“Occupy The Farm,” premiering on PBS on April 20, details efforts of activist urban farmers in the East Bay. (Courtesy Kelly Johnson)

“Occupy The Farm,” premiering on PBS on April 20, details efforts of activist urban farmers in the East Bay. (Courtesy Kelly Johnson)

Urban farming activism a timely theme in ‘Occupy The Farm’

Issues in 2014 doc about contested UC Berkeley land relevant today

In 2012, director Todd Darling embarked on “Occupy The Farm,” a movie about activist urban farmers who took over a patch of East Bay land owned by University of California, Berkeley with a distinct goal about the task at hand.

“From the beginning, my feeling was, ‘I was not doing a news story, I was making a film,’” says Darling, whose 90-minute documentary about the long-contested land was released in 2014 to mostly positive reviews and success on the independent film circuit.

Now, with its broadcast television premiere on PBS next week, Darling says the movie’s themes are even more pressing than they were during the 2012 controversy, which started on Earth Day when activist farmers invaded and started planting seedlings on Gill Tract, a parcel of farmland in Albany with a long, complicated history that UC Berkeley planners were slating for commercial uses.

Though the trespassing activists and supportive community members brought police and scuffles to the gated area, the film ends with victory for the intrepid farmers, as least in part because Whole Foods grocery store dropped out of the university’s development scheme.

“It was jaw-dropping when that happened. No matter how they were going to spin it, having their anchor tenant leave, it had to be viewed as a bad turn of events,” says Darling, who adds that the farmland faces a new threat today, with the university announcing plans to build a large dorm for hundreds of students that would be operated by a Texas company that specializes in these types of privatization projects.

The proposed development on the Gill Tract, which is known as a wintering spot for the monarch butterfly, also leaves out plans for classrooms or anything that relates to land or the history of the land, even though UC Berkeley since the 1860s has been designated a land grant college.

“The charter requires them to teach agriculture, and that means they need a farm, and this is their last farm,” adds Darling, who succinctly sums up the problem: “You’ve got this situation where the University of California is taking scarce pieces of public-research, agricultural land, and turning it over to a private company that will design, own and operate a six-story, 800-person complex next to a habitat for endangered species.”

Equally important to fighting development is the need to focus on fighting dangerous effects of climate change, another message in “Occupy The Farm” that’s been amplified by COVID-19.

“Food insecurity during the pandemic has become a huge factor for hundreds of thousands of people. Seed companies are reporting difficulty with demand because people have realized they need to grow their own food – because you never know. And it’s cheaper,” Darling says.

“Occupy The Farm” documentarian Todd Darling says the issues raised in his 2014 film remain relevant today. (Courtesy photo)

“Occupy The Farm” documentarian Todd Darling says the issues raised in his 2014 film remain relevant today. (Courtesy photo)

And since the pandemic struck, the UC Gill Tract Community Farm has developed safety protocols to enable staff and volunteers to supply free food to dozens of local families in need.

While the world health crisis and continuing concerns about climate change have kept documentary relevant, the movie also offers a vivid illustration of contemporary political movements with new styles of protest, from Occupy to Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock Reservation.

“You are seeing more imaginative forms of action,” Darling says, “There’s a level of frustration. People want to do something that’s not merely symbolic.”

For Darling, the movie is an example of what average, everyday people can accomplish if they stick together. The “Occupy The Farm” activists had a winning combination, he says: “They were able go in there, plant the crops, embarrass the institution, physically get in the way, be persistent and have a vision.”


Occupy The Farm

8 p.m. April 20 on KRCB (Channel 22)

7 p.m. April 22 on KPJK (Channel 17)

Note: Following both broadcasts is a discussion with Darling, “Occupy The Farm” organizers Effie Rawlings and Ashoka Finley; Will Smith of Black Earth Farmers; and Charisma Acey, faculty director of the Berkeley Food Institute.


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