This past Earth Day, a coalition of 200 Bay Area residents, students, researchers and farmers established a reclaimed community farm on a piece of UC Berkeley owned agricultural land called The Gill Tract. Under the banner of Occupy the Farm, this collective is cultivating more than crops. Amidst growing concerns that the University of California’s corporate relationships are too close for comfort, Occupy the Farm’s efforts to repurpose a 5 acre tract of pristine agricultural land to feed, educate and unite Bay Area residents has cast a spotlight on the UC’s unsteady commitment to the public interest.
Occupy the Farm began with 200 residents, 15,000 seedlings, half a dozen chickens and a pair of bolt croppers. Once the lock was cut and the gates opened, they got to work immediately transforming the space into a working community farm. In the ensuing weeks, the Farm began holding community workshops on urban farming, community food security, bike maintenance and more. Committed to creating a community space they even offer day care for parents with kids too young to get their hands dirty.
Calls to transform this unique plot of land into a community farm offering sustainably grown food to local communities have been made through official channels for over a decade. The Gill Tract is the last remaining piece of Class 1 agricultural land in the east Bay Area (that’s agricultural science speak for primo growing conditions). Because of its singularity, UCB professors, researchers, students and Bay Area community members have submitted proposals to focus the Gill Tract on creating sustainable urban agriculture. But the university has consistently forgone these highly popular initiatives for more profitable plans.
In recent years, they’ve gradually offered up portions of this precious plot for real estate development to the highest bidder. Five of the ten remaining acres are already bound for development. But, UCB Capital Projects has slated the entire tract for rezoning in 2013, meaning this occupation is the only thing stopping the Bay Area’s most pristine piece of growing land from becoming an apartment complex, a Whole Foods (yes, this is for real) or even a parking lot.
Occupy the Farm collaborators and UCB community members see this a continuation of a greater trend toward privatization by the university. The plot itself has become more and more the home of corporate funded agricultural research for the likes of Novartis, BP and Syngenta. But, the realm of corporate influence spreads well beyond the farm, as UCB has taken flack for several high profile “public-private partnerships” with BP and more recently Novarits. The university’s cozy corporate relations and insistence on selling the tract put into question this public university’s commitment to the public interest.
The university’s response to the occupation was swift. Starting with cutting the water and then incapacitating its fire hydrant, in recent days UCPD has placed concrete barriers around the land, preventing vehicular access and locked all entrances. University officials faced occupiers with an ultimatum insisting that they vacate the tract before any discussion on its preservation can continue, citing that the occupation threatens to block university research typically conducted on the Gill Tract. Wednesday, they severed 14 of the occupiers with law suits. Wednesday also marked the first threat of significant violence as UPCB threatened to use “chemical agents and impact force,” on occupiers locked inside.
Meanwhile, university charges against the farm that their presence impedes university research fell flat this Thursday when UCB Professor and researcher, Miguel Altieri was denied entry into the Gill Tract by UCPD. Altieri, one of the original professors advocating for community supported agriculture project on the land and outspoken supporter of the occupation according to Occupy Oakland’s twitter, told he “required higher university clearances” despite his 31 year working relationship with the university.
Occupy the Farm collaborator, Lesley Haddock says that the occupation “is not here to impede [University] research but to demonstrate that farmland like this is meant for farming. We are currently talking to the researchers about ways to temporarily share the land until we can help them find another location for their projects, as they have indicated that they won’t need to use all the land for their research this season.” Despite the willingness of university researchers and occupiers to collaborate, the university is not having it. Professor Altieri says that he is "disappointed that the University has missed this opportunity to acknowledge that a coexistence of researchers and occupiers is possible, and that they have blocked access to my experimental plot."
This is an ironic turn of events considering that university officials have consistently effaced occupiers for assaulting the “academic freedom” of university staff by impeding research. UCB attitudes toward occupiers and UCB researchers alike sends cracks down their facade that recovering the site rests in a commitment to public education rather than profits.