War of Words Between Gill Tract Activists, UC Berkeley Officials

Activists advocating for a community farm in Albany took over agricultural research land known as the Gill Tract on Sunday. Click the "Keep me posted" button below this story for updates when we cover this topic.

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 ForbesAlterNet 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.)


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."


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."


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."


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."


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."


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."


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. 


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."


What else do you want to know? Tell us in the comments.

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.

Ellen Hershey April 28, 2012 at 06:46 AM
I have read every comment in this strand and in my view, no harassment or stalking has taken place. Now, can we return to commenting on the substantive issues raised in Emilie's fine story about events occurring at the Gill Tract? Or, if there is nothing more to say about that, then let us all remain silent and let Emilie get some much-deserved sleep.
Emilie Raguso April 28, 2012 at 06:50 AM
Tarina: I don't think anyone is harassing or stalking anyone here. I don't feel like your (perceived) tone is helping the conversation, and I'm not really sure how to handle it at this point. It appears to me that you're doing the very thing you're accusing others of doing, and perhaps aren't able to see this. I'm not really sure you're moving the conversation forward, and this has been an issue of concern for me throughout the week. I may need to take some kind of action as a result, which I would prefer not to do.
Ross Stapleton-Gray April 28, 2012 at 06:53 AM
Now, to take exception to something else FiatSlug has said, I wouldn't want to have the flaws of some progressives to tarnish the policies and practices of all progressives; one can be, say, in favor of addressing economic inequity (a progressive position) and not opposed to very free speech (there are many progressives who oppose speech codes). In general, I would like to avoid the sorts of tribal labels ("progressive," "liberal," "conservative," etc.) that the media tend to want to apply, as they tend to fit badly. And while many people actually are Democrats or Republicans (as one can actually have a party membership), many of us aren't that either. A particular pet peeve is "militant," which seems to be the catch-all label for anyone who's armed and not on our side, whatever their particular aim or grievance.
Amy Marsh April 28, 2012 at 02:58 PM
A convention of the old Free Speech Movement comes to mind. In hindsight most of us probably perceive it as a radical leftie movement, but it was a working coalition of people from an enormous range of political philosophies and affiliations who came together under the single issue of free speech on the UCB campus. What I've been told (having known one of the key veterans, now deceased) is that discussions within the FSM were models of intentional civility. They often used the phrase: "I ask you to consider..." Isn't that wonderful?
Damon Lisch April 28, 2012 at 05:29 PM
Micah, I'm not sure how many ways I can put this. GMO corn is not grown at Gil; we are not allowed to. Even if we were, I wouldn't do it, because the regulations have become so complicated and time consuming. Frankly, the fact that this point keeps coming us is really starting to puzzle me. What we do and how we are funded is not a big secret; we all have web sites, we all publish, and most of our funding is a matter of public record. You pay for what we do, and we don't try to hide it; in fact our success as scientists depends on us sharing the results of our work. I hope that clears things up.
Garden Dan May 02, 2012 at 05:04 AM
John, the persons that could address this are not to police but: Ron Coley, Associate Vice Chancellor 510-643-1430, rcoley@berkeley.edu John Wilton, Vice Chancellor 510-642-3100, vcaf@berkeley.edu
Kirsten Schwartz May 02, 2012 at 02:20 PM
Thanks, Dan--done. I told 'em to earn their keep and get to work on this. They certainly make enough money!
Brian Parsley May 02, 2012 at 02:32 PM
Take a good look at what happened in Oakland and San Francisco yesterday. Next stop Albany, CA. The fact is the illegal squatters have no way to control who comes in and out, which has already occurred, and no way to enforce their rules.
Charles Dickens May 02, 2012 at 03:31 PM
The most disturbing element of this "war of words" has been a certain parent's appropriation of his child's identity to bolster his own weak argument. It is is offensive to our community's ethics and intelligence-- we know an adult's written word when we see it, and we know the hours when school is in session (and therefore your child could not be posting). This is the most reprehensible behavior I have seen.
Kevin Johnson May 02, 2012 at 03:39 PM
Max Lisch May 02, 2012 at 04:10 PM
I assume that you are talking about me, I mean being the only son of a researcher talking it would only make sense that you are talking about me. So fist thing I will say is that I am, in fact, a fifteen year old going to Albany high school. The past week has been star testing and after finishing the test we are able to take out electronics. Many students just listen to music or play games but I decided to comment on the patch. From a personal stand point this movement has been a little upsetting and the patch has been a great place to share my thoughts. Secondly, I want you to know that your comment surprisingly made my day. Unknowingly the comment that my writing could not have come from a child was one of the best complements I have received in some time. So I thank you for that. I know I probably can not convince you of my age or my identity but I really want you to know that I am Max Lisch. My only problem is that I, a fifteen year old child, can use my real identity on the patch but you Mr. Dickens can not. And again thanks for complimenting my writing.
janet May 02, 2012 at 04:14 PM
The Gill Tract farm area in question actually WAS used for urban farming at one point. About 10 years ago, a group whose name I can't remember (with the university's permission) made farming plots available to albany residents. My recollection is that this went on for 2 seasons, maybe. So not only was part of this area used for urban farming, but residents with plots (I was one of them) were welcomed onto the property. Also, does anyone know what original intent of the land as bequeathed to the university? My understanding was that the land was supposed to be for the public good, which makes me wonder how retail fits in to that plan.
