Occupy The Farm

By Kerri Stenson | October 01, 2014
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community day
Photo by Kelly Johnson

People love food. People need food. Not all people have access to fresh, wholesome food. This is social inequality. UC Berkeley has long been known as a powerful epicenter of political and social activism. In fact, a thorough study of the activist chronology at UC Berkeley would be like taking a course in American history for almost the past century.

From the 1930s student protests against the United States ending its disarmament policy and joining the impending World War II to the counterculture throughout the 1960s mobilizing unprecedented demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and in pursuit of free speech and assembly and civil rights, Berkeley has been at the center of every debate. Social movements with Berkeley roots have contributed to significant shifts in the course of the 20th century, and in the 21st century the spirit of activism at Berkeley is still alive. The most recent cause has shifted to something most basic and profound: the essential human right of access to real food.

On April 22, 2012, hundreds of urban farmers marched onto the land in East Bay’s Gill Tract in Albany—an agricultural research center for the University and the last large piece of farmland in the East Bay, which had been marked for development by UC Berkeley. They brought 15,000 seedlings, farming equipment, camping gear and a powerful conviction about the human right to grow their own food and to connect with the land. Students, community members and even UC Berkeley professors and researchers joined forces to “take back the tract” and protect the land for important food research and as a valued public resource for access to land and agriculture.

On that same day, film director Todd Darling received a text about the protesters who were occupying the Gill Tract, and he grabbed his camera and followed their story for five months. Out of this was born Occupy The Farm, a documentary film about the plight and triumph of hundreds of urban farmers during their campaign to protect the tract from development. This film focuses on the human need for access to local agriculture, and shows the possibility that local communities can change the direction of powerful institutions and have a lasting impact on generations to come.

The team at Edible Silicon Valley met with director Todd Darling and producer Steve Brown, at Brown’s home in Woodside, to view a pre-release copy of Occupy The Farm. A lively Q & A discussion ensued.

Edible Silicon Valley: What inspired you to make this film?

Todd Darling: I had been doing research for a TV series on urban farmers in Oakland with my friend Carl Grether. These folks were resourceful, creative and rebellious in their response to a serious social need—feeding themselves and their neighbors—in urban, poor/working class, mostly nonwhite neighborhoods that are largely excluded from the food distribution system except what you can buy in a corner liquor store. West Oakland has eight square miles, 21,000 people and zero grocery stores.

The TV series idea fizzled but, in early November 2011 I found myself in the middle of Occupy Oakland, in front of Oakland City Hall. And there, among hundreds of tents, was the kitchen for Occupy—being run by some of the same farmers we had met during our research. I realized immediately that some urban farmers were joining forces with people from Occupy. I didn’t know who or when, but I knew it would be over some piece of land, and that would be a film, a potentially epic film about food justice. So, when the text went out about the action called Occupy the Farm and Carl’s mother, Judy Grether, forwarded it to us, Carl, Gary Wiemberg and I jumped on it. We had no money, only borrowed gear, but we made it happen.

Steve Brown: I had collaborated with Todd on a previous film about a group of dreamers who were trying to change the world in creative ways, and I knew Todd was a passionate and talented filmmaker. I could see that Todd was onto a significant story with Occupy The Farm. The food we eat is the most fundamental connection between nature and ourselves. When we lose that connection, we start to lose our humanity. In Occupy The Farm, I could see the potential for an inspiring story of a small, passionate group of people trying to make a difference in their own community that, if successful, could have a much larger impact.

ESV: What does Occupy the Farm mean to you?

TD: I am inspired by these intelligent people who responded to their situation not with despair but with creativity. What can we do, in a self-reliant way, to help provide for ourselves locally, but speak to larger issues nationally. I quickly saw at Occupy The Farm that the very act of growing food together builds a community people can relate to—a relationship between people and a communal resilience. Maybe it was the fact that the farm was created as an act of defiance and protest, but practically everyone who walked onto that land—and there were hundreds of people who visited, perhaps thousands, over those three weeks—could not help but smile. The vibe was contagious.

