Urban farming advocates and University of California officials have been duking it out this week in the form of dueling press releases and public statements after a group calling itself Occupy the Farm took over in Albany on Sunday.
The activists, who call themselves "farmers," marched from Berkeley into the on Sunday afternoon, in a parade of musicians and supporters, in what they've described as an act of civil disobedience intended to preserve farm land from future development by the university and promote "sustainable urban agriculture for local communities who face increasing economic and environmental pressures."
Opponents of the action have criticized the group for misrepresenting facts; by Albany residents to help design a Whole Foods and senior housing project in ; and in use for decades by researchers and students.
In less than a week, readers of Albany Patch have posted more than 500 comments on more than a dozen articles and blogs, and the story has quickly become one of the most-followed topics the site has seen since its launch in June 2010.
The occupation took place in the undeveloped northeastern section of Albany's University Village. The Village includes housing for nearly 1,000 UC Berkeley graduate students and their families. Due to its layout, location, population and relatively insular programs and services, the property is generally seen as somewhat disconnected from the rest of the 1.7-square-mile city. News from the Village rarely makes headlines.
But for the past five days, all that's changed. The presence of the activists in the Gill Tract has raised the profile of the tiny Village community both within Albany and beyond. (National media outlets such as Forbes, AlterNet and The Nation have written about the occupation, as have regional papers such as the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News. Several local television stations have also aired broadcasts related to the story.)
A HOTLY CONTESTED TOPIC
The university and the activists disagree on a slew of issues, from the best use of the field now, to its historical function and the shape of its future.
Even the site's name, the Gill Tract, is defined in vastly different terms depending on which side you ask.
Sunday, Occupy the Farm released , which they say was inspired by peasant farmer movements such as Via Campesina.
In it, they said the Gill Tract was destined for sale to private developers to be paved over with "." They added: "For decades the UC has thwarted attempts by community members to transform the site for urban sustainable agriculture and hands-on education."
DAY TWO: THE UNIVERSITY RESPONDS
The following day, the university cut off water to the field and released its own statement describing the "illegal occupation" by about 200 people who "broke into a lot" then cut gate locks to get into "the field."
A map accompanying the statement showed clear boundaries between the agricultural field—which is called "the farm" by the activists—and proposed development "south of the Gill Tract" of a "Senior Living and Marketplace Project."
From the statement: "There are no immediate plans to pursue building on this site, according to the university."
What is imminent, officials noted, is the beginning of the season for agriculture researchers who were "just waiting to do our tilling till (sic) the soil moisture conditions were right."
The university noted the laws "the protesters" are alleged to be violating: two sections of a campus code (failure to heed a university official or obstructing officials trying to perform their duties, and unauthorized camping or lodging on university property), as well as three sections of the state Penal Code related to trespassing upon cultivated or fenced land to disrupt its normal operations.
The statement included an attached PDF detailing basic information about the Whole Foods and senior housing project, which has been in development for four-and-a-half years.
At the bottom of the two-page document, the final item addressed impacts on the Gill Tract: "At some point yet to be determined the College [of Natural Resources] will relocate its research elsewhere. The University’s Master Plan designates the Gill Tract for community open space and recreation."
DAY THREE: "A TICKING CLOCK"
Tuesday, Occupy the Farm posted a rejoinder to the university's statement, calling it "disingenuous." The group faulted the university for including a map showing the Gill Tract (aka "UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources Agricultural Research Fields") along with the locations for a Whole Foods market and senior living facility.
"And while the UC included an illustrated aerial view of the area with their press release ... emphasizing that the bad, bad Occupy the Farm criminals are disrupting valuable agricultural research, the UC deliberately did not include an image that shows that, well, the research isn't really so important after all because their master plan for the land includes no farmland whatsoever."
The activists included a second image, from the University's 2004 Master Plan where part of the Gill Tract area is shaded in green and yellow, and designated "Recreation & Open Space."
They continued: "Anyone who bothers to scratch below the surface of the UC press release and actually read UC's master plan can see that the UC has already developed most of the land it controls in Albany and intends to develop it even further. The current plan for the Gill Tract is to make it a baseball field and some sort of undefined "open space" -- neither of which includes farming, for the community or even research. Once the land is gone for farming, it's gone, and the clock toward that day is ticking."
DAY FOUR: UC POSTS "REQUEST TO VACATE" PEACEFULLY, SAFELY
On Wednesday, April 25, the university released a statement "calling on Occupy the Farm to peacefully and safely end the encampment and vacate the property immediately."
Officials said the Gill Tract had been a "living classroom" for more than 50 years. The statement detailed the importance of the research land ("a small but significant agricultural research land in a dense urban area") and the need to prepare it for planting.
The Public Affairs office included a brief history of the property, noting how its former housing, reused military barracks, had been demolished and rebuilt anew. The market and senior housing, on the east end of the property, would be the next step in planned improvements: "Neither would be sited on the agricultural portion of the Gill Tract" (emphasis added).
In describing the actions of the "protesters," the writer (identified only as "Public Affairs") stated: "From the University perspective, the actions of Occupy the Farm are the equivalent to taking valuable, needed classrooms or laboratories away from students and faculty."
