Whilst in the bay area I met up with Antonio Roman-Alcalá (academic, activist, gardener who has written a blog called Antidogmatist which is home to his writings on food systems and how to change them). Antonio points me in the direction of the UC Gill Tract as an interesting and exciting example of urban ag and public land ownership, and the power of direction action.
The Gill Tract is owned by the University of California, Berkeley, a public university, substantially funded by state tax-payers’ money. Following the occupy movement, a piece of the Gill Tract (a large piece of land with a rich agricultural history) was occupied for a period of three weeks in 2012, a part of the argument was that public land should be managed for public good. The UC Gill Tract Community Farm came directly out of that occupation.
Arriving to the site in the hot midday sun, my first impression is the fencing that surrounds the community farm. Roads border it on two sides, a new industrial development on another and on the forth more agricultural land, home to the test sites of some of the UC’s agricultural research.
When I enter the gates I meet Jon Hoffman (one of the original Occupy the Farm crew and now employed by the university to manage the community farm), he takes time to explain to me some of the history of the UC Gill Tract and the context of the Community Farms existence there.
The UC Gill Tract was bought by UC Berkeley in 1928, at that point standing at 104 acres of predominantly agricultural and horticultural land. Since then this land has been used to support the research agenda and education of the university. Historically, pioneers of agroecological farming techniques have conducted research on the site, with much work done on biological pest control. By 2009 only 14 acres remained in agricultural use, with large amounts sold off by the university due to development pressures. It was felt also that the research agenda in that time had moved away from being focused on sustainable earth-centred farming techniques, towards non-organic agri-industrial methods.
It was out of this and renewed movements by the university to develop more land, that a group of individuals decided to occupy the farm. There’s a great film about this period of the community farm’s history.
The farm now has a 10 year verbal agreement to stay on 2 acres of the Gill Tract. The vision for the site is to develop “a community-managed food system centred around local, organic, agro-ecological farming practices”, researching and educating about food growing and eating, providing affordable food to those who need it, experimenting in governance structures to enhance resilience, collaborating and influencing policy spheres.
One of the visions for the site is around creating governance structures for resilience. Founded upon the principles of food sovereignty the community farm has a really interesting organisational structure (find more info here). An elected group of people including University representatives, students, members of community organisations, local residents, and policymakers sit on the ‘Stewardship Council’. Working groups (on the issues such as finances, communications, anti-oppression, education) feed in to this central organising group. Overseeing all of this is the ‘stewardship assembly’ which anyone who is a part of the council or a working group can attend. The assembly meets quarterly or in emergency, and ratifies decisions of the council and formally decides on all proposed changes to structure, decision making, and statements of missions, visions, or Values.
The farm includes an incredibly beautiful herb garden (crammed full of things I can’t grow in cold old London town), a large no-till companion planted series of beds, and a buzzing children’s area. It’s open 5days a week for walk ins and work and produce from the site is distributed across the local Berkeley area. A small area of the site is stewarded by Sogorea Te Land Trust who you will remember from my posting on Planting Justice.
The original reason Antonio Roman-Alcalá suggests I visit is because the UCGTCF provides a rare example of a community farm on public owned land (and thus in part funded by state tax payers money). The narrative that questions use and governance of public owned land is incredibly powerful and one that a few groups in the UK are continuing to organise on, groups such as the Land Justice Network and Shared Assets. A current battle related to this is the county farm sell off, highlighted recently by Who owns England. The legacy of this organising in the UK extends back a long way to folks like the diggers in the 1600s. In 2006 a group of individuals occupied a County Farm in Somerset, opposing it’s sell off. The UCGTCF shows a heart-warming example of direct action morphing into community-led agro-ecological farming.