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Across the US, Cities Struggle to Figure Out How to Accommodate Urban Farming

Widespread interest in urban agriculture is forcing local authorities to re-examine rules that prohibit farming in cities

Sacramento has worked diligently over the past two years to brand itself as America’s farm-to-fork capital, hosting local food festivals, wine tastings, and gala dinners featuring the city’s premier chefs. Tickets for this year’s dinner, at $175 dollars each, sold out in five minutes. The Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau has even organized a cattle drive and tractor parade through downtown.

2 for $1photo by Robert Couse-Baker, on Flickr Sacramento has its share of farmer’s markets, but there are no urban farms within the city limits

Sure, nearly 1.4 million acres of farmland exist around the city, which is located in California’s vast and fertile Central Valley region, and the climate is amenable to growing produce year-round (drought complications notwithstanding). But there are no urban farms in Sacramento. The closest and most prominent urban farm, the 55-acre Soil Born Farms, exists outside the city limits.

Sacramento is relatively progressive when it comes to gardening: The city already allows frontyard vegetable gardens, urban chickens, and community gardens on private land and runs 13 community gardens on public land. But farming – that is, growing crops to sell – has fallen behind.

In response to urging from the Sacramento Urban Agriculture Coalition – which went so far as to draft its own proposed urban agriculture ordinance – the city may amend its municipal code to clear the way for residents interested in growing and selling produce by allowing farming as a primary land use in all zones, not only agricultural: that includes residential, commercial, and industrial.

The city has proposed an urban agriculture ordinance that would allow the cultivation of crops in residential areas up to 1 acre in size, in commercial areas up to 3 acres, and in industrial areas with no size restriction. Produce stands, greenhouses, and hoop-houses would be allowed, while mechanized farm equipment such as tractors would be prohibited after initial site preparation. The ordinance would also create an incentive zone providing reduced property taxes for agricultural plots.

But the urban agriculture coalition members were taken aback during a recent planning and design commission meeting when they learned that the city’s proposal would limit produce sales from these farms to areas where agriculture was the “primary use.” People who grow at homes, schools, or churches – where farming would be the “secondary use” – would have to get a permit, limiting the only easy option to vacant lots.

By all means let’s beautify those lots, says coalition facilitator Katie Valenzuela Garcia, but allowing produce to be sold right where it’s grown, even if that’s as a secondary use of the site, is critical for residents of food deserts. Doing otherwise defeats the purpose. “That’s the critical connection we have to make – for people struggling with food access – that (produce) is near where they live, where they’re walking, where their children are going to school,” Garcia said at the meeting.

Urban farming is considered critical to eliminating food deserts in American cities and making produce more accessible to the 14.3 percent of households that were food insecure last year, according to the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. The USDA defines food deserts as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.” An estimated 23.5 million people in the United States, mostly belonging to low-income families, live in food deserts. Considering 81 percent of Americans are urbanites, growing food in urban areas seems like common sense.

Some cities such as Portland, Cleveland, and San Francisco, have successfully implemented policies, amended ordinances, or offered tax breaks to encourage urban farming, while others are figuring out whether they can accommodate this practice.

photo of a woman talking to children in a gardenPhoto by Erica BrooksElizabeth Patton-Whiteside teaches children about a worm bed at the F.R.E.S.H. Community
Teaching Garden in East St. Louis, Illinois.

What good are urban farms? The Sacramento Urban Agriculture Coalition has counted the ways in which these farms serve the public: They create jobs, alleviate hunger, reduce food waste, improve public health, create economic opportunities, and beautify neighborhoods. Despite these obvious benefits, many cities and towns across the United States are still struggling to figure out how, and if, they should change local laws in order to facilitate farming in urban areas.

Elizabeth Patton-Whiteside, a registered nurse, was at her job as the public health administrator for the East Side Health District in East St. Louis, IL a few years ago when a crazy idea kept popping into her head as she peered out the office window at a weeded lot. “I kept looking out and said, ‘We could do something with this lot,’” she says. “I envisioned a farm, a teaching garden really.”

