My ongoing crusade in to the local food system here in the Bay area landed me just a few miles from my home in Berkeley this past Sunday at the UC Gill Tract. I’ve visited the Gill Tract once before to hear Miguel Alteri, professor of Agroecology at UC Berkeley and recent inductee in to Kyoto’s Earth Hall of Fame, speak about peasant farming and traditional foodways. This visit, however was the first time I had the opportunity to meander through the lush garden beds and learn a bit about the highly politicized past, present and future of this land.
My guides for the afternoon included my dear friend, gardener extraordinaire and mushroom foraging bad-ass, Bryan Bramlett along with the Gill Tract’s hard-working and deeply committed Farm Manager, Jon Hoffman.
The land the Gill Tract sits upon is owned by the University of California. I won’t go too far back in to the history of the land, but rest assured it follows the all too common story of colonialism and development. Interesting to note, however, is that UC Berkeley is a land-grant university, which means that it was established and funded by the US government to focus on agricultural teachings and research (who knew?!). So it was to my surprise to learn that the UC stonewalled a proposal put forth by faculty and students for the creation of a center for sustainable urban agriculture throughout the 90s and early 2000s. All the while, plant genetic research on corn was a booming Berkeley activity, and the land which originally spanned about 100 acres, was slowly being parceled off for development (high-rent housing, stores, experimental agriculture, etc.). #hmmm
This is where the story heats up. Ready?!
On Earth Day 2012, over 200 community members cut the chains to the fence surrounding the remaining acres of undeveloped land to “illegally” break ground and plant food. My kind of rebels! This became known as the Occupy the Farm movement.
The stated intent of the participants was to establish a sustainable farm to provide food to the local community. Participants argued that such a farm could play an important role in educating the local community about sustainable agricultural practices while helping to establish food sovereignty in the local community. The organizers emphasized that their intention was to create a working farm, rather than simply occupy the land.
There was backlash from the University which included engaging the police who at one point brought out bulldozers in an attempted threat to level the occupation. However, the occupation persisted and conversations with the University to establish the Gill Tract as a community supported farm ensued. The next year, 2013, the University entered in to a 10 year agreement to preserve the land for agricultural use, establishing the Gill Tract as a part of the formal agreement. Yay!
But the struggle is ongoing. Ironically, the UC sold a piece of land bordering the Gill Tract to Sprouts, which recently erected a giant supermarket featuring “farm fresh produce”. I’ll tell ya, it doesn’t get much fresher than walking down the rows of red and yellow chard, loading your basket with food that was moments ago drawing nutrients from the soil, and all the while snacking on the Miner’s Lettuce popping up between the beds. As Bryan and I snacked he showed me around the BioMass Beds which utilizes a technique called hugelkultur to build up rich, healthy soil in which to grow nutritious food. Bryan, like almost all the folks who work with the land at the Gill Tract, is a volunteer. Depending upon the day of the week, the weather, or the events happening at the farm, there may be anywhere from 2 to 60 volunteers picking, pruning, digging, watering, etc. During my 2 hour visit, I met at least five of the nearly two dozen people I saw coming and going. There was a couple who stopped by to pick produce for the Berkeley Food Pantry (stay tuned for more on that), and a mom with her toddler daughter simply roaming through the garden, observing the the magic to be found amidst the kale forest and under strawberry leaves. There was also a group of volunteers hard at work plunging giant forks in to a recently cleared bed in preparation for a new planting cycle. That’s where I conducted my interview with Jon: knelt over the beds, forming rich earth in to a 3 foot wide row with a handmade wooden frame, speaking the story of the farm in to the soil as we moved along.
He asked if I wanted the 15 minute or the 2 hour version of the Gill Tract story. I opted for the 15 minute (which went for nearly an hour) and promised him (and myself) to come back without my recorder for a day of gardening and storytelling. Jon talked about the Occupy the Farm movement described above, as well as his extensive and in my opinion, heroic background in sustainable food production and education. He said that the Gill Tract is a place for all people – all colors, genders, faiths, and abilities. Towards the end of our conversation, I asked Jon, “Why do you garden?” His response, half-jokingly: “instead of burning down banks, I decided to grow food”.
It seems that engaging in the act of growing healthy, wholesome, organic food for the community, one can find themselves ironically at odds with the law. But if you’re going to dip your hands into some dirty business, these are the best kind of dirty hands to have.