any way is to lay their ethics open to criticism. It's an important part of public discourse; and by the skilful (yes, it is) legal precision of Romm's pronouncements I recognize someone who doesn't really care what we peasants think. I'm not sure what he thinks he's doing here--and therefore I want other voices to call him to account. Yes! Not to blame him, but to call him to account for what he has published. That's fair.
Tatter Salad May 07, 2012 at 07:32 AM
Emilie: Regarding: "We reported on Friday that the activists plan to begin community discussions Monday." We are not interested in community discussions. YOU are enabling them. There is no reason for discussion. The Albany Patch and its staff further contributed (aided and abetted misdemeanor trespass) in a previous post by inviting and encouraging readers to to take photos which could only occur by trespass. With all respect: kindly wise up. Don't be part of the problem. As damages in excess of $300.- have occurred, you should cease facilitating felony trespass via the Albany Patch IMHO. Your comment (after they have been ordered to vacate the property), is enabling, and therefore inappropriate.
Emilie Raguso May 07, 2012 at 11:15 AM
Sorry, Tatter: That's not how I see it. I don't know how you can speak for everyone about whether or not there's an interest in community dialogue. There are a lot of people who want to talk about various aspects of this. The gallery you mentioned is a place for people to share photos and videos of all kinds. We have similar galleries for everything going on in Albany. We didn't ask people to take photos or videos--we asked them to share them if they have them.
Ross Stapleton-Gray May 07, 2012 at 02:22 PM
Emilie's publication facilitates discussions, it also reports, and journalists are granted considerable latitude in whom and how they cover. I read her post there as reporting what the Occupiers said *they* want to do; that's at odds with what UC has said they want the Occupiers to do... news as it develops. My puckish thought of the morning is that the City of Albany ought to wait and see if UC follows through... if it turns into another Treesitting Affair with no resolution in sight, it can assert eminent domain to take control of a blighted area, declare it to be City property, then propose that it become a combination pot dispensary/cellular tower *after* it meets P&Z approval, thus ensuring it will be available as undeveloped land in perpetuity at the cost of a commission meeting every few months...
Tatter Salad May 07, 2012 at 06:50 PM
" We didn't ask people to take photos or videos--we asked them to share them if they have them." You know that's hedging the facts. You asked for submissions, or works in progress that could only be created via trespass. Also, you didn't announce a 'City' dialogue, you announced that 'Occupiers' wanted to give their pitch... there's a marked difference. If you want to paint the picture completely, I suggest you go after some silent voices: eg. UC Berkeley (state) Campus Police Chief; or someone with more experience with 'Occupiers': The Mayor of Oakland.
Tatter Salad May 07, 2012 at 07:05 PM
Well, the Patch's annocements of 'Photo Show' invites (only obtainable illegally), and enabling Occupiers by encouraging meetings AFTER a dozen polls in which the majority of Albany wishes them to exit, and UC is being VERY kind in their response, and totally ignoring the fact that portions of the Gill Tract have a history of shared use with local 'farming'... All of this aside: you should take note of another minor tool that the Patch uses to squelch dialogues like this one: that is: As soon as anti-occupation feed-back dominates a piece, access to the piece disappears from the front page. If your reading this for example, it took some effort to find it, where as just 12 hours ago, the home-page would have led you right to it. That is NOT what I call 'fair and even handed' reportage.
Emilie Raguso May 07, 2012 at 07:31 PM
You wrote that we were "inviting and encouraging readers to to take photos," and that's what I responded to. Throughout this process, we've been facilitating community dialogue -- I'm not following what you wrote about what dialogue we "announced" -- as this has been a long process with more than 40 posts from people with different positions, as well as traditional news stories. I don't think UCPD is going to comment on all this, as the university has a spokesman dealing with all requests related to this issue. I don't really think the mayor of Oakland is an appropriate source at this time either, as this "occupation" is of a very different nature than those in Oakland. I think there are enough local voices on both sides and with many different perspectives to keep it local.
Emilie Raguso May 07, 2012 at 07:33 PM
Tatter: All our coverage has been collected on a single page for easy access: http://albany.patch.com/topics/occupy-the-farm-gill-tract-activists-in-albany We link to this page in multiple places on EACH article we write about it.
Emilie Raguso May 07, 2012 at 07:44 PM
As an aside, Tatter: Your claims of our so-called tool to "squelch" certain views are simply laughable. The majority of our stories appear on the front page in reverse chronological order. The items at the top (the four "major features") do have a somewhat different shelf life. But the rest of them are simply organized by their publication time stamp, and it's an automated process that editors have no control over.
Ellen Hershey May 08, 2012 at 12:01 AM
Tatter, I think Emilie is doing a great job covering multiple sides of this complex story in as balanced a fashion as possible. And Patch certainly is proving once again its great value to our community as a place where individuals can state their views.


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