Occupy the farm: documentary explores activism in urban farming

This documentary film focuses on the story of 200 urban farmers in California who took action to save a publicly-owned research farm from becoming developed for real estate. 

Brittany Lyte/The Garden Island/AP/File
James Brake tends to lettuce that he is growing with the assistance of a Growbot which can be seen on the left of the planter box, at Brake's home in Princeville, Hawaii, July 30, 2015. Approximately 15 percent of the world’s food is now grown in urban areas

Approximately 15 percent of the world’s food is now grown in urban areas, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Urban farmers are uniquely situated to deliver healthy food to residents of cities and reach low-income urban populations. But these farmers face unique challenges, including lack of access to water, contaminated soil, and competing uses for land. Occupy the Farm, a documentary film released in fall of 2014, focuses on the story of 200 urban farmers in California who took action to save a publicly-owned research farm from becoming developed for real estate. 

On April 22, 2012, hundreds of community members broke a lock on a fence to enter the Gill Tract and plant vegetable seedlings on 14 acres of land owned by the University of California, Berkeley. The Gill Tract is class-one agricultural acreage owned by the university and devoted for decades to agricultural research and education.

"It certainly was a protest against the university's plans to essentially privatize it by paving it over and leasing it out to commercial operations, but at the heart of it is the story of food and malnutrition in urban areas," says Todd Darling, the film’s director. The film addresses the symbolic role of urban farming and non-confrontational activism.

The film shows the dedication of the urban farmers working to protect the land, revealing the development of a tent village on the farm. The film “illustrates the staggering extent to which corporate interests dictate policy and shape scientific research,” writes Ernest Handy in a review for the Village Voice. 

The makers of the film hope to question private sector control of agricultural research and education. According to Food and Water Watch, 57 percent of non-public funding of agricultural research throughout the University of California system came from agribusinesses, agricultural trade associations, agricultural marketing orders, and agribusiness-affiliated foundations between 2006 and 2010. 

The activists called on the University of California not only to preserve the farm on Gill Tract, but also to reassess private-sector relationships that span research, university representation, and education. Food and Water Watch notes that industry interests pervade agricultural research at the University of California; Mars funds the University of California, Davis nutrition department’s investigations of the benefits of eating chocolate, and more than 20 professors have acted as paid consultants for biotech companies, earning up to US$2,000 per month.  

“From the moment I arrived on the Gill Tract I knew that this was an important story and that the farmer’s strategy was new, unique and hopeful,” says Darling. “I am fortunate that these historic events played out in front of our cameras over the weeks and months that we followed them.” 

Informed by the activist tactics of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the urban farmers employed organizational strategies to achieve their goals. “It really was a great brain trust and they had a sunny charisma,” says Darling. “When the University of California turned off the water, it became the organizing principle that expanded the whole meaning and effort.” The success of the urban farmers and activists in altering the plans for re-development of the Gill Tract symbolized not only the revolutionary act of farming but also the role of active food citizenship. 

Occupy the Farm is “more than a great documentary film,” writes Evaggelos Vallianatos, an author who worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. “It's another way of viewing your neighborhood and the world.”

Following its release in 50 cities across the United States, Occupy the Farm is now available to stream or download on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Instant Video and VUDU. See the movie HERE.

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