CNR dean outlines new plans for Gill Tract

 On Tuesday night (Sept. 18), Keith Gilless, dean of the College of Natural Resources, presented the Albany City Council with a progress report on new academic programs related to diversified farming, and their potential impact on the Gill Tract growing grounds. This open letter was released just before the meeting and summarizes his presentation.

To: Members of the Albany City Council, and the Albany community at large

From: J. Keith Gilless. Dean, UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources

Date: September 18, 2012

RE: Gill Tract

With only a few weeks left before the end of the current growing season, I would like to provide you with an update on recent developments that will directly impact the long- and short-term use of the Gill Tract, including a change in authority at the campus level over the growing grounds and support facilities.

As Dean of the College of Natural Resources (CNR), I’ve spent the past few years seeking to expand our teaching and research programs related to farming and food systems, an academic area that is enjoying a renaissance and attracting a great deal of interest. With good reason, many believe that the development of sustainable agricultural systems capable of feeding a hungry planet will need to rely more on dispersed and decentralized sources, including small-scale urban farms. I know that many of you are particularly interested in the potential for a sustained comprehensive urban agriculture program on the Gill Tract that could potentially involve members of the community and/or support educational efforts in the Albany schools.

In support of CNR’s interests in this area, in 2011 the campus authorized me to create a new faculty position to be filled by someone with academic expertise in the area of sustainable food systems and diversified agriculture. I’m pleased to report that our search was successful. We have just appointed Kathryn DeMaster as Assistant Professor of Agriculture, Society and Food Security. While at Brown University, Kathryn was involved in highly successful work related to local food systems in the Providence area, and with her arrival this coming January we expect to see an acceleration of our own research in this area, including how the Gill Tract can be utilized in support of these efforts.

Two current CNR faculty members, Professor Claire Kremen and Professor Alastair Isles, in collaboration with colleagues across the campus, launched The Berkeley Center for Diversified Farming Systems in 2009 (http://dfs.berkeley.edu/). We have been actively engaged for a number of years  in fundraising to support an expansion of the scope of our activities in the area of food systems, building on their efforts and coordinating efforts in several different academic units. To-date we have substantial commitments from several generous donors that will support the development of a center and its activities for an initial five years. I believe that this funding, with some further development work on my part, will provide us with the solid foundation needed to allow our programs to grow and flourish far beyond the initial funding period.

I should also note that we have requested funding for another new position from the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. This Cooperative Extension Specialist would be involved in research and extension education in metropolitan agriculture and food systems. At the same time, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties have requested funding for a related Cooperative Extension Advisor position in urban agriculture and food systems. We will keep the Council apprised of the status of these requests – I think that the chances of one or both being approved are quite good.

In recognition and support of these and other related developments, campus leadership is transferring to CNR authority over the tract’s growing grounds and agricultural support facilities for at least the next ten years. The commitment provides CNR with a level of certainty that will benefit both our existing research endeavors on the tract and new efforts we might launch there.

We remain very interested in seeking ways to engage and involve members of the Albany community. We hope and expect to launch a rigorous and inclusive process that will determine the highest priority areas for any new research and outreach activities that might take place at the Gill Tract, and to explore the potential for broad participation and an extension of educational benefits to children in our community.

We will continue to work and engage with our partners on the city council and in the school district, civic organizations and the community at large to foster the sort of broad-based discussion and participation I believe to be essential for success.

I believe we have a unique opportunity to create a new model for community-university collaboration that could help advance an exciting field of research, while potentially yielding significant benefits for local urban farmers, our children and our community.

Before I conclude I do want to say a few words about the continuing intrusion of Occupy the Farm members on to the Gill Tract, and their vow to plant new crops in the fall. It is critical to reiterate, the Gill Tract is not “fallow land” in-between growing seasons. It remains an actively managed research area in which we take actions to rejuvenate the soil and minimize the need for fertilizers while being careful to avoid doing anything that might result in soil compaction. To meet these goals, we plan on planting a cover crop on all of the growing grounds so that the site can continue to support both our existing research uses and anticipated new activities on the property, such as an expanded metropolitan agriculture program. (The planting of winter cover crops has been a long-standing practice on the tract that was temporarily halted due to the intrusion of geese, who dined on the seeds. We will be utilizing a new planting technique that should protect the crops from hungry fowl.)

I admit that I am frustrated and disappointed by some of the actions and rhetoric of Occupy the Farm’s supporters. At times, these seem to show little respect or appreciation for the mission of CNR or the University, the rights of others, or what I think of as legitimate, community-based democratic processes. We have heard some frustration from the community along these lines. I am also hearing more concern from faculty members with ongoing research on the Gill Tract about the level of threats they perceive to the integrity of their work posed by the continued presence of unauthorized, untrained and unsupervised individuals on the site. It is no secret that we do not have the resources to hermetically seal a large piece of property like the Gill Tract around the clock and throughout the year. Even if we did, the idea of our being forced to spend millions of dollars simply to secure academic freedom for our faculty and students is intolerable. However, even as we analyze other options to preserve our values and rights, we have not abandoned the hope that these individuals will turn from occupation and unilateral action to give collaboration and cooperation through a democratic process a chance. I hope that the information in this letter will leave no doubt about the sincerity of the University’s commitment to new partnerships with the community as well as continued agricultural research on the Gill Tract.