It’s April 22, 2012, and protestors march toward the Gill Tract, a piece of farmland just east of UC Village in Albany, California. They cut locks and trespass onto the northern section of the UC Berkeley-owned plot. The activists, calling their movement “Occupy the Farm”, spend the next four weeks tilling the land, planting seeds, and harvesting vegetables. Their occupation began in protest of university plans to develop a Whole Foods and senior center on a southern section of the Gill Tract, but expanded to include protest of the university’s seeming refusal to hear proposals for an urban agriculture center on the fertile land. Police requested that occupiers evacuate; occupiers responded with a list of demands. Police emerged in riot gear, accompanied by a bulldozer aimed at the farm. Neighbors experienced the swirling buzz of media helicopters flying over the ongoing altercations. Lawsuits were filed as occupiers snuck back onto the plot to care for their produce. After protesters fully re-occupied the southern section in May 2013, UC Berkeley police officers raided the encampment and arrested 10 protestors. The occupation disrupted research by professors and students in the College of Natural Resources (CNR), on land that has been owned by the university since 1944.

Scene from the 2012 Occupy the Farm movement. (credit: Sacha Kimmel)

Scene from the 2012 Occupy the Farm movement. (credit: Sacha Kimmel)

All the dramatic elements of an Occupy movement are present in this story, but Occupy the Farm stands out as a protest ending in at least partial resolution. In response to the protests, CNR agreed in the autumn of 2012 to set aside part of the northeast section to establish a collaborative community-university project called the Gill Tract Community Farm. This plot was created to serve as a pilot for urban agricultural research and education, as well as to improve access to fresh produce and engage the surrounding community. The southern section remains in the hands of the university development arm, Capital Projects, which still plans to build a grocery store and senior center.

The Gill Tract Community Farm was inaugurated with a field day in October 2013. More than one and a half years later, the community farm has blossomed from an innovative idea into reality. There are inspiring examples of farm collaborations with neighboring researchers in the northwest plot, and researchers interested in urban agriculture. Yet the dust from the Occupation has not fully settled. The governance of the community farm remains up to a temporary council. Many community farm proponents mistrust the corn genetics research carried out by UC Berkeley researchers on part of the land. The future of the Gill Tract reflects the possibilities and tensions of both global urban farming and the Occupy Movement itself.

The lay of the land

While the future of the southern portion of the Gill Tract is still in conflict, research and collaborations in the northern section operated by CNR thrive. The land in the northern section is divided into a 1.1-acre eastern section housing the Gill Tract Community Farm, and an approximately 10-acre western section allocated to CNR research experiments.

The community-driven nature of the farm is obvious. “It’s your farm,” Jon Hoffman explains to pedestrians who stop by the weekly sidewalk farmstand. Hoffman, the farm manager, explains how volunteers work the farmland, and are involved in all decision-making. Every Sunday, the farm hosts a meeting—open to any interested person—reviewing the work for the upcoming week. The volunteers decide which seeds to plant, what machinery to use to create neater rows, when to harvest produce, and how to organize farm events. Recently, one member polled the meeting attendees about growing mushrooms, and upon receiving positive feedback started a plot just for fungi. After the meetings conclude, volunteers commence planting and harvesting, which take place year-round. The produce is made available to farm volunteers and the general community via a free farmstand (with donations accepted) on Sunday afternoons. Between June 2014 and early January 2015, the 1.1 acre plot grew over 11,000 pounds of produce.

Aerial view of Gill Tract and surroundings, Albany, CA. (credit: USDA-APFO National Agricultural Inventory Project)

Aerial view of Gill Tract and surroundings, Albany, CA. (credit: USDA-APFO National Agricultural Inventory Project)

Across from the community farm, the western research area is divided among a number of CNR agricultural researchers. One of these researchers, Dr. Sarah Hake, explains that their place on this land is well established. “I’ve had a cornfield and done research for 30 years. That’s why [the Gill Tract] hasn’t been developed, not because [occupiers] came and occupied it.” However, in recent years, she notes that the number of agriculture research labs in Berkeley has diminished as professors such as Dr. Damon Lisch move to locations—Davis, California, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and West Lafayette, Indiana—where corn grows more easily. Dr. Hake explains her support for the community farm: “[There is] just myself and one other lab here, and if we don’t have enough people doing corn research then our stake could disappear… I see that urban garden as very positive because they will occupy land that we can’t.”

