Volunteers Make an Urban Farm Flourish in Albany’s Gill Tract

This is land that should be tilled and fertilized and made productive, not paved over. It is land that should be used to fulfill the promise made by Miguel Altieri to engage people in urban gardening. It is land that should be planted with crops to feed hungry people, not greedy corporations.

Volunteer farmers at Gill Tract farm are producing bountiful crops of healthy, organic vegetables and giving them to people in the community. Lydia Gans photo

by Lydia Gans

On Earth Day, April 22, 2012, a special version of the Occupy movement began working at the Gill Tract, a sprawling piece of land belonging to the University of California at the corner of Marin and San Pablo Avenues in Albany. They called it Occupy the Farm.

Several hundred people broke into the Gill Tract and proceeded to establish an urban farm. They set up a camp with a portable kitchen and composting toilets. They worked the soil and planted more than two acres with carrots, broccoli, tomatoes and more.

Effie Rawlings explains how it all came about. In 2011, she took a class that aroused her interest in urban farming, taught by Miguel Altieri, professor of agroecology at UC Berkeley in the Department of Environmental Science. A trip with friends and fellow students to the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center inspired them all.

“On our way home,” Rawlings recalls, “we were thinking about how amazing it would be to have a thing like that closer to an urban area where more people could access it. As we started having that conversation, we passed by the Gill Tract and we said, ‘Hey, what about that place?’”

They knew about the history of the Gill Tract and its mandate to serve as public education. Threatened by the University of California’s attempts to turn it into commercial property, they decided to fight it by the signature act of resistance of the Occupy movement — occupation.

The activists aimed to create a model for sustainable urban farming. UC officials moved against them with a vengeance. They put heavy locks on the gates so the campers had to pass supplies over the fence. When UC officials turned off the water, the campers passed gallons of water in heavy jugs over the fence, always under the eyes of the police.

The camp lasted for three weeks. Then, the University came rolling in with heavy equipment and evicted the campers.

Gabrielle Silverman was one of the campers. She had participated in Occupy Oakland but she was particularly moved by the camp experience at the farm.

“What was so excellent about Occupy the Farm was that it brought a land consciousness to the Occupy movement,” says Silverman. “We had that connection with the MST in Brazil — the landless peoples movement in Brazil. It was an expression of a global consciousness that also acts very locally and very concretely.”

Silverman went on to say, “We came together at Occupy the Farm and we made the place grow, we made it bloom and we built real community — and, of course, they came and crushed us.”

The farmers returned three times for weekends of planting and harvesting. They had produced bountiful crops of healthy, organic vegetables which they brought to people in the community.

Now, for five months until November, the campers’ vision of an urban farm is being brought back to life. UC Professor Miguel Altieri has brought together people from various community groups, including Albany Farm Alliance, Merritt College, Albany Children’s Center, Occupy the Farm and others, along with some of his own graduate students, in an agroecological research project.

In an article in the Daily Californian, Altieri wrote, “This project is a unique opportunity not only to rebuild trust among the university and the community in the aftermath of the land occupation, but also to break the linear mold of conventional research by creating bridges between scientists and communities through the use of shared knowledge and valuable experience in urban agriculture.” At the end of this period, the community gardeners at the Gill Tract will share their produce with the community.

Ten teams of four people each have their own plots where they decide what to plant and what methods to use. They will test different farming techniques and then measure the amount and quality of crops they produce. Lydia Gans photo

 

Ten teams of four people each have their own plots where they decide what to plant and what methods to use. It is an opportunity to test different farming techniques and, at the end of the project, they will measure the amount and quality of the crops they produce.

The aim is to develop a method that will produce at least “five kilograms of edible biomass per square meter per year,” Altieri explains. “Reaching such yields would make a huge difference in solving food security problems in low-income neighborhoods of the East Bay if the lessons from our project can be extended via urban farmer to urban farmer networks.”

David Grefrath, known as Farmer Dave, is part of the research group and has been helping supply the plants and all the necessary supplies to the teams. Grefath and others were part of Occupy Oakland.

“We were in contact with Miguel before we went out to the farm the first time,” Grefath says, adding that some participants “were students of Miguel’s, which is how they learned about the tract originally.”

The team members have access to the tract for three hours a day, several days a week, to work on their plots. Team members have different reasons for their participation in the project.

Karen is a school gardener at Albany Children’s Center preschool. “I’m here because we don’t have enough space to grow what we need for school lunch,” she explains. “I’m doing this as a volunteer to get more food into the school so the kids can have a healthier lunch than what the government provides.”

An older couple are growing vegetables to share with members of their seniors organization. A couple of farmers who were in the process of dividing a flat of starts between them commented with a grin, “They wanted us to compete against each other, but nobody is going for that — like if somebody doesn’t have enough peas and they have some corn …”

There will be an open house in the middle of October and the project is expected to end with the last harvest in the middle of November. There is no indication at this time of any plans to continue the farming experiment.

The project has brought hope and inspiration to people interested in urban farming as a way to provide nutritious, organic food for poor people at little or no cost. It is a very modest event on a small plot of land for only four months involving only 40 participants. There were easily a hundred or more people who were interested in taking part.

There is much more that can and must be done. Research is needed to develop methods for urban farming, which is very different from large-scale agriculture.

The Gill Tract is a big space. The northern portion is already designated for agricultural research and only a part of it is being used for an experimental corn research project. The equally large southern portion of the Tract lies unkempt and unused except by a flock of turkeys.

The University of California’s efforts to bring commercial development to the southern portion is being vehemently opposed. Whole Foods had an agreement with UC officials to open a market there, but then pulled out. Now Sprouts Market has contracted to open there. This would mean paving over a large part of the land for the store and parking lot.

There will be protests. There will be an Occupy movement that resists this kind of commercial exploitation. This is land that should be tilled and fertilized and made productive, not paved over.

It is land that should be used to fulfill the promise made by Altieri’s project to engage people in urban gardening. It is land that should be planted with crops to feed hungry people, not greedy corporations.

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