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The urban garden movement continues to blossom, attracting many city dwellers craving connection to the earth, who are growing their own fruits and vegetables and preserving land in an area of concrete.
The Bay Area and University of California, Berkeley, discovered just how prominent that issue has become when some 200 urban farmers in 2012 descended on the UC Gill Tract area, a UC Berkeley site in Albany where agricultural research was being done, and occupied the farm. Organizers opposed a university plan to allow part of the area to be developed into a housing and shopping area.
For 22 days, these Bay Area farmers — who brought tents, seedlings and a steely determination to plant a garden — drew the attention of the media, the university and the community, particularly neighbors.
Documentary filmmaker Todd Darling followed this grassroots group in his 2014 feature “Occupy the Farm,” which catalogs the farmers’ dogged efforts to see the land not get developed. He also captures the university’s response.
To mark Earth Day (April 22), PBS will be airing “Occupy the Farm” at 8 p.m. April 20 on KRCB (Cotati) and 7 p.m. April 22 on KPJK (San Mateo). A roundtable discussion follows each airing and will give an update on the status of the UC Gill Tract.
We caught up with Darling and emailed him a few questions about making the documentary and what has transpired in the years after it. Due to length, some responses have been edited.
What spurred you to make the documentary?
Darling: I had directed a show for MTV called “Laguna Beach.” A friend, Carl Grether, suggested we look at urban farmers in Oakland as a similar programming idea that would feature a geographically based set of friends who are all involved in the same activity. After meeting urban farmers in West Oakland and San Leandro I was amazed and inspired. So, we put together a reel of East Bay urban farmers, their lives and the potential and challenges of urban farming. When we showed it to the network, the idea was rejected. An exec said, “MTV doesn’t do gardening shows.”
Not long after that depressing response, I happened to be in front of Oakland City Hall at the height of the Occupy movement. Amid a sea of tents and people was a kitchen serving food. Running this kitchen were some of the urban farmers I’d just met. Right then, I got a flash: These people in the kitchen and those people in the tents are going to get together, they will occupy some land for farming and that story will make a feature film. I told friends that this was going to happen.
Six months later, I got a text saying activists were marching onto this place called the Gill Tract with 15,000 seedlings to plant up two acres of crops in order to save the land from becoming a real estate development. I was in L.A. at the time, so I called up some friends who lived nearby, and they went and filmed there on Day 1 and 2. I arrived on Day 3 and knew right away this would be an amazing story.
One of the eye-openers is that some of the main farmers were former UC Berkeley students and grads. Did that surprise you?
Darling: I can’t say I was surprised that UC Berkeley grads and students were highly visible in Occupy the Farm. It is UC Berkeley-controlled land. And, Berkeley is the kind of place where besides offering a good education, it is also a place, a culture, that motivates people to be active in the big, wide world. Walk the walk, if you’re gonna talk the talk. Additionally, there was a very dynamic professor, Miguel Altieri, who taught agroecology and had a class on urban farming in which students grow food. There are generations, probably thousands of students inspired by this guy. What he says makes such sense, and so saving this land for agriculture would have been a goal for practically anyone taking one of his classes.
At a time when many feel disenfranchised and powerless, a film about unifying and rallying around a common cause seems ever more timely. Do you think “Occupy the Farm” captures that community spirit? And do you think that it might inspire other actions?
Darling: I do hope it inspires other people, because in our current moment, despair is too common, too widespread. And I understand why: There is a lot to be depressed about. When I started this film, I realized a couple things right away. First, it’s fun to dig your hands into the earth and empowering to grow your own food. The occupation, the agricultural part, had a lot of joy associated with it. The second realization is that this was a very local, community action. This land is probably only a 15-minute bike ride from home for 90% of the people who were involved. Consequently, when there was some new curve ball, some obstacle put up by the university authorities, the neighbors were very quick to respond with enthusiasm and solutions. Trucking in the water and irrigating two acres of seedlings by hand? That was an enormous effort by dozens, probably hundreds, of people.