SB: We live in a time with so much potential to make the world better, yet so many of our public institutions are dysfunctional and feel like they have lost their way, serving entrenched interests and forgetting their original mission and legacy. Now more than ever, we need disruptive new ideas in the public sector and daring new leaders to take risks to create change.

Coming from Silicon Valley, I have taken change for granted, expecting that when there are challenges, there will be innovative entrepreneurs diving in to make a difference, and the rate of change indeed has been astounding. But how does disruptive change happen with entrenched public institutions? That's where activism comes in. The difference is that the social change-makers are taking risks not for financial gain, but for their vision and values alone. They often are up against powerful institutions that can use the tools of power to beat people up and throw them in jail, even for peacefully watering vegetables. We will look back on the people who put their vision and values ahead of their own safety and dare to make a difference even against all the odds, and we will call them heroes.

ESV: How did making this film change or clarify your views about our relationship with the land and agriculture?

TD: One of the farmers, Ashoka Finely, says it pretty clearly: “If we straighten out our relationship with our food, we’ll do a lot to straighten out our relationship with the land and with each other.”

I was impressed by how much food you can grow on a fairly small plot of ground if you know what you’re doing. And, how the act of growing that food has a positive effect on people.

The current attitude, where urban land is typically viewed according to what kind of cash it can generate on a short-term basis, seems phenomenally shortsighted. And given how paved our urban world has become, in many cases the cash received today for that huge building might pale in comparison with the value of that same piece of land that is still growing food in 20 years.

The other thing I learned doing this project is just how serious “food apartheid” or “food deserts” have become. Entire communities are simply left out of the food distribution system, whether from ignorance, greed or racism; it is now an issue that must be dealt with. Local, sustainable food grown in these communities can provide thousands of people the margin between health and malnutrition.

SB: Access to healthy fruits and vegetables is a public health issue. When millions of young people grow up without access, they become at risk for many the chronic health issues that also are bankrupting our healthcare system. There has been a lot of blaming the victim when it comes to the poor and health, especially in areas like healthy eating. But this never has been a question of motivation. It has been a question of access. The people we followed in Occupy The Farm talk about “food justice” because if there is no access to healthy food in your community, that’s not just a public health issue—it’s a social justice issue.

ESV: There is inherent human conflict in activism. What were some of the most challenging moments for you, Todd, as filmmaker?

TD: Conflict is a daily occurrence. Making a film about activists involved in the occupation of public land in order to stop it from becoming a real-estate development put me as a filmmaker in the middle of a big conflict over money, land and the needs of a public institution—with a steady police presence and many opportunities for being seen as acting outside the law. So, I needed to tell all sides to the story. The truth is almost always more interesting than what I could make up.

I also think the presence of many children on the farm disarmed the hostility of the authorities. At the time when this film started, people from Occupy Oakland were still in the hospital recovering from point-blank shootings either from the Oakland PD or the Alameda Sheriffs. I sensed that this kind of action—farming done by families—confused the police a little. Were these people really harming anything, or stealing anything, while growing food on public land? Where is the crime?

ESV: Did you feel a different sense of responsibility in making this documentary?

TD: Yes. This is a story about one piece of publicly owned land on which three visions for the future competed. Would this public land become a real-estate development? Would it be used for genetic research to create patents that could be sold to corporations? Or would it be used to research and educate about sustainable agriculture?

Because this is public land, its dollar value is in competition with its potential to do public good. And since UC Berkeley is a “land grant college,” its charter requires them to teach agriculture for the public good. Within four miles of this land, to the north and to the south, are multiple “food desert” neighborhoods. The skills that could be taught on this land could greatly impact the health of these communities.

This puts a responsibility on the filmmaker’s shoulders to tell a good story and make the situation clear. The drama of this story provides an opportunity to reveal the profound basis of the food justice movement.

ESV: What was the process of finding the story? Did you get everybody that you approached for interview, or were there others who declined to be filmed?

