Occupy v. Whole Foods? Activists Take Over Land Slated for Development and Start a Farm

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.  

"We got quite far in the process," she says. "But the university thwarted us, and it became just another in a long string of attempts to preserve this land for agriculture, and community education for food sovereignty."  

"UC Berkeley is a land grant institution and this land is being administered by a university for the public. Everything done here is supposed to be done for the public good," she said.  

Kamenskaya became interested in agriculture as a young girl at a farm camp in Mendocino. She recalls learning about the Zapatista uprising in Mexico in 1994. The fact that indigenous people were illegally taking over land to grow food struck her deeply. 

Like many of the Occupy the Farm-ers, Kamenskaya participated in key mobilizations last year, such as the Oakland Port shutdown and General Strike. But this is her first time playing the role of organizer.  

"We're kind of an 'Occupy 2.0' in that we're taking the momentum of the Occupy movement and directing it to something very specific in our community."  

A bearded man in a straw hat and overalls who identifies himself as "just Christoph," also worked the Gill Tract as a UC student. "A new urgency developed around this land when we learned that a chunk of it was slated to be developed for a Whole Foods," Christoph says. "This piece of land is a unique resource that needs to be preserved. When the city council of Albany considered making a permit for the Whole Foods, the developer came back and said they wanted the land 'in perpetuity.' We thought, once this is paved over, it will never be accessible for farming again, or, at best, it will take generations."  

Despite a warning from UC police who maintained a brief presence Sunday afternoon, the first night of the occupation passed without police intervention. But the specter of police clubbing protesters at Sproul Plaza and Wheeler Hall last fall, and the infamous pepper-spraying incident at UC Davis, loomed large.  

I asked Cristoph if he really thought they could hold onto the land in the face of the imperative to develop it, and the UC authorities. "Farming is an unimpeachable offense," he said.  

Occupiers see the effort to sell off the Gill Tract as the latest in a string of privatization schemes by the university. Over the last several decades, the university has increasingly shifted use of the Gill Tract away from sustainable agriculture and toward biotechnology, with funding from corporations such as Novartis and BP.  

"Most of the research being done here is corn genetic isolation," Robbie Zeinstra, another UC alum, tells me. "It could be harmless or it could be used for genetic modification and more of a capitalist approach to agriculture."  

"We don't know if the researchers on this plot are being funded by Novartis, Syngenta or BP," Zeinstra said. "We can assume so. But the trickle-down happens in that what the university is prioritizing. It's not prioritizing growing food for people or creating an agriculture compatible with people and local cultures. It's fostering an agriculture that's only compatible with a large market system."  

Zeinstra seemed eager to finish our talk and get to tilling. But he had a final point: "Regardless of what kind of research is being done here," he said, "this land is under threat of being developed. If the land is developed, no one is going to do any research here or grow any food here. That's really why we're here -- to contest the development of the land."  

All of the half-dozen occupiers I interviewed said their priority is to empower communities to control their own resilient food systems for a stable and just future. The group consciously terms this practice "food sovereignty," in solidarity with La Via Campesina and the Movimento Sin Tierra (Landless Workers Movement) of Brazil.  

"I think what we're doing fits nicely into the global food sovereignty movement," said Anya Kamenskaya. "Obviously on a socio-economic scale our struggles are different than those of peasant farmers. We live in one of the richest countries in the world. But everyone in the world shares the problem of food access because corporations control so much of global food production. Communities all over the world can understand the imperative to wrest control over food from the grip of the corporations."  

The plan to Occupy the farm was hatched in late fall of 2011, and kept secret until it was pulled off. To get the thousands of seedlings needed to move in and plant all at once, dozens of farmers from Berkeley down to Santa Cruz volunteered to plant seeds, and tended them all spring awaiting this weekend's action. But none of the growers knew the final destination of the peas, lettuce, chard, carrots and squash they were tending.  

On the first night of the occupation, a dozen tents went up, giving the site the appearance of other Occupy sites. One of the tents, which had made the rounds of Bay Area Occupy sites from San Francisco to Oakland, bore a Woody Guthrie-inspired slogan in large purple letters: "This tent kills fascists."  

But organizers insist this project is unique, and heralds a new beginning for Occupy. One of the organizers, Gopal Dayaneni of Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project pointed to the ground at his feet and said, "We located the tents right here specifically because this is where we're going to till tomorrow. The idea is, this is not an encampment -- this is a farm. We don't want to accumulate the stuff, and the human presence, of other Occupy encampments. We want to farm."  

By the next morning, as planned, the tents had been moved; people with machetes were chopping down head-high mustard stalks and piling them in windrows. In the center of a pile of weeds stacked eight feet tall and 40 feet around, a composting toilet had been built.  

Dayaneni, who took a lead role in the organizing, brought his two children and their friends to work on Sunday. "They worked their tails off, and they loved it," he said.  

That night, when the first flush of work was over and it came time to set up camp and begin laying the ground rules, Dayaneni congratulated everyone on the hard work, and urged that the space be made as community friendly as possible. "If I can't bring my kids," he said sternly, "I ain't coming back."  

Several neighborhood residents who'd joined the work party applauded the sentiment.  

Seeing this as an evolution of the Occupy movement, Christoph says, "We're trying to be a model for the Bay Area, for the Occupy movement and for the nation about what land occupations can do." Citing the other tactics of the movement, he says, "A foreclosure defense will keep a family in its home. A space occupation will put people into a new space. These are good things, for sure. But a land occupation can feed hundreds of people. If all that happens on this land is that we grow food, then it's a success."   

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