Hake has been on the land for 30 years, and the university has had control of the northern and southern sections of the Gill Tract (totaling 36 acres) since 1944. In contrast, the Gill Tract Community Farm is a brand-new establishment still ironing out kinks.

Post-occupation farm operation

The unique juxtaposition of a community farm and a research field makes possible interesting collaborations and research experiments, but setting up a system for joint management of the Gill Tract may be one of the most challenging aspects of the setup. Vanessa Raditz, a master of public health candidate in environmental health sciences and a Gill Tract community farmer notes that “we are definitely striving to be able to come together and jointly manage this land…it’s actually the biggest research experiment that we’re doing.”

The 1.1 acres housing the community farm fall within the jurisdiction of CNR, and all activities must comply with the guidelines and regulations of CNR and university. Currently, 15-20 representatives from the community farm and the University strive to meet every month in a temporary “protostewardship council” that considers proposals from the various working groups on the farm. Thus far, the council has generally approved farming practices, but examples of rejected proposals include a motion to house livestock and a research project to test changes in air quality around the borders of the Gill Tract. Members of the community farm who attend protostewardship council meetings note that the CNR dean’s office is due to publish a list of guidelines on farm and research practices, which farm members hope will shed light on the rationale for rejected projects. As the council stands, from the perspective of farmers, meetings with the university feel one sided. Jon Hoffman explains, “Tina (the greenhouse manager) attends meetings…She has to do whatever the dean and associate dean say…They were very strict.”

While rules may feel constrictive to farm members, CNR does provide some of the means for the farm to exist. The community farm does not pay rent, water bills, or the salary of the farm manager—these are covered by CNR and the grant dollars of CNR faculty. The farm also received $10,000 from the university to purchase tools, fertilizers, and fencing. The farm generates small amounts of revenue through donations during their free farmstand on Sunday afternoons, which total between $45 and $200 per week. In addition to CNR funds, progress on the farm springs from the immense effort put forth by volunteers. In reflection of this investment, the farm aims to create a governance structure that ensures that not only are the farm-related decisions made with farm members in mind, but so too are the research projects conducted.

Experiments in collaboration

The concept of research tailored toward the community is not new. In 1862, the Morrill Act established a program for states to establish land-grant colleges. These institutions were designed to pursue research, and also serve public interest through a network of county research offices established in 1912, called cooperative extension programs. However, direct collaboration between the community and researchers on a single plot of land is unique. The arrangement potentially allows urban farming researchers to learn about community needs directly, while at the same time letting community farmers utilize the expertise of university researchers.

There are already examples of such collaborations at the Gill Tract. Dr. Miguel Altieri, a professor of environmental science, policy, and management interested in best practices for urban farming—and who currently has fava beans planted on the research side of the Gill Tract—has supported Occupy the Farm from its onset. One of his projects exemplifies the type of community-university collaborations that the Gill Tract uniquely offers. In August 2013, he invited community members to partake in a challenge where ten groups competed to make their plot produce the greatest amount of edible biomass, all while tracking soil quality, pest invasion, and the health of the plants. By crowdsourcing to community members, Altieri narrows down a set of best practices for farming on the unique Gill Tract soil and environmental conditions while simultaneously engaging community members and teaching what he has learned.

Another example of a direct collaboration occurred when the farm wanted to test the soil prior to planting. Jon Hoffman notes that, when starting the farm, “we did not know if the soil was contaminated by pollution from the cars and trucks passing by, or by any chemicals and pesticides the university researchers had used.” The farmers called on Professor Celine Pallud from UC Berkeley, an expert in soil and environmental biogeophysics. Pallud and one of her students helped the farmers figure out how to take soil transections and test the soil. They discovered that the pH was too low, and raised it by adding oystershell flour. The farmers also added 6,000 pounds of fishbone meal to neutralize lead in the soil. Quantitative development of local best-practice farming techniques and soil remediation efforts are just two of examples of the benefits of the collaborative nature of the Gill Tract Community Farm.

