Occupy the Farms, a Practical Guide to Seizing and Winning Land

“Coming from the country where you learn to do things, where you learn to depend on family and all of that. You go out and you plant your own corn and you watch the corn grow. When the corn grow you pick your own corn, you know what I mean? “ ~Robert Nesta Marley

Farming is patience practiced. Farming is a way to listen to the weather, the seasons. Farming listens to some of the smallest organism among us, to soil, and so doing, tends to one of our most basic needs, food.

Our modern age abounds with reasons for people to be in a hurry. Farming is a way to slow down. In this way, it can be seen as subversive. To the extent that its practice can help divest citizens from a food system which depends on fossil fuels, farming can be seen as revolutionary.

The purpose of this paper though is not to point to either the necessity of communal resiliancy through farming, or point out the evils of large scale corporations. There are many writers who carry these tasks, and perform them well. The purpose of this paper is to try to provide a brief and tactical guide to seizing and winning land, primarily through farming practices.

As with any task, its important to ask what is the scale, what is the purpose, what are the goals and intentions of attempting to seize land. If you live in an urban area, then there is very likely vacant land nearby where you live. In evaluating the need to seize land, ask what is your connection to the community which is around the land, to the land itself. Do you know the history of the land? Has there been struggle for it before? Is the land damaged or toxic? Will it take time to remediate the soil? That is, are there heavy metals or chemicals present? Each time you answer a question in relation to a specific piece of land, you answer how you intend to relate to that land. Each time you answer a question, you get closer to finding out what tactic, legal or extralegal, best fit your situation.

With Occupy the Farm, we spent a little over 3 months asking these questions, attempting to understand whether occupation was the proper tactic for this struggle specifically. As a group, we had worked together on other struggles, practiced consensus for all our internal decisions and so had a very good amount to trust in eachother. Look around you at your commrades, the people you organize with. Seizing land doesn’t have to look like an occupation. But if it does, I’d like to offer a few lessons of how to best prepare a land occupation.

1-Buy in bulk
Modern society is contemptible in some regards because it produces excess of a great many things. In farming, this logic is helpful though, in the sense that one can get started with a very good sized farm project for very little financial investment. 50 bulk seed trays, wherein each seed tray contains 200 seed containers, yields 10,000 plants. 50 seed trays costs around $50. A good soil mix for this many seeds costs around $60, when purchased in half cubic yard quantities. Seeds from bulk seed providers for well over this many plants could cost less than $100. So, for around $200, one could have the basic necessities of a large scale farming occupation. Oftentimes local nurseries or community gardens have six-pack containers which are destined for the landfill which can help plants get closer to maturity. The more you actively engage with your current community, the more you’ll likely be surprised that there are already many resources that might assist you as well as people who can serve as mentors and knowledge bases.

Once you get seeds, the next step is figuring out where to put them. It can be a bit tricky to get is greenhouse space, particularly in colder climates. You can build a hoophouse though for little cost and minimal installation time. Perhaps you know farmers who might be sympathetic to your cause, perhaps its better for interested parties to have less information rather than full disclosure. Security culture is up next, but for the time being, as with other local resources, seek allies and understand where others threshold of risk places them. Land occupation can put assets at risk and personal freedom in jeopardy. Know that not everyone can assume these risks, either owing to temperament or fear of loss of material possessions.

3-Security Culture
One aspect of occupying land which is often overlooked is that of security culture. This boils down to an essence of ‘need to know’, but at root, security culture is a series of practices which attempt to decrease risk for persons engaging in what the establishment views as illegal activity as well as mitigating group paranoia. In an era of supposed information and other freedoms, security culture can be viewed by some as unnecessary, or perhaps even an affront to ‘open source’ society. Perhaps this is so. My experience with security culture is that it helps build rapore and trust among comrades, while allowing persons to gauge their own levels of engagement, what they genuinely feel comfortable with, instead of presuming that all parties are comfortable with the same level of risk. If you are serious about performing a land occupation, find out as much about security culture as you can and practice it.

4-Feed the People
Whether you are having a small scale land occupation, or one with several hundred people, make sure you find a way to provide food for the people attending. This may sound trivial, but the people who plan and provide the food for farmers, as with any gathering, are vital. Perhaps it serves to have a potluck style for a small event, but if you are planning a more large occupation, make sure you have people who are specifically tasked with making sure that there are at least 2 meals a day, or one very good sized meal if you are performing a one day planting. I state it here only because I’ve seen from my own experience how this task handled well can bring people very much together.

Seasons as well play a part. A successful land occupation does not necessarily happen in the spring or summertime, but these seasons are certainly more exciting for groups of folks to get involved with a farm occupation. Know that there are times when a certain struggle can succeed beyond even your own wildest intentions. Know that if you wish to walk the road of struggle you will be rewarded with confusion, that reality will get ever more complex, more nuanced, and in so doing, your living will become more rich, more varied, more subtle and more lovely with each breath. The seeds of our time are the treasures, and the ones we pass to our children will become the future we all wish to live in.

