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'Whole Food, Not Whole Foods': Renegade Farmers Reclaim Land on Earth Day

To prevent the sale for private development, citizens plant community garden

Common Dreams staff

An Occupy the Farm protester rototills a patch of land owned by UC Berkeley at Buchanan and Jackson streets in Albany. (Kevin Johnson / The Chronicle)

Bay area residents on Sunday, in order to prevent development of a chain grocery store, reclaimed 10 acres of land owned by the University of California-Berkeley and planted a community garden.

The protesters-cum-gardeners, several dozen of them in all, broke the lock on a chain-linked fence about mid-day and got to work digging beds, roto-tilling soil, and planting carrots, broccoli, and other vegetables. The plan is to build a sustainable community garden and stave off any attempt by UC Berkeley to sell the land for private development. Gopal Dayaneni, one of the 20 or so core organizers of the action, told the San Jose Mercury News that the group was committed to growing both the farm and its community of farmers. Volunteers had about 10,000 starts -- small bulbs or seedlings -- and dug dozens of rows. Some people brought chickens, and the group even brought in a large tank for watering.

"This is the last, best agricultural soil in the East Bay, and we want it to be preserved for community farming and sustainable urban agriculture, not chopped up and sold off in pieces by the university," said Dayaneni, a 43-year-old Oakland resident and father of two who said he's long been active in environmental and ecological issues in the East Bay.

Police were on the scene throughout the day, but no arrests were reported. The 'renegade farmers' were pitching tents at the end of the day, but said they had no plans to permanently occupy the land.  "Our goal is not to live here, our goal is to create a working urban agro-ecological farm," Anya Kamenskaya, a spokesperson for the group, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

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San Francisco Chronicle: Activists raise stakes with renegade farm

A tussle between preservationists and UC Berkeley over a decadelong development project in Albany erupted into a pitchfork protest Sunday, when activists planted a renegade farm on a plot of land known as the Gill Tract in an effort to keep it agriculturally pristine.

Timing their action to Earth Day, about 200 members of Occupy the Farm to Take Back the Gill Tract broke a lock on a gate, rototilled the soil and planted carrot, broccoli and corn seedlings on part of the 10-acre site at Marin and San Pablo avenues. The Albany tract is owned by UC Berkeley, which has plans for further housing and commercial development nearby.

Police were on hand not long after the activists broke in at mid-afternoon and informed them they were breaking the law, but no arrests were made.

By early evening, there was no police presence visible at the site, located near a busy street corner just east of Highway 80. Most of the activists had departed, but 50 or 60 planned to camp out at the site and had begun erecting tents.

Anya Kamenskaya, a spokeswoman for the group, said police officers told them they might return, but it was unclear if they would try to evict them.

"We think it is the height of irony that a upscale national chain grocery store would be building on arable land where food can be grown here for the community."--Anya Kamensksaya, renegade farmer

"Our goal is not to live here, our goal is to create a working urban agro-ecological farm," Kamenskaya said.

There was no immediate comment on the situation from UC Berkeley representatives. [...]

"I wouldn't call this property damage, I'd call it property enrichment," said Lesley Haddock, a UC Berkeley sophomore who was part of the farm-in. "Basically what we did was pull out weeds. We're not trying to protect it as is, but to turn it into a community hub for agriculture."

She said Occupy the Farm was not linked to the Occupy Oakland protests, but "was philosophically inspired by it." The movement, she added, was done in solidarity with the Brazilian Movimiento Sin Tierra (Landless Workers Movement) and La Via Campesina (the International Day of Peasant's Struggles).

The activists erected signs, including one that read "Whole food, not Whole Foods," a reference to the grocery chain that is a possible tenant at the site.

"We think it is the height of irony that a upscale national chain grocery store would be building on arable land where food can be grown here for the community," Kamenskaya said.

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San Jose Mercury News: Protesters occupy Berkeley-owned farm tract in Albany

The group said it hopes the university will commit to using the remaining land for public farming, rather than selling it off. The new farm, Dayaneni said, is a work in progress, but the group hopes to build on Sunday's efforts and make it a source of "healthy, local, yummy, tasty food for people who need it."

A live online video stream from Ustream user BellaEiko on Sunday showed dozens of protesters milling about the tract around 4 p.m., some of them gardening. A few minutes earlier, the stream showed University of California police officers telling protesters that they were trespassing and subject to arrest.

Neither Cal spokesman Dan Mogulof nor university police immediately returned phone calls Sunday afternoon asking for comment. Albany police referred all questions to university police.

Dayaneni said the group has been cordial with police and is planning to camp out to protect its hard work.

"Occupy the Farm is committed to farming; that's the purpose of it," he said. "If (police) want to tell us to leave, we'll keep farming, and they'll have to make a decision what to do."

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