Research Beyond the Soil

Collaborations on the farm are not limited to plant biology and growing practices. As an offshoot from the Occupy movement, the farm has deep-seated roots in creating a governance structure that engages its members and responds to their needs and desires. Raditz explains the value of re-empowering people: “In an era where our governance of our food is so abstract and distant, and people can feel apathetic to make those type of decisions, this space is a food sovereignty model. It’s really rare and we’re trying to create that.”

Researchers like Dr. Kathy De Master, a new assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, have become interested in better understanding the sociological effects of a community farm with participatory structure. De Master directs a 150-student sociology and political ecology agro-food systems class. In Fall 2014, one group studied the different cultural foods being grown at the Gill Tract Farm, while another group developed a survey instrument designed to get a sense of the Albany community’s perception of the community farm. In particular, the survey aimed to determine if the community was aware of the farm, and if so, how much they knew about it. Ideally, the survey will establish a baseline for current community interaction with the farm and hopefully guide future improvements to better serve community needs. The survey has been tested and validated, but has not yet been distributed to the wider community—a task De Master notes is on the docket for fall of 2015.

Other social science professors are also interested in the collaborative potential of the Gill Tract Community Farm. Dr. Jennifer Sowerwine, a cooperative extension specialist in CNR at UC Berkeley, notes that the Gill Tract Community Farm provides a unique opportunity for UC Berkeley and the agriculture and natural resources arm of the UC cooperative extension, called UCANR, to carry out its land-grant mission by engaging community members directly. She envisions collaboratively defining and co-creating urban agriculture research projects and solutions to address challenges that urban communities face, such as ensuring food security. In pursuit of defining these challenges more concretely, a research intern is surveying community members about preferences for crops and future research projects. Through continued interviews and focus groups, Sowerwine aims to identify community-valued questions for further collaborative investigation. Together with other faculty, Sowerwine hopes to expand opportunities for research, education, and extension programs in urban agriculture at the Gill Tract as well as at other community farms throughout the Bay Area and beyond.

A vast number and breadth of research projects could hypothetically be pursued at the Gill Tract and at these satellite gardens. Studies have demonstrated environmental and mental health benefits of having a green space in an urban setting, one even detailing reduction in violence. While there is a great desire worldwide to start community farms, knowledge gaps on topics such as getting access to farmable land, engaging volunteers to work—and continue working—on the farm, and best practices for the local environment often prevent such desires from coming to fruition. Furthermore, many community farms tend to attract diverse populations that may not be able to communicate well with each other.

All of these challenges to urban farm initiation could be studied at the Gill Tract. Researchers might track metrics such as income and ethnic background of volunteers, watering and irrigation methods, crop variety metrics, and food distributions statistics. The Gill Tract Community Farm could serve as a pilot farm for the development of these metrics, which could then be applied to other farms in large-scale studies with the goal of better understanding strategies that break down barriers to land access, engage community volunteers, result in efficient distribution of food, and improve planting practices. For example, the Gill Tract Community Farm addressed the challenge of worker communication with illustrated signs captioned in various languages, a solution that also could be used by other farms.

Beyond the farm’s role in meeting the community’s research and produce needs, Hoffman notices that after working with the soil, everyone “comes out with a smile.” He references studies that have uncovered that the contents of soil may serve as a serotonin booster in the brain, thereby regulating mood. Indeed, preliminary research has shown that Mycobacterium vaccae, a nonpathogenic species of bacteria that lives naturally in soil, stimulates the generation of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain, resulting in an antidepressant effect in mice. Hoffman also notes a clear effect that the farm has had on bringing people from different backgrounds together: “Community members from a different culture or a different class background can work together in a cooperative way and that’s been really successful. It’s been combating racism.”

