UC Dean Announces Plans for Program to Support Urban Farming

September 20, 2012 | Posted by Ed .

The University of California dean who oversees the Gill Tract announced plans Tuesday night to create a center for food systems, urban agriculture and food policy that would be connected to the research field for at least the next decade.

Keith Gilless, who runs UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources, gave the City Council and members of the public an update at Tuesday's council meeting about his plans for the agricultural land.

The property became the subject of much debate earlier this year when activists, under the moniker 'Occupy the Farm', took it over to plant crops and demand its protection as a community urban farm in perpetuity. 

Gilless said he has been able to raise a "substantial amount" of money from foundations and individuals who are interested in supporting a center that would focus on what UC Berkeley terms "metropolitan agriculture." 

The center, yet unnamed, would be based at Berkeley but would use the Gill Tract farmland for program activities. Gilless said he does not foresee the construction of any buildings on the field.

Gilless said he's at the point financially where he can begin to determine staffing for the center. 

"To-date we have substantial commitments from several generous donors that will support the development of a center and its activities for an initial five years," he wrote in a letter presented to the council Tuesday night. (See the entire letter as a PDF above.)

Gilless said he's confident that the rest of the money will be forthcoming "to allow our programs to grow and flourish far beyond the initial funding period."


Gilless said earlier this year that, as dean of the College of Natural resources, he has operational authority over the Gill Tract. The Gill Tract property, in the long term, however, had been under the wing of the university's Capital Projects division. Activists concerned with the Gill Tract's future have claimed this likely meant the land was slated for future development. 

(The university has asserted, however, that its Master Plan for University Village outlines future uses at the Gill Tract primarily for open space and recreation.)

Gilless announced Tuesday that the university has granted him full authority over the Gill Tract for at least the next 10 years, which he described as "a good period to try and build programs" based at the site.

Gilless told the council that he's hired a new faculty member, Kathryn DeMaster of Brown University, to work on issues related to local food systems and food security; she's scheduled to begin in January. 

Part of DeMaster's work will involve investigating "how the Gill Tract can be utilized in support of these efforts," said Gilless in his letter. He noted the work of two other UC professors in his college whose work focuses on farming systems, and who will help develop the vision for the urban agriculture center. 

The dean said there are also two pending UC Cooperative Extension positions that would relate to metropolitan agriculture and food systems; he said he expects that both are likely to be filled within the next two years depending on the university budget. 

"I believe we have a unique opportunity to create a new model for community-university collaboration that could help advance an exciting field of research, while potentially yielding significant benefits for local urban farmers, our children and our community," he wrote in his letter. 

Gilless said he looks forward to continued collaboration with Albany residents as well as broader interests in the Bay Area that are related to farming and food systems.

The dean took several moments during his presentation to note concerns about the activities of urban farming activists who have continued to break into the Gill Tract field to harvest crops they planted earlier this year.

He expressed these concerns more in-depth in his letter, criticizing "some of the actions and rhetoric of Occupy the Farm's supporters. At times, these seem to show little respect or appreciation for the mission of [the College of Natural Resources] or the University, the rights of others, or what I think of as legitimate, community-based democratic processes.... I am also hearing more concern from faculty members with ongoing research on the Gill Tract about the level of threats they perceive to the integrity of their work posed by the continued presence of unauthorized, untrained and unsupervised individuals on their site." 


Councilwomen Peggy Thomsen and Joanne Wile both said they were excited about the update; said Wile, "It's a real achievement by Dean Gilless.... We're looking forward to working with him and the new faculty person" as plans for the program advance. 

Thomsen, who is running in November to retain her council seat, said Gilless' success fundraising for the center has been "impressive," adding, with a nod to the dean, "There are so many facets to what you're trying to do." 

Wile said members of the public can get in touch with her or Thomsen to share ideas and thoughts about the Gill Tract.

(Both women were designated by the rest of the council to serve as a subcommittee to spearhead city collaboration with the university concerning the Gill Tract; they held a meeting over the summer to collect community feedback and brought ideas from that meeting to Tuesday's session. The ideas are also summarized in an attachment to the city staff report posted above as a PDF.)

Five members of the public spoke following Gilless' short presentation, and shared both concerns and ideas. Unlike prior city meetings related to the Gill Tract, many of which included overflow crowds and documentary film crew cameras, Tuesday's meeting was more sparsely attended by about a dozen Albany residents. 


Some took issue with Gilless' characterization of Occupy the Farm participants as a threat, and asked the university and city to try harder to engage the community about plans for and activities on the Gill Tract.

Council candidate and Albany resident Ulan McKnight said the Gill Tract activists had been "engaging in a form of civil protest .... specifically to ask UC to open up the process to be more inclusive ... and less opaque." McKnight, who took part in various farming activities at the Gill Tract as part of the protest, said members of the group "never harmed a crop" and "never threatened to harm a crop," adding that he hoped the university would "change its narrative" about the activists' activities. 

Albany resident Ed Fields said he was happy to hear that the Gill Tract land was now under the authority of the College of Natural Resources, but added that he, too, was "dismayed by the comments about the Occupy the Farm supporters."

He said, over the past months, despite the university's promises to engage the community, "I haven't seen much happen" as far as a public process.

Fields took the city to task for failing to use its 'Whole Foods project' development agreement to force the university to let the city have a say in the Gill Tract's future. Fields said he was also disappointed when plans by the city to sign up volunteers to farm the Gill Tract land ultimately came to naught. 

"Nothing has happened except for the fact that the Occupy the Farm supporters have continued to harvest crops," he said. "It's hard to blame the Occupy the Farm supporters for doing things when the university has not established a mechanism with the city" for engagement.

Gilless said, after the meeting, that the city and university decided to scrap initial efforts to organize community members to farm the Gill Tract when Occupy the Farm activists announced plans to crash their first work party.

"The situation was just too tense to move forward with that and so we just put it on hold," he said. "The first time I was going out with folks from Albany, the Occupy folks were coming in and that just didn't seem like a good situation. We'll get there." 

He acknowledged that, up to this point, there has been no known damage to research crops, and little vandalism beyond repeatedly cutting the locks to get into the property. 

Gilless said he's committed to moving forward aggressively with his plans for a center for metropolitan agriculture and for hiring people with the expertise to help develop it.

"I'm moving forward as fast as I can on this," he said. "I wish I could move faster."

Source: Albany Patch

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