Update on the ‘Occupy the Farm’ | Gill Tract Struggle


All graphics and images courtesy of OTF
Comment by Devon G. Peña, Ph.D. | Las Colonias de San Pablo, CO

I wish to make a brief context statement about urban agriculture and food justice before presenting the Gill Tract update from Ms. Tiffany Tsing on the Occupy the Farm movement in the East Bay Area.

The last time we checked-in on the food justice campaign at the Gill Tract in Albany, California, the squatter-farmers had been evicted. I drove by in June 2012 with some colleagues and the place was by then in the second week of a University lockdown with 2-3 UC police stationed to “guard” the land. The University of California was apparently pursuing a deal with Whole Foods to build a new store on the tract. WF backed-out but Sprouts Farmers Market, a multi-state chain with operations here in Colorado (Grand Junction), is now actively pursuing a deal on the plot.

Why is this Important? We Need Many Gill Tracts. In 1998-99, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reported 800 million persons were involved in urban agriculture across the world. The figure now hovers at about 1.5 billion per FAO estimates. The latest count for the US is contested but I believe there are approximately 40-50 million people producing food in the cities and peri-urban areas with more than 5000 registered community gardens, family farms, community farms, and corporate farms. The Urban Farming website has a useful interactive map for the USA and many other countries. Increasingly, urban agriculture (UA) is helping to feed a hungry planet of displaced home-seekers. We need many more Gill Tracts for UA, not less.

Undercounting the number of farmers and farms by the surveyors of UA has long been evident and this includes the USDA, which has a longstanding notoriously inaccurate count of native and traditional smallholder farmers in general. This is largely unintentional and results from problematic technocratic definitions and the fact that smallholder farmers and plot gardeners alike often do not respond to surveys; this seems especially the case with immigrants.

Thus, one of the categories most often overlooked in these counts is that of the person(s) engaged with a huerto familiar or home kitchen garden. Many Mesoamerican and Asian and African immigrant households in the US have these gardens given the space. When no space at home is available then many of these displaced farmers start searching for an alternative and preferably communal space, since for them urban food and herb production is a matter of resisting nutrition genocide and maintaining a healthy lifestyle and diet and that includes the cherished value of conviviality or convide.

When we consider the most diverse and sustainable urban farms or community gardens in the US a growing number are focusing on supporting this search by low-income, Mesoamerican, and immigrant families for a space to start home kitchen gardens and hortalizas (herb patches) in communal spaces. This is the subversive art of autotopography – placemaking is about making space into place. The Zapotecs created ‘Oaxacalifornia’ through this process and many more displaced farmers are attempting to do the same thing across many parts of North America. This is revolutionizing urban agriculture in unexpected ways, remarkable in the midst of entrenched anti-immigrant rightwing hysteria and a state of exception that increases human suffering.

The urban agriculture movement seems the most subversive when it embraces the creative transformation of space into place as organizers and farmers integrate the indigenous agro-ecologies of place and the deeply held and yearned for reservoir of ethnobotanical and agroecological knowledge, belief, and practice that arrives with many Mesoamerican, Asian, and African displaced persons and many other low-income people.

The mutual reliance interests of these constituents of the urban food justice movement often revolve around access to resources for the self-provisioning and barter of fresh crops needed to maintain heritage cuisines and diets. One result of this relationship is a reduction in obesity and many other maladies that come with a forced transition to a more Americanized diet among displaced farmers and smallholders and low-income immigrant and native households.

The struggle by the students, faculty, and wider food justice community of the East Bay Area is the product of one of these intersections of such creative forces. This campaign owes up to the twin principles of (1) respect for the deep place-based agroecology of indigenous peoples and (2) the integration of the ethnobotany and agroecology of the immigrant and low-income communities. It is committed to the goal of community food self-sufficiency.

The movement in Albany counts with the presence and leadership of faculty like Dr. Miguel Altieri, one of the world’s most prominent and respected of all agroecologists. It also counts with the support and participation of Mesoamericans including DREAM Act eligible students. The Gill Tract movement has organic relationships with all autonomous food justice organizations and networks across the Bay Area and well beyond.

The University of California has a moral, political, and educational obligation to invest in helping the students, faculty, and community members transform the Gill Tract into one of the largest urban farms in the US. Converting this rare patch of urban open space to real estate development would be a perverse act and demonstrate the UC system’s insensitive the surrounding disregard for community and its urgent food justice needs and priorities.

It is not like the University is hurting for resources to invest in corn or other crop research. The flow of money (research dollars) from commercial agricultural biotechnology corporations and the federal government and philanthropic endowments is more than very substantial. A $1 million investment to make the Gill Tract into a community- and University-based food justice farm and research center would serve a wider public good and urgent community needs. That would represent less than 1% of the annual expenditures in public-private biotechnology research across the rest of the UC system, if we include Davis.

It is preposterous and immoral for the UC President and system authorities to treat the Gill Tract as just another commercial asset. This land is older than the state. It has deep roots. The Gill Tract is a rare opportunity to work to reconnect people to the land. It is a moral choice and we could make the Gill Tract into a center of service, learning, research, and teaching about how to make our cities more sustainable, resilient, equitable, and self-provisioning. I am re-posting the update by Tiffany Tsing as it appeared in Food First on July 4.



Tiffany Tsang | Berkeley, CA | July 14, 2013

Occupy the Farm (OTF), an assembly of activists from the San Francisco Bay Area, is raising its voice against unsustainable development, reclaiming a piece of land in Albany known as the “Gill Tract” that is slated for commercial development. The Gill Tract, previously dedicated to sustainable agricultural research, has become an important battleground in the struggle for land and food sovereignty in the Bay Area.

