Richard Koenig’s medicinal herb garden serves as a sacred center for the UC Gill Tract Community Farm.

Growing a Neighborhood Food Haven at
UC Gill Tract Community Farm

By Joshua Burman Thayer

For many years I couldn’t help but wonder about the USDA cornfield growing near the southwest corner of San Pablo and Marin Avenues in Albany. This plot of University of California farmland, sitting in its unlikely urban location, abruptly became the center of an Occupy Movement news story in 2012 when banners unfurled over the field calling on the community to “Occupy the Farm.” The activists planted crops, the University responded with bulldozers, and the two groups engaged in heated discussions about how best to use this land for the community’s good. Eventually, the occupying farmers were able to strike a deal with the university that allowed them to continue their work at the now dubbed UC Gill Tract Community Farm.

Driving by the site five years after Occupy, I decide to stop in and see how this small urban farm is faring. Parking near the palms and Monterey pines that line the creek to the southwest of this busy intersection, I hear the squawk of birds over the constant din of passing cars. It turns out to be a flock of urban turkeys, which, along with other wild fauna, are given some small bit of sanctuary on the edge of this farm, at least according to a sign painted and placed here by some youth participants. I’m about to learn how this self-styled food hub serves as both haven and resource for the human community.

Sunflowers and three sisters

Approaching the locked gate, I’m welcomed into the 1.6-acre landscaped space by Richard Koenig, a spry, energetic man who, along with lead farmer Jon Hoffman and a few other key members, does much of the farm’s ongoing work here, mostly on a volunteer basis.

“The garden looks so full and productive: Not bad for spring,” I say as we walk down row upon row of spring vegetables sprouting up under a “roof” of netting that’s been strung over the farm to keep out the turkeys
and blackbirds.

Flowers abound here, and serve many functions, but most important is the way they attract pollinators. Rosebushes, sensitive to powdery mildew, are helpful as a warning of that pestilence on the rise. Sunflowers, called girasol—”turn toward the sun”—in Spanish, mark the hours in their rotation, and they always seem to be encouraging laughter among sweating gardeners working out under the sun.

Corn, pole beans, and squash are planted together using the Native American “three sisters” strategy: The large leaves of the squash vines keep the ground cool as the corn stalks grow strong and tall, serving as a living trellis for the beans, which spiral up the stalks while fixing nitrogen into the soil at their root nodules. Squash and corn are heavy feeders, so they love this arrangement. As the beans pump out fixed nitrogen, the squash and corn will reach out in healthy new growth.

Medicinal herbs for all

Koenig leads me from the neat rows of annuals toward a landscaped space full of thriving perennials set under tall palms, which stand like watchmen over a wide array of plants marked for their medicinal uses. We enter via one of four walkways oriented to the four cardinal directions. Mugwort (artemisia) grows at each path entrance. “They help to clear the energy of each visitor upon entry,” says Koenig. The concentric planting has a rootedness and balance that the straight lines of the vegetable rows simply do not pull off.

Known for his business growing medicinal herbs, Healing Spirit Plants, Koenig designed this perennial medicine wheel in 2015 to serve as a sacred center for the farm. “I was invited to plant the herbs as an offering to the community. They are traditional plants from around the world,” Koenig says. The hope is that the diverse community that frequents the Gill Tract will find herbs from home to reconnect to. “We would love for local natural medicine healers to have access to these plants.” And indeed, with farm coordinators’ permission, visitors will be encouraged to harvest the medicinal herbs once the plantings have matured.

Campus partnership

Since the farm’s controversial start, the relationship with the university has matured and evolved, with the farm now serving as an outdoor learning laboratory for students in various disciplines. Younger children come here as well on a weekly basis, doing their studies in the rich and lively natural environment.

One big advantage of the campus partnership has been sharing of space in the UC Berkeley greenhouse, where the Gill Tract farmers are able to start their vegetables from seeds year-round. It’s contributed to the farm’s success in ramping up production to around 25,000 pounds of food in 2016. (A total of over 55,000 pounds of organic food has been produced at the farm since its start in 2012.)

I learn from Sophie Loeb, a liaison between UC Berkeley and the farm, how volunteers from the campus community help the farmers with monthly harvest days during which food is harvested and distributed to people in need. Roughly half of each harvest, Loeb notes, is delivered to the campus food pantry, a resource for students who may be skimping on meals to pay for other expenses. “It’s my goal to get more students and more community members to benefit from this space, to get the UC to see that this space is not only not a problem, but actually an amazing opportunity for community relationships.” Loeb encourages everyone to visit the donation-based farm stand: “Please come out Sundays from three to five and leave with free, organic, local food.” Donations to help support the work are also welcomed.

“All are welcome here.”

Today, there is plenty of opportunity to get involved at UC Gill Tract Community Farm and literally enjoy the fruits of your own labors. People of all ages, physical abilities, and skill levels can come here to practice gardening skills and enjoy the farm’s natural splendor. Expect to take home a bag full of fresh, organic, locally grown produce. “Come on down to our farm,” says farmer Jon Hoffman. “We can always use extra hands and extra compost.” •

How Activism Sparked a Community Sanctuary and Farm

Earth Day, April 22, 2012: Activists first occupy the Gill Tract, wanting to create a garden capable of both educating and feeding the local community at no cost to participants.

2014: UC Berkeley offers a ten-year grant for use of the land as a community gardening space. An initial $10,000 from the university allows for the creation of raised beds and the beginning of year-round
vegetable production.

2015: A crowdfunding campaign promoted by the Polish Ambassador (David Sugalski, an Oakland-based electronic musician and disc jockey) helps fund an organized mass garden workday called Perma-Blitz.

Check gilltractfarm.org for open hours. Come by on Sundays from 11am to 1pm when Koenig holds a session on healing plants.

Joshua Burman Thayer is a permaculture designer and educator uniting ecology with aesthetics to create beautiful, productive natural systems that foster healthy ecosystems and bountiful community-scale production of organic food. He has written for Mother Earth News and Edible Silicon Valley. He writes a monthly “Gardener’s Notebook” for “East Bay Appetizer” (see below). Find Josh and his work at nativesungardens.com, and follow him on Twitter at
@nativesungarden.

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Photos by Cheryl Angelina Koehler