Occupy v. Whole Foods? Activists Take Over Land Slated for Development and Start a Farm
Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Konstantin Sutyagin
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Invoking the spirit of international peasant farmer movements La Via Campesina and Brazil's Movimento Sem Terra, hundreds of people entered a five-acre plot of land at the Berkeley/Albany border on Sunday April 22, in one of this spring's first high-profile actions of the Occupy movement. Their goal? To farm the land and share the food with the local community.
Under the banner "Occupy the Farm," a coalition of local residents, farmers, students, researchers, and activists broke the lock and entered the UC Berkeley-owned Gill Tract on a sunny Sunday afternoon, bringing with them over 15,000 seedlings, a pair of rototillers and a half-dozen chickens in mobile chicken-tractors. Hundreds of people, including a dozen or so children, went to work clearing weeds, tilling garden beds, filling holes with compost, and planting seedlings. At the end of four hours, they'd planted an estimated three-quarters of an acre.
After last fall's burst of Occupy actions raised a challenge to corporate control writ large, organizers of Occupy the Farm say they are kicking off the spring season with efforts to reclaim land not just as a way of occupying space, but to meet the needs of communities through food production.
The group's press release, which garnered significant media attention and brought several TV crews out to film the rebel farmers, said, "Occupy the Farm seeks to address structural problems with health and inequalities in the Bay Area that stem from communities' lack of access to food and land. Today's action reclaims the Gill Tract to demonstrate and exercise the peoples' right to use public space for the public good. This farm will serve as a hub for urban agriculture, a healthy and affordable food source for Bay Area residents and an educational center."
The Gill Tract, an agricultural research plot owned by UC Berkeley, is the last five acres of Class 1 soil in the East Bay. Generations of UC researchers have farmed here; now UCB Capital Projects, which holds the title to the land, has slated it for rezoning in 2013. Ironically, the activists say the company most likely to buy it up for development is Whole Foods Corporation. Hence the Occupiers' slogan: "Whole food, not Whole Foods."
The organizers say the UC-owned Gill tract is significant not only because it is the last and best agricultural land in the East Bay, but because the struggle over this land is tied to the struggle to keep the public university serving the public interest. Over the last decade, through investments by Novartis, Syngenta, BP and other corporations, the University of California has become increasingly captured by private interests, which have come to control the research agenda and the land use policy. Now, Occupy the Farm says, the public is taking it back.
Early on a fog-bound Monday morning less than 24 hours after the occupation began, Anya Kamenskaya, in blue pinstriped overalls, is stretching her arms and legs to recover from a night sleeping on a groundpad. "We're going to have to institute morning calisthenics," she says with a laugh.
Kamenskaya, a UC Berkeley alum and educator, says, "Farming underutilized spaces such as these can create alternatives to the corporate control of our food system. Five acres can feed up to 250 families using a community-supported agriculture model. A major component of what we're doing here is showing that urban land can and should be used to meet the food needs of local people."
Kamenskaya studied with Miguel Altieri, a widely respected professor of agro-ecology who works hard to bridge the divide between university research and the needs of farmers, especially in his native South America. As an undergrad in 2008, Kamenskaya says, she got Altieri's approval to start a farm-to-school program with a local elementary school, using a piece of the Gill tract to grow the food.