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Guerrilla gardening 

In Occupy the Farm, activists save fallow land from development

On April 22, 2012, Earth Day, a couple hundred Oakland-area urban farmers armed with 16,000 seedlings, compost, shovels and other tools marched onto an area of overgrown farmland on the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay. Within a few hours, the protesters had cleared and planted an acre of vegetables and established a tent encampment.

Over the next five months, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Todd Darling and his collaborators filmed the protesters and the response from police and landowners. Out of the footage they put together a 90-minute feature documentary called Occupy the Farm, which will show Thursday, April 9, at Stargazers Theatre.

The land is a 14-acre swath owned by the University of California, Berkeley, in a small city called Albany. Known as the Gill Tract, it had once encompassed more than 100 acres of farmland, but had gradually been used for housing and other projects.

At the time of the occupation, the unused south end of the area was slated for commercial development, and there were plans to turn it into retirement housing, a grocery store and retail space. The activists who broke the lock on the gate to enter the fenced-off area were hoping to thwart these plans and keep the land as a plot to grow food and educate the local community about urban farming and sustainable agriculture.

Darling, who has worked on projects ranging from MTV's reality show Laguna Beach to the Olympics, wasn't entirely surprised by the protest. The year before, he'd been researching the possibility of creating a TV show about urban farmers in Oakland and became acquainted with some of the people who were raising crops on vacant lots and medians in the Bay Area.

A few months later, he was at the Frank H. Ogawa Plaza when it became the home base of Occupy Oakland. He noticed that the kitchen was being run by people he had met earlier.

"I knew right then that, ah, the Occupy people and the urban farmers are going to get together," Darling says in an interview. "And when that happens, that's going to be a really good story."

Six months later, activists were not only occupying, but planting rows of herbs, beans, kale, chard and broccoli. Darling believes the Occupy movement was the inspiration for the action, and the idea of farming "suddenly gave a very creative look at how to express discontent and really do something unusual."

Everyone, including Darling, was surprised by how the situation played out. The protesters expected the demonstration to be short-lived and thought they'd be quickly booted by police.

But they weren't. So they continued to till, plant, pull weeds, and water seedlings.

The core group of instigators was comprised of University of California graduates in their 20s, but soon neighbors and supporters of all ages started pitching in. Darling says the overall mood was buoyant: The volunteers were succeeding in making a political statement, doing something as a community, and growing food.

"There's also something kind of intrinsically joyful about digging your hands in the dirt and planting stuff," he says. At summer's end, the group harvested nearly two tons of food.

Of course, not everyone was thrilled with the occupation. Occupy the Farm includes reactions from Berkeley officials and administrators who opposed what they saw as blatant trespassing. A few days after the occupation, the university cut off the water line to the Gill Tract, forcing the farmers to transport water by truck and bucket. The university filed a lawsuit, and police officers in riot gear came onto the scene.

The film confronts serious issues around food independence, urban development and civil disobedience. It addresses the way food is produced and distributed, and the loss of public land to private corporations.

Darling points out that in the East Bay, where there are eight square miles of land housing 20,000 people, there are zero grocery stores. He says, "There are neighborhoods completely left out of the food distribution system" — neighborhoods where the only food you can buy is what's available at the corner liquor store.

Darling launched a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised over $30,000 to complete Occupy the Farm, which premiered in Berkeley last November to a sold-out crowd. Since then, the film has been shown at film festivals and theaters nationwide.

Local radio station KCMJ and Stargazers Theatre are co-sponsoring the Colorado Springs showing. KCMJ is a new nonprofit, volunteer-run community radio station that began streaming online in late September and plans to broadcast over the air at 93.9 FM. Proceeds from the event will go to the station's launch fund.

Dave Gardner, KCMJ director, describes the local food movement as "burgeoning" and says involved groups have been invited to set up display tables at the theater. Members of organizations such as Pikes Peak Urban Gardens, Green Cities Coalition, Pikes Peak Permaculture and the Colorado Springs Public Market have also been invited to take the stage and share what they're doing.

The hope is that more people will get inspired by and involved with community gardens and urban farming. Darling has seen that dynamic play out elsewhere.

"People are amazed and intrigued by the people who pulled this off," he says. "Some say, 'Wow I want to do this! We need to do this here!'"

  • In Occupy the Farm, activists save fallow land from development

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