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“Farmland is for Farming:" A Discussion with Anya Kamenskaya on the Gill Tract Occupation

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Since the National Young Farmers’ Coaltion first reported on the Gill Tract Occupation in April 2012, occupiers were removed from the property by a UCPD raid on May 14th, 2012. Despite being prohibited by the UC to maintain a physical presence on the Gill Tract, protestors remain active in their efforts to sustain the 13-acre acre parcel as community-supported and educational agricultural land.  Currently, the UC uses the Gill Tract for corn-based research. However, the UC intends to commercially develop six of the remaining thirteen acres, which will include a Whole Foods grocery store.


On July 9th, the Albany City Council held a 7-hour long meeting to discuss developing the Gill Tract in Albany, CA. The parcel of land is the site of the Gill Tract Farm occupation, organized by community members, students, and activists. Anya Kamenskaya, a project manager at San Francisco’s artist collective Future Farms, is an involved organizer of the Gill Tract Occupation protests, and was present for the City Council meeting on July 9th.  According to Kamenskaya, local community members expressed discontent with the development plans to build a Whole Foods on the last seven acres of Class One soil in the East Bay. “There is a great deal of irony to be found when considering that a high-end national grocery chain is planned to be built on what used to be 104 acres of farmland. Farmland is for farming,” says Kamenskaya.


            Kamenskaya became involved with the Gill Tract as a senior at UC Berkeley when she intended to begin an afterschool gardening program with local elementary students. Through these efforts, she was introduced to the greater Albany community working to preserve the Gill Tract as farmland. The community inspired Kamenskaya, even when her program was unsuccessful. “Although the garden project didn’t fly, the associated research and community connections left me with the conviction that the land needs to be maintained for the purpose of agricultural education.” In November 2011, a UC Berkeley alum contacted Kamenskaya to ask for her support in organizing a land occupation protest at the Gill Tract. “Because I was aware of the fifteen-plus years of community effort to ensure that the Tract remained as agriculture land for the foreseeable future, I jumped at the chance to organized a farm-centric occupation,” Kamenskaya explains.


            Since then, Kamenskaya has been involved in protests at the Gill Tract, including a recent harvest on July 7th. She recalls the events of the day—the sunshine, the 100 protesters in spite of anticipated police presence, and the signs that read, “Public Access to Public Land.”  Protesters harvested the crops that were sown prior to the UC’s removal of occupiers on May 14th. Seven wheelbarrows of cucumbers, summer squash, beets, and herbs were collected and later distributed to local food justice and anti-hunger organizations including Food Not Bombs, Phat Beets, and Peoples’ Grocery. Other veggies were used in a canning and pickling party the next day.


However, the protestors also encountered two 200-foot rows of lettuce that had been left to bolt and were therefore inedible. Kamenskaya expresses disappointment at the UC for neglecting the crops after they had claimed to be caring for them. “Subsequent to the raid on May 14th, the UC had issued statements claiming to have been tending to the crops, so it was very disappointing to find that many of the rows were overgrown with weeds over two feet tall,” she claims. Kamenskaya was one in the small group of protesters who delivered the wilted lettuce to the Chancellor’s building on the UC Berkeley Campus. Despite their frustration and disappointment at the UC, the protestors managed to maintain an inspiring sense of humor. They left a note for the Chancellor that ended in the words, “You can’t beet us, so lettuce farm already.”


            Although the protestors’ spirits remain high in light of upsetting events, Kamenskaya does not fail to acknowledge the serious implications of the Tract’s potential development. “People are making development decisions that may yield short-term monetary benefits, without giving full weight to the long-term impact of what it means to lose farmland forever. According to the American Farmland Trust, the US has been losing more than an acre of farmland per minute to development for the last 10 years or so,” she explains. “One of the effects of this loss of farmland is less arable land to grow food for the U.S. within U.S. borders, and an increasing reliance on globalized networks of trade, which are most often connected to large-scale industrial agriculture.”


            Instead, Kamenskaya advocates the creation of an urban agriculture education center. “The center for sustainable urban agriculture is a model that many people advocating for a farm on the Gill Tract support. This center could be the lead in providing practical and theoretical classes on agricultural challenges specific to urban areas,” she says. Specifically, education surrounding the bioremediation of contaminated soils (a challenge faced by many urban farmers) would be especially helpful to the community.


            Kamenskaya emphasizes that preserving the Gill Tract is important to young farmers with a “bigger picture” attitude. “Young farmers are inheriting the affects of decisions made by previous generations,” she expresses with concern. “If current trends of rapid land development and enclosure persist, we will have a hardscrabble landscape on which to grow food for our communities.” She has hopes that the Gill Tract will serve as a local, state-level, and national model for successfully preserving urban farmland.  In the meantime, Kamenskaya urges farmers to remember the grassroots community as a means to accomplish political demands, such as land preservation.

 So, lettuce farm already! 

To hear more from Anya on the subject, read here:–-urban-farm-sanctuary-or-just-another-lot-slated-for-development/
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