Helping homeless people is particularly close to my heart since I, myself, have been homefree for the past year. Earlier this month, I heard about this community farm that supports the homeless with organic food — and I felt compelled to help.
When I was there, I learned the farm does more than just give away food. Jon, the Gill Tract Farm manager, told me many ways the farm helps its community: it acts as an open-air research facility through which researchers have found sustainable and environmentally-friendly alternatives to pesticides and herbicides; it has a medicinal herb garden with over 150 medicinal herbs available; they’ve hosted over 100 free workshops to teach and inspire; neurology patients use the farm for physical therapy; preschool through university students take experiential farming and gardening classes; women’s painting groups paint at the farm; and since June 2014, they’ve harvested over 30,000 pounds of organic produce and distributed that for free throughout the community. The ways in which Gill Tract gives to the community is as boundless as the earth.
I loved volunteering at the farm because I knew I was making a sustainable difference in the community, especially for the homeless population. The plants I put in the ground would continue to give to the farm (with bees) and the community (with harvest).
I felt invigorated to create change for a noble organization, but the joy in my heart was soon replaced with anger and frustration when I learned the Farm is under serious risk of closure.
The rich agricultural land that makes up Gill Tract is also prime real estate. UC Berkeley (the owner of the property) has been trying to close the farm and sell the land for commercial “development.” Though UC Berkeley has owned the land since 1945, UC’s recent and hostile stance against the farm has stirred community outrage. Astonishingly, the university has locked the farm gates numerous times, disrupted research, cut down orchards, thrown out honey bee hives, and kicked out community members with riot police. Thousands of community activists have taken drastic measures — including occupation farming — to save their beloved Gill Tract Farm. The controversy even inspired the documentary “Occupy the Farm.”
According to Jon, the farm manager, the fight isn’t over: “the farm was once about 100 acres…the university has sold the majority of it and wants to take the last 20 acres and pave it over in cement and make it into a giant parking lot to have a grocery store, a shopping center and to tear out all this agricultural land.”
It’s hard for me to believe that UC Berkeley would shut down the Gill Tract Farm when it provides multifaceted benefits to the community, but the farm doesn’t generate money; perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised since public universities are strapped for funding and routinely mismanage what they do receive.
Now, with almost zero funding from UC Berkeley, the farm needs help more than ever. Jon explains “there are a lot of ways that you can plug in or lend support to the farm. We are open Sunday through Thursday for volunteering, workshops and activities. Get down here, get your hands in the soil for a couple hours and I can guarantee you, you’ll leave here with a smile on your face. It’s a way to revive yourself physically and emotionally. And it’s a way to help out the community.”
If you’re not interested in getting your hands dirty or you’re not in the area, but you want to help the cause, Jon says, “people can call the UC and tell them to rethink their position on the farm; email the governor, the board of regents president Janet Napolitano, UC Berkeley Chancellor Dirks, Sprouts Market (the linchpin of the shopping mall). We really need support.”
Our community is only as strong as all our members and we can help each other significantly, but only with organizations like The Gill Tract Farm. Not only does the farm give the homeless population organic food, but progressive research on the grounds can (and has!) provided the larger community with sustainable agricultural processes. Plus, the farm inspires people to create food sovereignty, learn about plants, and retain a connection to the earth. People in the Gill Tract community don’t have to own a piece of agricultural land or have all the know how to reap the benefits of an established, thriving organic farm. This makes it vital to helping community members live well without a lot of funds — the very backbone of glamsient living!