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What is “Agriculture”? -- by Talia Ricci (student intern)

For those who may not be familiar with the Gill Tract, the word “farm” might bring to mind images of expansive fields of crops in rows, swarms of livestock grazing across large fields, or maybe even huge, looming silos filled with grain. I certainly would have described a farm to you in much a similar  way; that was, until I started my internship at the Gill Tract Community Farm.


Photos by Talia Ricci at Gill Tract Farm


Hello, my name is Talia Ricci and I am one of a handful of interns who began their time at the Gill Tract Community Farm this past Fall Season. I am an undergraduate in their first semester at UC Berkeley this year, studying environmental science. I hail from the tiny town of St. Helena, located in the Napa Valley - a name that I’m sure any person who’s over the age of 21 and has a love for wine will recognize. As part of my rearing in St. Helena, I was constantly surrounded by agriculture: changing seasons were marked not with decorations and festive lights but the sight of large tractors and the sound of early morning, industrial-sized frost fans turning on. In fact, most everything I observed across the multitude of vineyards around me was “industrial-sized”; I knew very little about any other scale of agriculture. 


Furthermore, another easily observable characteristic of farming in the Napa Valley is what is known as agro-tourism, or the commercialization of public-visits to farm operations, which is a leading cause of a very unfortunate but very real narrative of inaccessibility amongst the kind of agriculture I came to know growing up. For example, the majority of St. Helena High School graduates will go on to spend thousands of dollars and years of their lives at university studying the very careful art of viticulture; a study that is only made useful in the competitive market of wine with a small investment in a Greek or Italian style villa, complete with gold-accented tasting room, picturesque veranda, and chasmic cellar, as well as a pair of matching marble statues (if you can spare) and the Cherub-adorned front-gate is technically optional (but it’s really not). All of this only partially satirical language to say, this kind of farming can be described in one word: “exclusive”.


It was largely for this reason that I dedicated myself to the study of environmental science at Berkeley with a concentration in agro-ecology: whilst the wealth of wine-making allows Napa Valley grape-growers to be some of the most sustainable, I was interested in exploring how these methods can be made more universal and accessible, which is what lead me to the Gill Tract. I accepted my offered position, expecting nothing more than to learn in a detached and independent manner. Instead, I spent my first ever day on the farm in a meeting where I sat criss-cross applesauce in the Children’s Garden; a small patch of hay-covered dirt encircled by garden beds and trees adorned with strewn-about children’s toys and hand-painted messages of love - an immediate indicator of the community I would find. 


But the look of the farm was only the beginning of my discovery: as I began to show up to the Sunday volunteer shifts, I was blown away each time, not necessarily at how many new people attended, but rather at how many people returned each Sunday, starry-eyed and eager to help fill as many bowls, baskets, and bags with produce as possible, fully aware it wasn’t for them, but for others. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I almost didn’t trust it at first - how could a farm operate if not for some kind of gain? However, my additional time spent helping staff the farm’s compost hub soon showed me that the farm was in many ways more wealthy than any wine owner I’d ever heard of in St. Helena; each Sunday people come from across the Bay Area for free compost, yes, but they also come all the way to the Gill Tract because the Gill Tract doesn’t transact in dollars - it transacts in love. Love for the Earth, love for nature, and - most importantly - love for community. These people come to tell their stories, to have someone laugh at their jokes, to learn from what we know and to bring us what they know. These are the kind of transactions that make community-drive agriculture possible


I’d like to leave you with this, my perhaps fondest memory of my time at the Gill Tract and one that really solidified for me the value of a community-focused farm: Picture nine to ten fully grown adults enjoying one another’s company amidst a drum circle at our 2023 Harvest Fest when someone brings out a karaoke mic that they brought. Said mit ends up in the hands of a girl no older than eight. Fast forward twenty minutes to everyone still thoroughly enjoying this young girl’s ode to the trouble of ants and their love for stealing your picnic food, her voice lofting above a generously provided Bossa Nova beat by this group of adults. There are no looks of disgust, no one trying to take the mic from her eager, young hands - any and all are welcome at the farm, whether it be to learn about agro-ecology, or to vent frustrations about the careless actions of ants. There is a value in that kind of agriculture that I don’t think can be measured in dollars or bushels harvested. :)


Written by Talia Ricci, student intern at Gill Tract Farm

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