TD: The UC officials were pretty good about cooperating. I have to give them credit for being fairly open and cooperative. I don’t think they were thrilled about me making this film, but folks were mostly professional about their role. This is, after all, a public institution. I have a right to ask these questions. But not everyone would give an interview. The two most powerful people on the campus with direct responsibility for this situation declined to be interviewed. But in such cases you have the public record about their actions, and a filmmaker cannot let a little stone-walling stop them from telling the story.

ESV: Do you think food is the cause of the 21st century?

TD: Food may be the cause of the 21stcentury, because it speaks to how stratified the earth has become. Right now, according to agricultural specialists like Eric Holt-Gimenez of Food First, in Oakland, there is an international land grab going on. The newly minted billionaires of the de-regulated global economy don’t have anywhere to put their cash. The consumer economy is in the tank, and most people are getting poorer, not richer. So, to protect their money against inflation, they’re increasingly putting it into land—any land—which means farmland and potential farmland, all over the world, is being gobbled up as a hedge against inflation, instead of growing food.

At the same time, hunger has broadened in our country. It is now visible in the suburbs. Anyone with access to a plot of land should think about growing food. Approached in a sustainable manner, growing food is a powerful and community-building tool. Even when I garden out in front of my house, the neighbors come up to talk, we hang out, trade information.

SB: It’s hard to think of anything more fundamental than food. What we put into our bodies literally creates our physical presence on this planet. Yet our current industrial food system treats food as if it were a fuel business—and much of the agricultural output is going to cars. Occupy The Farm tells an inspiring story of a new generation of activists who are making us self-aware of what we are doing to ourselves and to our planet. We also see the possibility of making a difference in our own community, and by doing so we may find the path to change the world. The Gill Tract is just one small piece of land, but saving the last farmland next to a great university can create the space that will enable a large institution to change. A center for urban agriculture at UC Berkeley could impact thousands of students, some who will dedicate their talents to the cause of sustainable food systems, and some who will have impacts far greater than we ever could imagine.

ESV: Occupy the Farm succeeded in its mission. Has the farm been productive for the community?

TD: As a result of Occupy the Farm, there is now a cooperative effort at the Gill Tract for urban agriculture. This year, 2014, marks the first year of a 1.3-acre experimental farm called Area A. This plot is part of approximately seven acres of growing fields used for various agricultural experiments. Hundreds of people participate in this farm, and wheelbarrows of food are going out free of charge.

The shared governance of this public experiment on public land involves key people from Occupy the Farm, UC Berkeley staff and professors, as well as other community farmers, which makes this experiment quite unique.

At the same time Occupy the Farm continues to oppose the UC plans to develop the other half of the land. Those development plans are still being contested. So, while the north half of the farm is productive, the picture for the other half of this publicly owned land is not resolved.

ESV: What do you hope viewers will take away from this?

TD: This story is about a local act of civil disobedience that had big national implications. The food justice activists in this film could ride their bikes to the farm. I hope for audiences to walk out of the theater, think about where they live and about what they can do to protect and promote their nearby public resources. This isn’t about clicking “send.” This is about physical participation in a physical space. This is what I want viewers to take away: Act in your local community’s best interest and that will create a more resilient community. And food is a great place to start, because everyone needs it.

ESV: How can we get involved?

SB: We intend to bring Occupy The Farm to theaters all over the country, and to do that we need help. When a film like Occupy The Farm can become a shared experience in mainstream theaters, we can bring the story and inspiration into a broader collective consciousness and get people talking. We are reaching out to sustainable food, urban farming, food justice and public health organizations and communities everywhere to join us in making this dream real. If you might be able to help us bring this movie to your community, please send us an email at otf@ignitechannel.com. Tell us where you are from and what your community is doing to make a difference in bringing people closer to the land and food. For more information about the Gill Tract and the cause of food justice, follow us on Facebook and stop by the film’s website at OccupyTheFarmFilm.com.

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