Summarizing how she sees the Gill Tract Community Farm and research collaborations progressing in coming years, Raditz notes, “We are really interested in this not just being a community garden, but being a place where we can utilize the resources that are available when we partner with an institution like the University of California. Hopefully we can continue that relationship and provide information to all the urban farms in the area.”

Veterans of the Gill Tract: corn genetics research

Before the occupiers came to the Gill Tract, the northern section was used by plant geneticist researchers in CNR. Hake and Lisch (before his move to Purdue University) are amongst a small group of professors who aim to study properties of corn genetic material in order to further understand which genes give rise to specific character traits. Lisch is particularly interested in transposons, pieces of genetic material that replicate and insert themselves into different parts of the genome from generation to generation. Almost like a genetic parasite, transposons can be dangerous if inserted into important genes. Remarkably, though, the genome has developed a type of transposon defense system to prevent their expression. Indeed, most transposon elements are inactivated largely due to a system referred to as transposon silencing. Much of the same molecular machinery for transposon silencing is found among fungi, plants, and animals, suggesting an ancient origin. Further, transposon silencing is closely related to other genetic regulation processes such as disease resistance and development.

Hake describes her research interests in plant architecture: “I’m interested in all architecture and corn is a really great genetic model…it’s a nice size and it’s really fun to work with. Why does it make one leaf at a time, why in mutants does it make two sometimes? Why is the ear feminized and the tassel masculinized?” Hake’s work largely centers around finding mutations in corn plants in the field, and then homing in on the genetics and network regulators that create these plants. In general, projects in the Hake lab isolate a mutant plant, and then dive into the genetic mechanisms that give rise to the mutant. Presently, one mutant of particular interest to her is a temperature-sensitive species of corn. How did she stumble upon this strange behavior of one of her corn varieties? “I actually have Occupy to thank,” she explains. Due to the occupation of the Gill Tract, Hake planted some of her crop in fields at UC Davis, and noticed that one particular type of corn was unable to grow. Now, an active research project in her group focuses on the mechanisms that may underlie this temperature sensitivity.

Both Hake and Lisch describe their work as basic science and both only receive funding from governmental organizations such as the National Science Foundation and US Department of Agriculture. When asked about applications of her work, Hake cites the enormous role of corn in our economy. “Corn is the biggest economy of agriculture…if we know more about it we may be able to grow it better,” she says. However, this is not Hake’s agenda. While she has selected corn as her genetic model, she aims mostly to investigate specific mechanisms that give rise to mutations, and more recently, how the environment, and drought specifically, affect corn growth.

Likely due to the politicized subject of corn, many of the volunteers at the community farm are suspicious of researcher activities. They assume researchers are developing GMO plants and are financially supported by large agricultural corporations. These sentiments were probably fueled by a hit East Bay Express article published during the occupation titled “Unclean Hands at the Gill Tract?”. The article accuses corn genetics researchers of both contributing to patents that large agricultural corporations developed and of directly profiting off of royalties from licensing patents to large corporations.

Both Hake and Lisch are clear in their research goals. Lisch recalls, “I spent a great deal of time and energy trying to explain to the public that we were academics doing basic research using public funding, not corporate stooges.” Hake expresses a similar sentiment: “I think it’s really important to have geneticists in the public sector so that any kind of advances I make are available to everybody. As for any of my discoveries, I haven’t patented them…I think in the long run it helps spread knowledge.” When asked about her interaction with some occupiers, she sums up her view: “Some of the occupiers say, ‘Everything you’re growing is GMO.’ No, no it’s not. They say ‘you’re paid by Monsanto’. No, no we’re not. ‘We looked up some patents and they’ve cited your papers’. Ok, so is knowledge bad?”

Maybe because the activities of the corn industry are too often associated in popular literature with GMO development and large corporations, many are quick to make assumptions about corporate control over the work of Hake and Lisch. When asked whether they think that misconceptions could be diminished and whether their relationship could be improved, Hake responded, “Yes, I think it could. I think it would be great to have a demonstration of some of our work. We could have tours to view the interesting mutant varieties we have scattered through the field.”

