As U.S. congressional leaders are hashing out the next Farm Bill in the Senate — an event that occurs every five years — farmers, activists, food justice advocates, environmentalists and many others are hard at work trying to salvage conservation and alternative farming programs from budget cuts. The bill, in all likelihood, will further hand the food system over to industrial agriculture and food producers. It has sweeping implications across the globe, affecting domestic and global food assistance, farmer crop insurance, conservation programs, commodity subsidies, and more. In essence, the Farm Bill props up the industrial food system, even as it contains small programs that support alternative and organic agricultural practices.
Last Sunday, when 200 people set out to grow food in the overgrown fields of the Gill Tract, a 10-acre agricultural lot in the East Bay neighborhood of Albany, Ca., owned by the University of California — and slotted for development — they were directly challenging the ethos of the industrial food system that the Farm Bill represents. The plan for the action, dubbed “Occupy the Farm: Take Back the Gill Tract,” was to celebrate Earth Day by turning this piece of rich agricultural land into a vibrant urban farm.
“You can’t just let people go out into the fields without telling them how to farm,” said Lesley Haddock, a UC-Berkeley student without any farming experience who joined the ambitious Take Back the Tract project. “But people just went out and started doing it — pulling weeds, roto-tilling. I was amazed. It was beautiful.”
At the end of the day, 15,000 donated seedlings had been planted and an occupation was emerging. Fifty or so people — complete with tents, a kitchen and a composting toilet — stayed on to protect the hard work of all the volunteers, including Albany residents, Occupy Oakland activists, UC students and community organizers.
The Gill Tract was once more than 100 acres but, thanks to encroaching commercial and residential development promoted by the university, very little of it remains. For more than 15 years, community organizers and citizens have tried to convince the university to preserve the land for agricultural purposes. According to Haddock, dialogue failed, so the farm occupation is their last-ditch effort to save one of the last pieces of good soil in the East Bay area.
“We are at the end of a struggle,” said Haddock, hopefully. She explained that formal communication with UC authorities about the tract has not occurred, adding, “Our communication is our occupation.” Last Wednesday, though, UC officials visited the farm and released a media statement demanding that the protesters vacate the land, along with allegations that occupiers were unsanitary in their handling of human waste (referring to the composting toilet, which is a viable method of ecological sanitation used globally). Take Back the Tract is inviting neighbors and the public to see for themselves what is going on with a “Farmland is for Farming Family Weekend,” including tours, teach-ins, activities and work opportunities.
There are no plans for this to be a long-term occupation. Take Back the Tract hopes that the university will allow them to use the land but is unsure what exactly it would take for a lasting hub for food production and education to permanently materialize. Take Back the Tract’s primary concern is food justice:
We are reclaiming this land to grow healthy food to meet the needs of local communities. We envision a future of food sovereignty, in which our East Bay communities make use of available land — occupying it where necessary — for sustainable agriculture to meet local needs.
In his article “Occupy the Farm: A Model of Resistance,” San Francicso educator and urban farmer Antonio Roman-Alcalá helps contextualize food sovereignty and the Gill Tract occupation in an unjust food system:
[F]ood sovereignty demands local and democratic control over our public institutions. And instead of a historically and logistically impossible division of “government” on one side and “markets” on the other, food sovereignty promotes a market that is accountable and humane because it is built up from the lives and decisions of those who are affected by it. This may all sound very theoretical, but land occupations like the effort to Take Back the Tract make these ideas real, immediate, tangible, and imaginable.
Anna Ghosh, communications manager with Food & Water Watch, works on advocating for a fair Farm Bill for consumers, farmers and the environment. According to Ghosh, what needs to change is who makes the rules that allow unchecked market consolidation by a small handful of corporations. Food & Water Watch publishes a useful primer on the Farm Bill and the corporate control of the food system.
“The work Occupy the Farm is doing is really important,” wrote Ghosh in an email, “because not only does it help people access good food, but it offers a great opportunity for people to learn more about what it takes to raise food and what is wrong with our current system.”
Confronting the kind of political power behind the tightly-controlled food system — which includes universities, corporations and the government — increasingly seems to require direct action tactics like occupation. The Gill Tract farmers and residents feel they know better than the UC Board of Regents what their Albany community needs: a farm. And those who work most closely with the land — the farmers, the ecologists, the conservationists — usually know best what the land needs: a better food system.
As the Gill Tract occupiers were coping with having their water shut off by UC authorities, “Mad Farmer” Wendell Berry — advocate of a 50-year farm bill based on ecological principles — was in Washington, D.C., delivering the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. In his comments, Berry suggested that Americans may tend towards one of two inclinations: “boomers” and “stickers.” In the parlance of Occupy, the boomers are the 1 percent — those who, according to Berry, are “motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power.” He continues, “Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.”
Those who occupy are stickers. They believe if something is the right thing to do, they have every right to do it. This is this sort of attitude that will foster food sovereignty and transform the system from a centralized, industrial one into a localized, sustainable model for living communities, economies and ecosystems.
Wendell Berry’s closing sentiments warned of the dangerous path we are on as the wheels of industrial agriculture and a corporate food system churn at breakneck speed. But, like the Gill Tract occupiers who’ve created a community farm in the shadow of commercial development, Berry tells us, “This has not been inevitable. We do not have to live as if we are alone.”
The 2012 Farm Bill will not go far enough in supporting a democratic food system because those who write it don’t have ties to the land or the neighborhoods that will be most affected.
“An economy genuinely local and neighborly,” declares Berry, echoing the vision of the Gill Tract farm, “offers to localities a measure of security that they cannot derive from a national or a global economy controlled by people who, by principle, have no local commitment.” Take Back the Tract seems like the perfect antidote.
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