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Occupying Farmland for Organic Food and Fairness Exposes University Elitism

The arena of struggle revealed by Occupy the Farm is not just organic farming, food justice, and food sovereignty--it's also about an increasingly privatized university.

Photo Credit: Race, Poverty & the Environment


This story originates from   Race Poverty and the Environment and is available for re-publication under  Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

 “Farmland is for farming.”

—Gopal Dayaneni

“As a mother, I was nervous about
taking my daughters into a land
occupation. But I also feel an
enormous responsibility to stand up
against a global economic system
that puts profit over people.”
—Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan

On Earth Day—April 22, 2012—about 200 people, accompanied by children in strollers, dogs, rabbits, chickens, and carrying hundreds of pounds of compost and at least 10,000 seedlings entered a 14-acre piece of land containing the last Class I agricultural soil in the East Bay. Located on the Albany-Berkeley border in the Bay Area, the plot is owned by the University of California Berkeley. By the end of the day, they had weeded, tilled, and successfully cultivated about an acre of the land. By May 14, when 100 University of California riot police surrounded the tract and began arresting the farmers, Occupy the Farm had cultivated around five acres of the plot known as the Gill Tract.

The Occupy farmers have laid out footpaths around cultivated plots, created wildlife corridors, riparian zones, and protected areas for native grasses and a wild turkey nest, and set up a library and a kitchen. They have planted thousands of seedlings of corn, tomatoes, squash, beans, broccoli, herbs, and strawberries, including heirloom varieties from a local seed bank. Other plots have been reserved for agro-ecological research. There’s also a permaculture garden for kids on the other side of a gazebo of woven branches where wind chimes tinkle in the breeze.

Gopal Dayaneni of Movement Generation, says that the vision for the farm is the “practice and promotion of sustainable urban agriculture with a commitment to food justice and food sovereignty.” He is a father, activist, and member of what he calls the “new urban peasantry.” Food grown on the farm will be distributed—for free—through existing food justice networks in the San Francisco Bay Area.

On April 24, the University shut off the water supply and threatened the farmers with eviction. University administration has gone on a media offensive, attempting to pit researchers against the Occupy farmers[1] and according to some reports, preventing them from negotiating with the farmers. Some faculty members have published statements[2] in support of the farmers, arguing that the goals of the farm are aligned with the public policy goals of the state and the U.C. mission.[3] If transforming a student’s life is part of that mission, U.C. Berkeley student Lesley Haddock has certainly experienced it working on the farm. “Before our project began, I had never planted a seed,” she admits. “But in the past two weeks, I have become a farmer!”[4]


Public Good—Private Gain at the Gill Tract
One of the Occupy farmers, Ashoka Finley is a program assistant with Urban Tilth and runs an organic farm in collaboration with students at Richmond High School, in Richmond, California. A political economy graduate of U.C. Berkeley, Finley believes that the farm is redefining and reclaiming the role of the public university, just as the Occupy movement is redefining and reclaiming public space.
“The history of the Gill Tract is [about] public subsidization of private research that [profits] the corporate industrial complex; not research for the public good,” he says.

It was not always this way. The 104-acre plot was sold to the University in 1928 by the Gill family with the condition that it be used as an agricultural research station. Under the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, part of the University’s mission as a land grant institution is to promote community involvement and initiatives in agriculture. 

From the 1940s through the 1990s, research conducted at the Gill Tract laid the groundwork for successful, non-chemical and non-petroleum-based methods for controlling numerous major insect pests on several California crops, and for the integration of biological, chemical, and cultural methods of pest control.5 The innovative methods developed, shared, and refined at the International Center for Biological Control included intercropping6 and using bugs to control pests in addition to or in place of pesticides, and means to reduce overall chemical dependency and prevent the development of superbugs in industrial and community agriculture worldwide.

The turning point came in 1998, when Novartis gave $25 million to the Plant and Microbial Biology department to conduct genetic research on the land. “They kicked off the local organic pest management project to do gene research,” says Ulan McKnight of the Albany Farm Alliance. “What was here before directly benefitted the people of California; now what they do here directly benefits biotechnology companies. Instead of doing things that can help people, they are doing things that benefit the one percent.”
Among the projects closed down at the time was a seed bank of rare heirloom varieties of many important food crops, and a state-of-the-art drip irrigation system from a student-run urban sustainable agriculture demonstration plot. Until the water was cut off at the Tract, the Occupy farmers were planning to start using those irrigation tubes again.

Privatization Leaves U.C. System Impoverished

The trend of privatizing the research and knowledge produced at public institutions is systemic, according to Julie Sze, associate professor of American Cultures at U.C. Davis. A long-time supporter of social justice and student movements, Sze attributes her activism to her student days at U.C. Berkeley, where she took courses with the likes of RP&E founder Carl Anthony. She credits the university with being the “social justice innovation lab” that produced so many of the environmental justice leaders of today and argues that corporatization is an impoverishment of the U.C. system and a betrayal of the system’s legacy for California.