Not just a community garden

Just as corn geneticists pursue knowledge of plant development, one proposed goal for the Gill Tract Community Farm is pursuit of knowledge of how urban farming could begin to contribute substantially to an urban area’s caloric intake. In July 2014, UC Berkeley president Janet Napolitano launched the UC Global Food Initiative, which aims to address how to sustainably and nutritiously feed a growing world population. Urbanization is on the rise worldwide, and urban farms have been able to contribute substantially to a population’s caloric intake in a number of countries. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO), in Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Nicaragua, more than 70 percent of households in urban environments participate in agriculture activities. In many of these countries, urban agriculture can make an important contribution to household food security, especially in times of crisis or food shortages.

Despite the rise of urban agriculture worldwide, a number of questions remain that the Gill Tract could begin to answer. The UN FAO writes that “garden plots can be up to 15 times more productive than rural holdings. An area of just one square meter can provide 20 kilograms of food a year.” While this statistic may be true in certain areas, the factors that allow for such an efficient use of land in different climates are still being uncovered. Besides land efficiency, other urban-specific problems exist in farming. Raditz explains how, at the farm, “we have to deal with air pollution. What in the world does air pollution do to nutritional content of kale? Does anyone know? Shanghai would like to know.” The long-term goal of a number of farm volunteers and faculty is not just using research to make this community farm productive, engaging, and sustainable, but to launch an urban agriculture center that addresses farming challenges in an increasingly urban world. Of the top graduate programs in agriculture identified by the US News and World Report, UC Berkeley is the most urban (defined by a local area population density), placing it in a unique position to study urban agriculture.

(credit: Design: Sophie Taddeo; Buildings, sheep, trees, farmhouse, graduation cap: freepik.com)

(credit: Design: Sophie Taddeo; Buildings, sheep, trees, farmhouse, graduation cap: freepik.com)

Back to the future

The Gill Tract Community Farm began in response to Occupy the Farm, an offshoot of the larger nationwide Occupy movement in 2012. Many tenets of the Occupy movement are present in the history and current conflicts at the Gill Tract. The participatory governance model of the community farm and the free farmstand reflect the democratic nature of Occupy and the desire to provide for the needs of an entire community, not just its wealthy members. The push towards production of a city’s produce by urban farms stems directly from Occupy’s desire to remove corporate control from an agricultural system that relies heavily on fossil fuel energy for mass production and transportation. Finally, basic corn genetics research—linked to large corporations by popular press—has, perhaps, been misconstrued by occupiers and farm associates due to Occupy’s deep mistrust of corporations.

Former occupiers argue that Occupy had a phenomenal impact, though it is difficult to quantify. Although protesters are no longer meeting en masse as they were in 2012, Raditz reports that activist participation has increased. As a specific example, she notes that on UC Berkeley’s campus “back in 2009 when the fee hike was happening, there were 43 students occupying Wheeler Hall. This past Fall [2014] there were over 300. There’s a whole new embodied shared consciousness of how to protest.” Former occupier Ellie Dugan corroborates this view from her previous Occupy experiences. She comments on how Occupy laid the foundation for protests we see today: “At a few of the Ferguson #blacklivesmatter rallies that I’ve been to, you see a lot of people wearing Occupy buttons. I think it sort of laid the groundwork. I think a lot of people still think about the movement as some crazy homeless people sitting in a park together. But you see the effect people have when they can get together…I know and recognize how powerful it is when people get together and take over the streets.”

The Gill Tract Community farm is now approximately one and one-half years old. The permanent governance structure of the Gill Tract Community Farm continues to evolve. Tension remains between the community farm, the university administration, and the corn researchers. Nonetheless, fruitful collaborations and ambitious urban agriculture projects are on the horizon. An enormous variety of research projects are possible on the farm, spanning the fields of environmentalism, urban agriculture practices, and sociology. Where the next struggle will emerge is unknown, but with the groundwork of Occupy, it is certain to rally supporters to enact change in ways that aspire to be as successful as Occupy the Farm. The movement saw the Gill Tract progress in just one year from hosting police in riot gear and helicopters to hosting volunteers producing pounds of freely available, fresh, organic produce. It is, one hopes, a story to be emulated in struggles nationwide.

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