Occupy the Farm: A struggle for land sovereignty in the East Bay

Tiffany Tsang | 07.04.2013

Occupy the Farm (OTF), an assembly of activists from the San Francisco Bay Area, is raising its voice against unsustainable development, reclaiming a piece of land in Albany known as the “Gill Tract” that is slated for commercial development. The Gill Tract, previously dedicated to sustainable agricultural research, has become an important battleground in the struggle for land and food sovereignty in the Bay Area.

The piece of land in question, the southern portion of a 104-acre tract owned by the University of California system, is slated for development by Sprouts Farmers Market, a supermarket chain with over 150 stores in the US. Last year, due to OTF pressure, “natural” and organic foods retailer Whole Foods backed out of a similar deal with the UC. Sprouts is now attempting to make a deal with the UC over that same piece of land. Over nine days in May of this year, occupiers broke ground, establishing an urban farm, and replanted twice when UC police ploughed over the field.

OTF argues that, as a taxpayer-funded land-grant institute, the UC has a responsibility to provide research and services that benefit its community. Under UC’s current plan to sell the land to the Sprouts supermarket chain, OTF sees little value added to the community. But the larger question is: who in the community most needs the land, one of the last pieces of class-1 uncontaminated agricultural land in the urban East Bay. As OTF activist Effie Rawlings put it, OTF does not focus on the legal claim the community has to the land but supports the idea that “land use decisions should not be based on economic reasons, but social and environmental reasons.”

OTF activists argue that urban agriculture can help alleviate the problems of hunger and poverty in the East Bay: 169,000 adults in Alameda County earning at or below 200% the Federal Poverty Line experienced food insecurity in 2012 [1]. Urban agriculture–which produces 15-30% of the global food supply[2]–holds real potential to feed the community: the 1,201 acres of underutilized or vacant lots in Oakland could produce enough fresh produce to satisfy at least 40% of the city of Oakland’s fresh vegetable needs and an additional 337 acres of underutilized land is private land that could be used for urban agriculture [3].

Currently, none of the agriculture projects endorsed by UC planners on the Gill Tract benefit the local community [4]. Just north of where Sprouts is to be developed, the UC is conducting basic maize research on gene silencing [5]–knowledge used in transgenic research and research on agrofuel production [6]. While the UC claims to be alleviating world hunger with these projects, the real benefit is for agribusiness corporations [7].

The Gill Tract struggle is connected to the struggles of small farmers and peasants around the world who have for decades resisted the power of industrial agriculture and land grabbing for the production of industrial food, feed and fuel. OTF is thus part of the global fight for “land sovereignty,” defined as “the right of working peoples to have effective access to, use of, and control over land and the benefits of its use and occupation” [8].

Due to last year’s occupation, the UC transferred a portion of the Gill Tract from UC Capital Projects to the University’s Department of Natural Resources. With renewed pressure from OTF this year, the UC has recently initiated negotiations for a parcel of land adjacent to the site of OTF resistance to be set aside for public use. Miguel Altieri, Professor of Agroecology at UC, is offering his lab’s field on the north side of the Tract to the community for a participatory urban agriculture research project.

Currently, Occupy the Farm is launching a pressure campaign against Sprouts, and building its base by supporting other community actions and holding workshops on food sovereignty. To support OTF’s pressure campaign against Sprouts’ development of the Gill Tract, you can join the pledge to boycott the supermarket chain if plans for development continue. To join the Gill Tract’s participatory urban agriculture project, contact tmt39@cornell.edu before July 20th or CLICK HERE for details.



1. Chaparro, MP, B Langellier, K Birnback, M Sharp, and G Harrison. Nearly Four Million Californians Are Food Insecure. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 2012. http://cfpa.net/CalFresh/Media/CHIS-HealthPolicyBrief-2012.pdf.

2. Johnson, Renee, Randy Aussenberg, and Tadlock Cowan. The Role of Local Food Systems in U.S. Farm Policy. Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. Federation of American Scientists, March 12, 2013.http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42155.pdf.

3. McClintock, Nathan, Jenny Cooper, and Snehee Khandeshi. “Assessing the Potential Contribution of Vacant Land to Urban Vegetable Production and Consumption in Oakland, California.” Landscape and Urban Planning 111 (March 2013): 46-58. doi:10.1016/j.landurbplan.2012.12.009.

4. The exception is the land Miguel Altieri, Professor of Agroecology at UC, is offering from his lab’s field to community members this year for a participatory research project in urban agriculture.

5. Lisch, Damon. “Blog: Your Research at the Gill Tract.” Albany Patch, May 17, 2012.http://albany.patch.com/groups/damon-lischs-blog/p/bp–your-research-at-….

6. Lisch came to the UC with a $25 million research grant from the agricultural department of Novartis for this project. The agricultural department of Novartis is now part of Syngenta, a seed and fertilizer company with the third largest market share in the world in 2009. Sarah Hake researches genes in maize to improve switchgrass for efficient biofuel production. The research of these two principal investigators takes up most of the north side of the Gill Tract. (Shand, Hope. “The Big Six: A Profile of Corporate Power in Seeds, Agrochemicals and Biotech.” The Heritage Farm Companion, Summer 2012)

Chuck, George S., Christian Tobias, Lan Sun, Florian Kraemer, Chenlin Li, Dean Dibble, Rohit Arora, et al. “Overexpression of the Maize Corngrass1 microRNA Prevents Flowering, Improves Digestibility, and Increases Starch Content of Switchgrass.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 42 (October 18, 2011): 17550-17555. doi:10.1073/pnas.1113971108.

7. “Altieri Op-Ed: Gill Tract Occupation Offers Solution for Key Issues.” Albany Patch. Accessed June 21, 2013. http://albany.patch.com/groups/opinion/p/altieri-op-ed-gill-tract-occupa….

8. Borras, Saturnino M., and Jennifer Franco. A “Land Sovereignty” Alternative? Towards a Peoples’ Counter-Enclosure. TNI Agrarian Justice Programme, July 2012.

Stay in the loop with Food First!

Get our independent analysis, research, and other publications you care about to your inbox for free!

Sign up today!