Column: Urban Farm Dreams Have 15-Year History

Occupy the Farm shared this piece, written by Jeffrey M. Romm, of UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, with Albany Patch.

The Gill Tract occupation needs to be understood in contemporary context. Things have changed since earlier college rejections of two community agriculture plans for the Tract. The changes deserve credit in a perspective of the occupation because they create opportunities for the College of Natural Resources (CNR) and the campus, and may translate into growing respect for the community. Moreover, refusal in the old way no longer would be covered with the guise of earlier justifications.

I supported the first BACUA plan, about 15 years ago, that set forth a vision for the future of the Tract in community agriculture. That plan was refused. At Dean Rausser’s behest some years later, I chaired a committee of faculty, extension and community members to develop a new plan that would have created a center for urban agriculture connecting campus and community. Community members at the time included Shyaam Shabaka and Sibella Krauss, both of whom went on to create vibrant programs in community agriculture with associated educational and nutritional dimensions.

Leaders of the systemwide sustainability program were involved, as were faculty of CNR and the College of Environmental Design, including the chair of the California Food Security Council. That plan provided a viable basis for development, needing refinement primarily in the details of the university-community relationship. The plan was refused. By refusal, I mean that it was denied good-faith consideration. The justifications for the refusal deserve mention because they now are demonstrably devoid of basis, if an absence of good faith can ever be described as possessing it.

First, urban community agriculture was then perceived in the college to be a marginal enterprise, variously imaged as hobbyist, ideological, personalized, insignificant and foreign. The evidence—hundreds of small groups in the Bay Area alone—was diffuse, as yet unrecorded, and without visibility or apparent impact. Although some saw an emerging trend, most thought the evidence and organization too thin to justify a program.

Today, urban agriculture has moved into the mainstream of metropolitan conception, policy, design and behavior. This is undeniable. Tours through the Bay Area would convince the more obdurate. Oakland, San Francisco and Richmond provide classic examples, while Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C., demonstrate the tremendous innovation urban agriculture has stimulated in the use of city spaces for the production and distribution of nutritious food, as well as the creation of new jobs and educational opportunities.

Urban plans are being shaped by a desire to create agricultural spaces that provide new modes of livelihood. Trends in the federal food bill, explicitly and not, have favored consumer wellbeing, access and equity, with consequent shifts of focus in the definition and execution of agriculture. The San Francisco Chronicle even editorializes on the matter with some exuberance in this morning’s edition. While I do not want to overstate the trend, I doubt the college would choose to withdraw so as to write and analyze its history rather than to affect it.

Second, the college then lacked the faculty and extension capacity to support a Center and coordinate its community functions. The plan proposed new faculty and extension positions to build the expertise. More than a decade later, these new positions exist and are filled with wonderful scholars and specialists. Occupants of other-described positions have shifted toward the emerging research and education nexus of food, health, environmental justice and economic productivity. Faculty and centers across campus are engaged in this convergence. They have produced research, gained influence, and had tangible impact on the ground. Food and agriculture no longer are CNR propertied topics. Within the college, upwards of half the undergraduates, perhaps 25 percent of the graduate students, the vigorous , and a range of other faculty endeavors, demonstrate how far we have moved in the decade.

Third, a decade ago, CNR work on cooperative stewardship arrangements had yet to gain the visibility and current international recognition it has today. That work inevitably focused on problems created by divides between those with authority over land and those with the need and capacity for its management. The work addressed relations between Forest Service and tribes, Forest Service and communities, Bureau of Reclamation and tribal, farming and environmental groups, industrial-community partnerships, watershed councils, urban health and nutrition collaboratives, and cooperative wildlife, forest and fisheries management.

The current Gill Tract issue replicates the kind of problem that many college researchers have worked successfully to overcome, i.e. structural divides that prevent effective ecosystem management in large part by excluding those with the strongest motives for beneficial action. Faculty and students so involved cannot be expected to turn their backs on the core lessons of their careers. The mutual benefits of overcoming the divide and achieving cooperative relations between campus and community are so demonstrable and compelling that a number of faculty would not maintain their integrity if siding with the party that refuses opportunities for cooperation and adaptability.

The Gill Tract occupation creates a huge opportunity. After 15 years of stonewall in the midst of sweeping social and ecological changes, the occupation should have come as no surprise to anyone. It does come at a time, though, when the university has become surrounded by community generated agricultural enterprise and has established its own capacity to respond in truly excellent fashion. The occupation has been conducted with utmost respect for the university, the community and the land. Equivalent responses by the university would produce a major step forward for everyone. The meaning and matter of Gill Tract extend throughout the Bay Area, with the potential for much more.

Related Topics: Development, Earth Day, Gill Tract, Occupy the Farm, On San Pablo, Sustainability, Sustainable Albany, and University Village

Joe May 06, 2012 at 11:39 PM
ridiculous premise. There are many open patches of land that can be used for Urban Agriculture available from the City of Albany and nearby El Cerrito. These occupiers focus on Gill tract because U.C. Researchers have spent the past 20 years there doing plant research, teaching students, and more importantly, attracting grant money based off of their discoveries to help fund U.C. What a waste it is to take their land away and give it to a bunch anarchists to grow vegetables!


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »