Farmland is for Farming

Here on Okinawa, there’s a venerable tradition of taking fine agricultural land and turning it into something crappy, like an airbase. The Japanese did it before WWII. The US did it afterward. It’s no small thing to lose a huge slab of high quality soil on flat land in a place as hilly and unkind to agriculture as Okinawa. Farmland is for farming. So a group of farmers occupied the occupiers. And won.

'Tolerated Cultivation' on the US airbase in Okinawa

You’ll need to click on the photo to see it, but at the end of this dirt road is a barbwire fence, where the Kadena Air Base has been nudged back by farmers growing sweet potato, peppers, tomatoes and a range of plants I couldn’t recognise. Farmers like Shoko Ahagon, the Gandhi of Okinawa, kept cutting away at the fences between them and the best land on the island. And, in the end, they’ve carved out a little land – not nearly enough – on which they farm. These are Okinawa’s ‘tolerated cultivators’.

I write this having heard that the Gill Tract occupation has been called off, and the police called in. In forcing the University of California at Berkeley’s administration to begin a public conversation about the land, the occupation has already begun a long-overdue discussion over what a public university is for. In the Berkeley hills, finding a flat piece of land with great soil is hard enough. Farmland is for farming. But, being far away and unable to plant my share, I joined many activists and writers, corralled by the excellent Christopher Cook, to sign this statement:

As dedicated food writers, authors, activists, and academics, we wish to convey our strong dismay with UC Berkeley’s actions to oust Occupy the Farm at the Gill Tract–and we urge the administration to embrace the community farm that has been created there instead of policing it.

This is public land being stewarded by a land-grant institution. We urge the administration and campus police to drop all charges against the farmers and protesters, and to engage in good-faith negotiations to ensure that the Gill Tract is reserved for community-based agricultural use to be governed as a form of commons in conjunction with the farmers and local community.

The Gill Tract farmers are rooted in the Albany community, and supported by hard-working volunteers. Their vision of using the space to teach children agro-ecology, feed those in need in the community and train future farmers in organic farming is an admirable use of the land and can be realized without affecting the UC negatively. In fact, UC should welcome this stewardship as an instance of community-based education and sustainable land use.

Christopher Cook, Author of Diet for a Dead Planet

Bill McKibben, Author of Eaarth

Frances Moore Lappé, Author of Diet for a Small Planet

Raj Patel, Author of Stuffed and Starved

Miguel Altieri, Professor of Agroecology, UC Berkeley

Y. Armando Nieto, Executive Director, California Food and Justice Coalition

Anna Lappé, Author of Diet for a Hot Planet

Michele Simon, President of Eat Drink Politics, Author of Appetite for Profit

David Bacon, Author of Illegal People

Organic Consumers Association

Eric Holt-Gimenez, Executive Director of Food First, Author of Food Rebellions, Crisis and the Hunger for Justice

Gail Wadsworth, Executive Director of California Institute for Rural Studies

Dave Murphy, Founder / Executive Director, Food Democracy Now!

Pesticide Watch Education Fund

Mark Winne, Author of Closing the Food Gap

Jim & Megan Gerritsen, Owners, Wood Prairie Farm, Bridgewater, Maine

Tom Philpott, Mother Jones writer and Maverick Farms co-founder

Jan Poppendieck, Author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America

Jason Mark, Co-manager, Alemany Farm and co-author of Building the Green Economy

The Cornucopia Institute, Cornucopia, Wisconsin

Lisa Stokke, Associate Director, Food Democracy Now!

Peter Rosset, Researcher, Center for the Study of Rural Change in Mexico (CECCAM)

Chef Jenny Huston, Founder & Executive Chef at Farm to Table Food Services

Ashley Schaeffer, Rainforest Action Network

Marilyn Borchardt, Food First, Oakland, CA

Judy Wicks, Founder, White Dog Cafe, Philadelphia

Jeff Conant, Author of A Community Guide to Environmental Health

Global Justice Ecology Project, Vermont

Melinda Hemmelgarn, Freelance writer and Food Sleuth Radio host

Tanya Kerssen, Writer and activist

Erin Middleton, California Food and Justice Coalition

Deetje Boler, Every Voice producer

UPDATE:
To take action on Okinawa, visit CloseTheBase.
To take action on Berkeley, visit TakeBackTheTract.