Ross Stapleton-Gray May 02, 2012 at 05:07 PM
You'll have to excuse our mutual friend Charles; despite great expectations he's had hard times in his bleak house. Hey, sorry you need to go through all the STAR test tsuris, but good luck!
Caryl O'Keefe May 02, 2012 at 05:21 PM
Mr. Dickens may be excused after he apologizes to Max and Damon.
Damon Lisch May 02, 2012 at 05:27 PM
Don't worry, Caryl, it made our day! I'm still chuckling every time I think about it.
Caryl O'Keefe May 02, 2012 at 05:36 PM
Damon, I admire your ability to chuckle! Hope you will soon be back doing good things for all of us on the Gill Tract.
Alan Riffer May 02, 2012 at 05:37 PM
Yesterday morning, I posted the following comment on Dr Altieri's post http://albany.patch.com/articles/altieri-op-ed-gill-tract-occupation-offers-solution-for-key-issues "Dr Altieri writes "(i) since its purchase in 1928 (or, perhaps, its bequest to UC by the Gill family farm with the condition that it should be used forever as an agricultural research station)." If true, that "perhaps" would give his point of view a higher moral and legal ground in my opinion. I think that is why he created the "perhaps", to plant that seed in the minds of readers. The reality is that the acquisition was a straight purchase without conditions, covenants or restrictions. During the City of Albany Gill Tract discussions in 2008, I researched this issue with the UC Archivist. That is what archivists do, research historical records rather than making up perhapses. The purchase is clearly documented. If you disute my statement, go to the archivist and look at the records." No one has taken issue with this description. So, a purchase, not a bequest. A willing seller and a willing buyer. To date, there are many occupation related articles and many hundreds of comments and replies on them. I am finding it almost impossible to kep track of what I have seen written by whom on which article.
Eric Chou May 02, 2012 at 06:52 PM
I think Mr. Dickens needs to take a look in the mirror (and offer up a formal apology to the Lisch's as well). Nice reply Max...you do have talent (as does Mr. Gray)!
Amy Marsh May 02, 2012 at 06:55 PM
Mr. Dickens, just so you know - Max Lisch is one of the most articulate and logical young people I've ever met, and probably could have been writting posts of a similar caliber since mid-elementary school. Gifted and highly intelligent young people can often do much more than we think they can. Ditto for those who are also not necessarily perceived in that manner (for whatever reason).
Amy Marsh May 02, 2012 at 07:00 PM
Ross - hilarious!
Ellen Hershey May 02, 2012 at 07:15 PM
Max Lisch, I've been following your comments over the last few days, and I can say that you actually write and think more clearly than many adults do. Thank you for your commentary. I'm confident you have a wonderful future ahead of you.
Emilie Raguso May 02, 2012 at 07:27 PM
I've only met Max once but was blown away by his thoughtfulness, ability to express himself, and willingness to keep an open mind. There's no question from this editor that Max himself has been taking the time to participate and weigh in in the discussion. Go Max!!
Emilie Raguso May 02, 2012 at 07:28 PM
I spoke with someone at the Gill Tract last week who said, I believe, they had tracked down the sale documents and that they made no mention of needing to preserve the land for agricultural use.
Charles Dickens May 03, 2012 at 05:20 PM
I have no intentions of apologizing to anyone; Indeed, our entire community deserves an apology for the falsehoods that are bioengineered in this venue.
Kevin Johnson May 03, 2012 at 05:21 PM
Alan Riffer May 03, 2012 at 05:53 PM
Sad. Do the psychiatrists call that projection? I wonder what other screen names Charles uses.
Tatter Salad May 03, 2012 at 09:03 PM
To UCB, G. Breslauer, and John Wilton: There are a variety of uses that may suit Gill Tract, and I know in fact, you will consider the thoughts of anyone wishing to apply to your department as a student, and has cleared sufficient scholastic hurdles and demonstrates an order of magnitude more morals and agricultural intelligence then those that used bolt cutters to trespass and occupy your fields. On behalf of duped Albany residents, that may believe their input has been called upon, I apologize. Please clear the area of squatters during any warm evening, as the trouble makers will be occupied in Oakland.
Tatter Salad May 03, 2012 at 09:17 PM
Hi Janet, RE: " My understanding was that the land was supposed to be for the public good, which makes me wonder how retail fits in to that plan." If 'retail' contributes to lowering of tuition fees, then that would be sufficient 'public good' IMHO. Also, increased retail sales (tax) would certainly be welcomed by the Albany City Council. You are quite right about the land being used for small farming areas some years back; so were some areas between the tennis courts and the housing area. It is ironic that inorder for UC to maintain that 'rapport' with Albany, they may feel obligated to 'strengthen' their locks and fences. Perhaps the Albany Police and Campus police should have been much more 'proactive' on this Trespass. Shows how lazy americans have become: we used to 'march,' now we 'occupy.'
Charles Dickens May 03, 2012 at 09:27 PM
I implore you to consider the psychological ramifications of having one's identity appropriated on a public forum in a way that is transparent to anyone with half a brain (or a local school schedule). Reparations are indeed in order, and I would prefer that they be made at once, privately, to the principal victim of this exploitation, and all farcical congratulations discontinued. I doubt this will happen due to the continuing arrogance of the perpetrators. My pen name was in fact inspired by the sad tale of a little seed-sower who, with a few poisonous propagandists, was able to cast himself a victim of what appears an essentially positive and exceedingly civil attempt to reclaim this city's commons for it's citizens. Would that it were not necessary! I am not willing to throw my family into this pit of vipers to defend me.
honorary albany resident May 03, 2012 at 09:49 PM
Mr. Dickens, I'm sorry you've never met an articulate 15 year old before and don't believe they exist.


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