It is a hopeful story. Everyday people, banding together, acting on a vision and winning something positive. Their philosophy was: Make what you want real. They were able to shame a powerful institution that was violating its charter. They offered a better vision for the land, and they were persistent. That is the trifecta. I do think “Occupy the Farm” will be a positive example for people, something to look at for inspiration. It’s a model they can adapt to their own circumstances, mainly because it shows that to accomplish something, all we need is each other.
It looked like you were filming there all 22 days of the occupation. Is that true?
Darling: I was not there every day. There was no electricity on the farm, so we had to sleep somewhere else so we could charge batteries, and download camera cards. There was a team of people helping me. Max Good, an East Bay filmmaker, shot a lot. Gary Weimberg, a filmmaker and close friend, lives nearby, and he’d race over when something was happening. Blake Hodges helped film. Peter Menchini was there for the first day, and his footage covers that. Carl Grether filmed there, too. And, news stations covered it. KPIX sent a helicopter to cover a police action. Sometimes I’d be the only person there, and other times there were a half dozen news trucks parked outside. Editing it together, it may seem like just one person — but in fact, I was not alone in filming this story.
Do you think urban farming will become more relevant and prevalent in the future?
Darling: Yes, urban farming has to be a big part of our future, and it has to be considered in the design of urban development going forward. It can provide healthy food to low-income communities, or any community for that matter. The City of Oakland was mapped a few years ago, and it revealed that there is enough publicly owned, open land that if farmed, it could feed most of Oakland. That is kind of staggering.
Fact is, at this 21st century moment, after this film was made, we’ve had record-breaking droughts, record-breaking wildfires, we face a pandemic in which food insecurity has roared to the front as a punishing factor for hundreds of thousands of people, and climate change is now pushing many species — from salmon to monarch butterflies — to the brink of extinction. Maybe not everyone has to be an urban farmer — but to put it in harsh terms — if most people who live in cities don’t become at least micro-urban farmers then collectively, as a species, we’re failing. Resilience in the face of all this makes urban farming a growing necessity.
Anyone making a documentary hopes the story and the subject will remain relevant. With “Occupy the Farm,” none of us imagined that the issues discussed would become so prevalent, so quickly. At first, listening to the farmers talk, it was like, “Oh, yeah that makes sense.” And now, it’s like, “This is happening today.”
What’s the latest update on the Gill Tract?
Darling: The Gill Tract is still growing food. The farmers had to create university-approved COVID-19 protocols in order to work. So, the growing season in 2020 was challenging, but they figured it out. During the pandemic this one acre, UC Gill Tract Community Farm, supplied fresh food, at no cost, to 70 East Bay families.
I believe the agricultural research on the other six or so acres went ahead pretty much on schedule. This spring, seedlings are going into the ground right now. Generally speaking, the farm is operated in collaboration between academics from the university, volunteer farmers from the East Bay, grants from foundations, UC agricultural extension personnel and the College of Natural Resources.
On the other hand, there are new threats to this farm. UC Capital Strategies recently proposed a new, six-story dormitory for approximately 800 grad students. This dorm is to be designed, built and owned by a company from Texas called American Campus Communities. This company’s website says that they “specialize in the privatization process.” The company has not yet responded to my requests for comment, but according to UC Capital Strategies, this company will decide what is designed and built. So far, the plan as presented to the public ignores the farm, it offers no classrooms or space, it dislocates farm facilities for tractors and equipment and it will thus shrink the growing fields.
UC Capital Strategies also says this dorm development will also “facilitate” further development on this agricultural land. So, there is no promise they will leave the Gill Tract as farmland — in fact UC Capital Strategies’ map still calls the farm “recreational open space.”
But, they face a contradiction. UC Berkeley is a “land grant college” whose charter requires it to teach and research agriculture, and this is their last farm of any size, anywhere close to campus. Not only is the Gill Tract important for research and farming, the land is also part of the largest remaining habitat in the Bay Area for the endangered monarch butterfly.
So, on a piece of California’s scarce publicly owned urban farmland, with habitat for the endangered species, the monarch butterfly, we are going to give it to an out-of-state company to design, own and operate a six-story dorm complex? What could go wrong?
The Regents have yet to vote on this plan, so there is still time for the public to get involved and voice their opinions. The timeline is not set, but this issue could come to the Regents as soon as May or early summer.