6-Diversify and Specialize
Before occupying, try to figure out who among your group is most suited to which tasks. The roles that need to be filled are many, but a brief list of possible roles are,
~media/outreach, police liason/copwatch, food, medic/mental well being.
If the purpose of your occupation is to solely draw attention to a piece of land, then your priority will be to make sure that the media is notified. This involves hours usually of calling and informing the local and regional media specifically as to a press release you have issued around your reasons or intentions for occupying. With Occupy the Farm, for instance, a good bit of our months of organizing worked to make sure that we had a single, clear message, ‘Farmland is for Farming’, and that all the lead organizers were aligned both with the message, and could explain the reasons and history behind our occupation. Once the occupation started, we continued to meet regularly and discuss how our messaging was or was not being effective, and which allies we might continue to reach out towards. All of the lead organizers felt comfortable talking with the media, but only a few were tasked specifically as media leads. We all went over what we felt were the points we were going to reiterate to the media and amongst ourselves, and we worked towards these points in every meeting we had. That is, our meetings, either before or during the occupation, were rarely a forum for ‘discussion’ as it were, or if they were, each discussion had specific parameters of scope and time, which the facilitator would reign in if the group got too broad in the questions it was asking, rather, our meetings would mold group understanding into clear, coherent stories. When the lead organizers would meet and attempt to respond to or proactively draw attention to something that had arisen, we already had a solid set of protocols which kept our meetings generating press responses, ways we would interact with the public, or would defer questions to folks off site, be they part of our legal team, media or what-have-you. Keep in mind, what I’m describing is what was helpful for a large scale farming occupation. For a small scale occupation, it might make less sense to ‘blow it up’ as it were. Perhaps you have neighbors who are very sympathetic to your using a vacant lot for farming and gardening. Creating a media spectacle might be helpful in some sense, or might be a distraction from the work you wish to perform. There are a variety of methods which help in different situations. Keep your options flexible, and make sure your organizers, even if its only a few of you, know the history of your site, your reasons for occupying, and have the support they need, and make sure you keep telling your stories, allow them to grow, but tell your stories from your perspective, and do your best not to ‘respond’ to criticisms that are raised. Keep your stories about the work you are doing, not about ideology directly.

A brief few words about the most sacred element on planet Earth. When planning any occupation for farming or gardening, as with our everyday lives, water is the most vital element. If you are planning an presence on the land which will be above-ground, where you talk with neighbors beforehand and perhaps even reach out to sympathetic city officials, get a good handle on whom you can receive water from, how you might be able to compensate them and work hard to develop a good relationship with them. Sometimes you can occupy a piece of land and then speak with neighbors about water afterward, as friendly neighbors will likely approach you to talk about your project and vision. Remember that if there is a neighbor, even if you live nearby, the neighbors concerns are of absolute priority and must be taken into account.

Some of the most successful garden and farm projects throw regular potlucks and parties to bring in neighbors. Let neighbors know about your parties beforehand, ask them about their concerns and be flexible in ensuring that parties end early, for instance or have a minimum of amplified music, for example. Invite them, provide a space for them to speak, especially if they have knowledge of the neighborhood and its history. Gardens and farms are today serving as places of neighborhood education, where folks can relearn about histories of the places they live.

I will only recommend one book for anyone interested in farm occupation, and that is ‘Earth Repair, A Grassroots Guide to Bioremediation’ By Leila Darwish. This one book has more information about how to work with damaged lands and folks doing direct work than any other I know of. It has great questions within its pages that will help anyone figure out what are the best steps for any type of presence on land, and provides further resources for any aspect of damaged lands. The struggle at Occupy the Farm is notable in one particular sense, the soil. The land has been farmed for 100 years, and is the result of alluvial sands washed from the Berkeley hills. In this sense, there wasn’t a need, at least on the North side of the Gill Tract, to do an immediate battery of soil testing before we planted crops. In urban areas which have had even moderate construction, where the soils are likely compacted, or industrial areas, where the soil is likely toxic, the optimal conditions we had are not present. I bring this up because there is an understandable enthusiasm around urban farming, and a necessity for it. When we begin to look though at how damaged most urban soils are, and what it takes to remediate them, to make them vital again, we begin to see that what is needed is not an initial rupture of excitement, but a slow, sustained, informed effort, which will take years to accomplish. This feels daunting, and slightly unromantic in its own way, but the work that is performed with bioremediation is the most necessary work of our time. Our ability to heal the land will be our token of trust that we hand back to our dear Mother Earth to ask for forgiveness to remain on the land. There is a lot of work to do.