Driving down San Pablo Blvd into Albany, it’s easy to miss the Gill Tract — it looks like an ordinary plot of land. Something you give less than a cursory glance as you wait for the traffic light to turn. But unbeknownst to many, this 10-20 (depending on who you ask) acre plot of land is the last remaining site of class one soil — prime farming land — in the urban East Bay. Since April 2012 it has also been the site of a bitter struggle between local activists and the University of California (which owns the Gill Tract) over how the land will be put to use.
On April 22 2012 — Earth Day, no less — around 200 activists broke the lock on the Gill Tract’s gate, entered the area, and proceeded to farm. The group would soon become known as Occupy the Farm (OTF). Their intentions were unequivocal; then-UC Berkeley sophomore Lesley Haddock: “This farm aims to be an asset to our broader East Bay community. With thousands of local families living in food deserts with no access to fresh produce, this farm is an attempt to address the growing threat of food insecurity. In moving forward, we take a step away from our dependence on industrial giants and a step toward sustainable, healthy and natural food production…If allowed to continue, the Gill Tract farm will serve as a hub for urban agriculture and education, allowing local communities to learn how to plant and then eat what they grow.”
Many of the activists cite UC Berkeley agroecology professor Miguel Aligeri, who has researched into using the Gill Tract as a platform for sustainable community farming for decades, as an intellectual mentor and inspiration for their activities. OTF activists involved in last year’s occupation also claim Occupy Oakland provided a strong precedent for their direct action. Effie Rawlings, who is still involved with issues surrounding the Gill Tract, said many people involved with OTF “had cultivated skills [from Occupy Oakland] and come to understand the power of collective organizing around holding space…Those networks, combined with the deeply rooted group of folks that had been organizing for decades to keep the tract as an educational resource, is a big part of the reason we are succeeding at the Gill Tract.” Another occupier named Anya Kamenskaya who is no longer active in OTF affirmed that many involved with OTF had gotten their organizing chops from Occupy Oakland. Kamenskaya also mentioned there was occasional tension between “the self-sustaining camp community”(i.e. the original occupation planners) and Occupy Oakland alumni.
The UC was not quite swayed by the activists’ dedication to food sovereignty and agroecology, however, and came down hard on the occupiers with the help of the Albany police. Since acquiring the land from the federal government in the 50s, the UC has used the Gill Tract for agricultural research, mostly corn genetics. Development plans for retail facilities as well as a parking lot on portions of the land have been in the works for years.
Plans for a Whole Foods on the Tract have been abandoned, however, according to an activist who wishes to remain anonymous. The activist is part of an offshoot of OTF called Boycott Sprouts, which sprang up in opposition to a recent deal between the UC and Sprouts Farmers Market to develop on the Gill Tract.
Boycott Sprouts, according to the activist, is “using petitions, viral memes, and guerrilla theater to draw attention to the blatant greenwashing this 150-store national chain is using to fool consumers into thinking it has relationships with local farmers, meanwhile sourcing its food from huge industrial farms and making plans to pave over a century old farm that the community has been fighting to protect for decades.” The group recently staged a scene inside a Walnut Creek Sprouts Market that involved participants dressed as fruits and animals being chased by another participant in a bulldozer costume.
Since last year, 10 acres of the farm have been transferred back to the UC College of Natural Resources. Food justice coalitions that include OTF continue to attempt negotiation with the UC and community interest groups.
The southern portion of Gill Tract is still officially slated for development, according to UC Berkeley Capital Projects Communication Director Christine Shaff. Shaff had “no comment” on the topic of Occupy the Farm or related groups.