The piece of land in question, the southern portion of a 104-acre tract owned by the University of California system, is slated for development by Sprouts Farmers Market, a supermarket chain with over 150 stores in the US. Last year, due to OTF pressure, “natural” and organic foods retailer Whole Foods backed out of a similar deal with the UC. Sprouts is now attempting to make a deal with the UC over that same piece of land. Over nine days in May of this year, occupiers broke ground, establishing an urban farm, and replanted twice when UC police ploughed over the field.

OTF argues that, as a taxpayer-funded land-grant institute, the UC has a responsibility to provide research and services that benefit its community. Under UC’s current plan to sell the land to the Sprouts supermarket chain, OTF sees little value added to the community. But the larger question is: who in the community most needs the land, one of the last pieces of class-1 uncontaminated agricultural land in the urban East Bay. As OTF activist Effie Rawlings put it, OTF does not focus on the legal claim the community has to the land but supports the idea that “land use decisions should not be based on economic reasons, but social and environmental reasons.”

OTF activists argue that urban agriculture can help alleviate the problems of hunger and poverty in the East Bay: 169,000 adults in Alameda County earning at or below 200% the Federal Poverty Line experienced food insecurity in 2012 [1]. Urban agriculture–which produces 15-30% of the global food supply[2]–holds real potential to feed the community: the 1,201 acres of underutilized or vacant lots in Oakland could produce enough fresh produce to satisfy at least 40% of the city of Oakland’s fresh vegetable needs and an additional 337 acres of underutilized land is private land that could be used for urban agriculture [3].
Currently, none of the agriculture projects endorsed by UC planners on the Gill Tract benefit the local community [4]. Just north of where Sprouts is to be developed, the UC is conducting basic maize research on gene silencing [5]–knowledge used in transgenic research and research on agrofuel production [6]. While the UC claims to be alleviating world hunger with these projects, the real benefit is for agribusiness corporations [7].

The Gill Tract struggle is connected to the struggles of small farmers and peasants around the world who have for decades resisted the power of industrial agriculture and land grabbing for the production of industrial food, feed and fuel. OTF is thus part of the global fight for “land sovereignty,” defined as “the right of working peoples to have effective access to, use of, and control over land and the benefits of its use and occupation” [8].

Due to last year’s occupation, the UC transferred a portion of the Gill Tract from UC Capital Projects to the University’s Department of Natural Resources. With renewed pressure from OTF this year, the UC has recently initiated negotiations for a parcel of land adjacent to the site of OTF resistance to be set aside for public use. Miguel Altieri, Professor of Agroecology at UC, is offering his lab’s field on the north side of the Tract to the community for a participatory urban agriculture research project.

Currently, Occupy the Farm is launching a pressure campaign against Sprouts, and building its base by supporting other community actions and holding workshops on food sovereignty. To support OTF’s pressure campaign against Sprouts’ development of the Gill Tract, you can join the pledge to boycott the supermarket chain if plans for development continue. To join the Gill Tract’s participatory urban agriculture project, contact tmt39@cornell.edu before July 20th or CLICK HERE for details.


1. Chaparro, MP, B Langellier, K Birnback, M Sharp, and G Harrison. Nearly Four Million Californians Are Food Insecure. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 2012. http://cfpa.net/CalFresh/Media/CHIS-HealthPolicyBrief-2012.pdf.

2. Johnson, Renee, Randy Aussenberg, and Tadlock Cowan. The Role of Local Food Systems in U.S. Farm Policy. Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. Federation of American Scientists, March 12, 2013. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42155.pdf.

3. McClintock, Nathan, Jenny Cooper, and Snehee Khandeshi. “Assessing the Potential Contribution of Vacant Land to Urban Vegetable Production and Consumption in Oakland, California.” Landscape and Urban Planning 111 (March 2013): 46-58. doi:10.1016/j.landurbplan.2012.12.009.

4. The exception is the land Miguel Altieri, Professor of Agroecology at UC, is offering from his lab’s field to community members this year for a participatory research project in urban agriculture.

5. Lisch, Damon. “Blog: Your Research at the Gill Tract.” Albany Patch, May 17, 2012. http://albany.patch.com/groups/damon-lischs-blog/p/bp–your-research-at-….

6. Lisch came to the UC with a $25 million research grant from the agricultural department of Novartis for this project. The agricultural department of Novartis is now part of Syngenta, a seed and fertilizer company with the third largest market share in the world in 2009. Sarah Hake researches genes in maize to improve switchgrass for efficient biofuel production. The research of these two principal investigators takes up most of the north side of the Gill Tract. (Shand, Hope. “The Big Six: A Profile of Corporate Power in Seeds, Agrochemicals and Biotech.” The Heritage Farm Companion, Summer 2012) Chuck, George S., Christian Tobias, Lan Sun, Florian Kraemer, Chenlin Li, Dean Dibble, Rohit Arora, et al. “Overexpression of the Maize Corngrass1 microRNA Prevents Flowering, Improves Digestibility, and Increases Starch Content of Switchgrass.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 42 (October 18, 2011): 17550-17555. doi:10.1073/pnas.1113971108.

7. “Altieri Op-Ed: Gill Tract Occupation Offers Solution for Key Issues.” Albany Patch. Accessed June 21, 2013. http://albany.patch.com/groups/opinion/p/altieri-op-ed-gill-tract-occupa….

8. Borras, Saturnino M., and Jennifer Franco. A “Land Sovereignty” Alternative? Towards a Peoples’ Counter-Enclosure. TNI Agrarian Justice Programme, July 2012.

originally appeared on Environmental and Food Justice blog: