by Anya Kamenskaya
It is undeniable that in the last year or so, the media’s discourse surrounding Food has escalated into one that titillates, frustrates, and invigorates people of many professions and inclinations. The very word has taken on many meanings and subtexts: everything from farmworker’s rights to international trade relations to the growing population of young farmers. Popular newspapers and magazines have circulated the words “locavore,” “sustainable,” and “green” to the point where you can’t read a foodsystems-related article without tripping over one of them. Movies with budgets large (Food Inc) and smaller (King Corn) are ostensibly opening more and more American eyes to the devastation that the current industrial food system wreaks on our children, our soils, and our minds.
Of course, I do not presume that this wave of awareness and interest has reached its climax, or that every American has the opportunity to choose between factory-raised or pastured pork. Indeed, those who labor for food justice have a long way yet to go. However, there are institutions that are increasingly opening their dialogue (and sometimes even infrastructures and budgets) to include food. And thanks to students nationwide (like many of those who write for this blog), universities are on the forefront of creating equitable food policy, research, and participation.
During my four years at UC Berkeley, countless food-focused student groups have emerged or have seen rapid growth in membership: The Sustainability Team, the Student Organic Gardening Association, the Society for Agriculture and Food Ecology, Cal Cooking Club, Sprouts, OBUGS, and just within the last year, the Cal Victory Garden and the Berkeley Student Food Collective. Many of these organizations have made lasting partnerships with staff and faculty, worked to source local produce in our dining halls, and have received grants that allow them to occupy permanent spaces on campus. Still, there is a crucial piece missing in the foundation that we have been building; a space where the energy and innovation we have put into on-campus ethical and sustainable food availability can intersect with the needs of the greater Bay Area community. In order words, what we need is a university-run urban farm. And the crucial link is already there. We already have the land and the tools in place to make it a reality.
The land I refer to is the Gill Tract, located on San Pablo and Marin, at the intersection of Berkeley, Albany, and the Marina. Purchased in 1928 from the Gill Family, this 104-acre plot of land has gone through several uses, and has seen considerable downsizing since its purchase. Before its acquisition by the university, the land was part of a massive nursery run by renowned horticulturalist Edward Gill. During the course of the next 65 years, the land was split up, with some plots sold, and others developed by the University to accommodate housing needs. Currently there are 14 remaining acres, 9.7 of which are arable land. Alarmingly, these acres are under threat of development: valuable infrastructure such as green houses are all but destroyed, and plans for a new structures such as a Whole Foods are in the pipes.
To date, one of the most well known occupants of the space was the UC Division/International Center of Biological Control, which operated between 1945 and 1996. During this time the land was used to develop ecological pest control methods, with both local and international academics running experiments. The last 20 years of research also resulted in the land being cultivated using organic methods. Sadly, in 1996 funding for Biological Control was cut, and most of the experiments were moved to the Oxford Tract, closer to the university. At present, UCB professor Miguel Altieri conducts agroecological research on about a third of the land. He is the last standing testament to the ecological legacy of the Gill Tract.
Although we lost a valuable resource when the Center was closed, there is still opportunity to reinvent the Gill Tract into an interdisciplinary research facility that benefits the University, the students, and the public. Many schools nationwide have farm programs, such as UC Santa Cruz, Dartmouth and Cornell. Berkeley could not only bolster their research, but also stand out as the only University to conduct agricultural research in an urban setting.
Given that the Bay Area is home to countless urban farms – City Slickers, People’s Grocery, Sunnyside Organic, just to name a few – and backyard gardeners, thousands of people stand to benefit from local urban agriculture research. In addition, students in the departments of Natural Resources, Geography, Biology, City and Regional Planning, and the many student groups on campus would have a conveniently-located experiential learning facility. The campus dining commons, which are already taking steps to source local and organic food, could have an extremely local source of fresh vegetables. Finally, the many middle schools in the Albany, Berkeley, and Oakland Unified School Districts would have a place where they could experience a larger, integrated version of their own school gardens. In short, there are many opportunities that the Gill Tract can afford us. If we are to join the rising tide of foodsystems awareness, we cannot afford to let them slip away.
My colleague Justin Wiley and I started working on reviving the Gill Tract movement last year during an Environmental Education class. Although we have since graduated, we are still committed to seeing this land become a productive part of the community. We are now in the second year of rallying community groups such as the Albany Teen center and Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility around the resurrection of the Gill Tract as a research and teaching facility. We are currently focusing on a nascent urban farm-to-school program with participants from the Albany teen center. This fall we are planting an organic fall garden with the students, exploring relationships with university professors, staff, and student groups, and raising money and awareness of the project. In the spring we hope to increase class size and cement partnerships with more local non-profits such as Food First, California Food and Justice Coalition, and People’s Grocery.
We are encouraged by the steps that UC Berkeley has already taken to support local, sustainable agriculture. Our wish is that our school will support a long-term vision that can only bring much-needed resources to the Bay Area, and that will increase our public wealth of knowledge.
If you are interested in learning more about our project, or want to get involved, please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Website coming soon; meanwhile check out our Facebook page. These old links to past projects at the Gill Tract are also informative: Village Creek Farm and Garden, Bay Area Coalition for Urban Agriculture