The notice went on to describe the university's commitment to sustainable practices and food systems, particularly those that are "well planned, sustainable and considerate of all members of our community."
GILL TRACT: "NOT SAFE TO LIVE ON"
University reps then outlined various reasons why Occupy the Farm supporters needed to abandon their "illegal occupation":
- No lodging facilities, bathrooms or kitchens on site
- Sanitation challenges ("Hand washing and safe food handling and preparation are important and treatment of human waste is critical. UC Berkeley does not support composting human waste, due to the possibility of the transmission of disease, especially on agricultural land.")
- A water system "designed for agriculture, not camping or habitation"
The document concludes: "At this point, Occupy the Farm is preventing UC Berkeley from meeting the needs of our students and faculty."
As a result, the university "calls on Occupy the Farm" to vacate the Gill Tract "safely, peacefully and immediately"; remove their encampment and farming supplies; and "Organize a committee to meet with UC Berkeley representatives to discuss opportunities for a metropolitan agriculture program affiliated with UC Berkeley."
OCCUPY THE FARM ANNOUNCES "FACT VS. FICTION TOUR"
Thursday, April 26, Occupy the Farm charged the university will issuing "false statements" about "practices at the farm."
To counter the "misconceptions," activists have scheduled a 4 p.m. Fact vs. Fiction Tour on Saturday for members of the public and the media.
They describe the Gill Tract as the "last, best agriculture land in the urbanized East Bay," adding that over the years it has been "parceled off and sold," and has shrunk from 104 to 20 acres. (The university said the Gill Tract spans 15 acres, with its southern border running parallel to Monroe Street along the fence line.)
In particular, activists took issue with what they described as the university's claim that had come in contact with soil.
From their statement: "'We're farmers. We know better than to crap on our crops,' said David Grefrath, one of many cultivating the land."
Bathroom facilities at "the Farm" include "a closed composting toilet system in which there is no contact between human waste and soil. They also have portable toilets and, thanks to neighborhood support, access to real bathrooms. Additionally, there is a comprehensive system for recycling, compost, trash, and dishwashing."
They said the real problem was that the university cut off the water supply, which also affected a city of Albany tree nursery south of their location.
"The operation of the fire hydrant on site has apparently been limited as well," activists said, citing a UC operations staffer "who wished to remain anonymous" and an firefighter.
(In its post dated April 25, the university noted that it had turned off the irrigation at the Gill Tract, and included this statement: "This action did not impact the fire hydrants surrounding the Gill Tract serving the local community.")
Occupy the Farm has asked community members to call UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgenau's office, at 510-642-7464, to "respectfully demand the restoration of the water supply."
COLLEGE DEAN REACHES OUT TO STUDENTS
Not all the communication in the past week has been in the form of pointed online missives.
This week, College of Natural Resources Dean J. Keith Gilless has gone out to the Gill Tract several times to speak with Occupy the Farm supporters.
He described the activists as "very gracious."
He said he first went to the site Monday, for 30 minutes to an hour, with his assistant dean, and they received a tour. Tuesday he, and two of his faculty members, spent an hour in discussion with activists. Wednesday he was out on the farm again.
"I'm the dean of a college that cares about these things," he said. "My faculty are concerned. I have to look into what's going on, if only because my faculty and students are affected. My going out there, it's me trying to start a dialogue. I think California Hall is happy to have me playing that role."
Gilless said he had let university administrators know he would be visiting the Tract, and that he had communicated with them about his discussions with the activists.
NO CLOSE TIES TO STUDENT GROUP
Though some of the students at the Gill Tract attended or graduated from the College of Natural Resources, Gilless said none of them included students he has worked with closely.
The college includes, he said, close to 2,000 undergrads and about 400 graduate students, along with approximately 120 faculty members, and more than a dozen cooperative extension specialists.
He said he hoped the university and Occupy the Farm could come together due to their shared interest in what UC Berkeley terms "metropolitan agriculture."
Gilless said it had been his goal on Tuesday to let the activists know that, "while we're interested in some of what they're talking about, that my college doesn't manage the land there. And that this is very difficult from a logistical standpoint relative to our research programs."
(Some members of Occupy the Farm have expressed frustration that, thus far, the university hasn't sent anyone to speak with them who does have decision-making power.)
Gilless said he asked what it might take to move the conversation forward, and the group said they wanted the water to be restored. As of Thursday, the water at the Gill Tract was still off, with farmers using water tanks to keep their crops from drying out.
Gilless said his main hope is that he can serve as a liaison between California Hall and Occupy the Farm.
"We'll see where this can go. I'm hopeful we can come to a good place at the end of the day," he said, speaking figuratively.
He continued: "It's a timely discussion. I wish it hadn't arisen in the context of an occupation just before we were going to prepare our researchers for the site for the season. But I'm sure in the end if we take a deep breath we can all have a conversation that's constructive."
- Find Occupy the Farm on its website, Facebook page or Twitter feed.
- See the city of Albany's webpage related to the Whole Foods and senior housing project.
- Read the 2004 University Village Master plan (also in the asset window above as a PDF)
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