With the city’s help, which granted her a special use permit, she launched the F.R.E.S.H. Community Teaching Garden on a half-acre with 28 raised garden beds, three herb gardens, fruit trees, and an outdoor classroom. Neighbors who work the garden beds get to take home produce and additional fruits and veggies are sold at the farmers market that has opened onsite to sustain the program. “Our mission is to teach people how to plant it, harvest it, cook it, and can it,” Patton-Whiteside says. “That’s our way of combating the hunger, because we are a food desert.”

East. St. Louis has a poor, predominantly African-American population and ranks among the most violent US cities. Nearly 44 percent of the 27,000 residents live below the poverty line and the median household income is $19,278. Vacant lots and run-down buildings litter the landscape.

“By incorporating the children’s play area, walking trail, flower garden, and art, it became more than just a ‘farm,’” Patton-Whiteside says. “My city is devoid of art and beauty. That is why those aspects were in the design. I enhanced the landscape of the community.”

Meanwhile, the City of Boulder, CO has opted to support local agriculture by making some of its roughly 45,000 acres of open space – used to buffer Boulder from nearby development – available to operators.

Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks Department leases nearly 15,000 acres to 25 farm operators and one beekeeper, according to OSMP Agricultural Specialist Lauren Kolb. Most is rangeland for cow/calf operations. The rest goes to row crops, diversified vegetable production, and hay.

“The lessees manage weeds, administer water rights, and employ practices that ensure the productivity of the land for years to come,” Kolb says. “Without OSMP buying properties and conservation easements, our current farmland would look similar to the sprawling development that characterizes much of the Front Range.”

The department’s first lease for organic vegetable production was given to Cure Organic Farm, located a few miles outside the city. The city leased 8 acres of its land to the 12-acre farm, which grows 100 varieties of vegetables, herbs, and flowers, and raises bees, ducks, hens, pigs, chicken, and sheep. All the crops from the farm find a home within 50 miles – through CSA boxes, restaurants, farmers markets, and a farm store.

“Location is everything when you start a business,” says Anne Cure, who runs the farm. “Boulder is a hub when it comes to eating healthy.” Being situated so close to downtown means this land would likely cost a few million dollars to buy, she says, which she can’t afford.

However, not all cities have recognized the value of agriculture near urban centers.

In Santa Fe, NM for instance, the organic Gaia Gardens, on 3.5-acres of leased land in a residential enclave, has angered some neighbors and been cited repeatedly for code violations. Attempts to resolve this dilemma have stalled.

photo of a woman outdoors near a greenhouse, she is smilingPhoto by Cole AllenAnne Cure leases eight acres of public land from the City of Boulder, Colorado, to operate her 12-acre
Cure Organic Farm. The city leases nearly 15,000 acres of its open space to farmers and a beekeeper.

The Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper published an editorial in June condemning the city for failing to act on the matter: “Regardless of how the Gaia saga plays out, the city needs to let residents know where it stands. The absence of a concrete, citywide policy sends a message of indifference to would-be urban farmers and their would-be customers.”

The City of Austin, TX too, has been struggling to figure out just what message to send residents who want to farm. Factions have sprung up on both sides of the issue, with those opposed arguing that urban farming will exacerbate an affordable housing crisis in one of the fastest-growing cities in the country.

“Our civic leaders have their hands full facing many challenges with that growth,” says Paula Foore, who founded the 4.83-acre Springdale Farm near downtown Austin with her husband in 2009. “And with urban farms being relatively new on the scene, although not that new, we have been bogged down trying to be compliant with new city codes as well old codes, many that do not support the divergent functions that take place on urban farms.”

While Austin allows urban farming in all zones, Springdale Farm has been battling the city for two years over the right to host functions. The farm is commercially zoned but a “conditional overlay” on the property prohibits gatherings, so the couple has sunk money and energy into zoning applications, permits, and attorneys. “We continue to meet with our civic leaders to discuss the kind of community hub that is the very core of what urban farms are, and to define the scope of activities that it takes to keep an urban farm thriving,” Foore says.

Back in Sacramento, Garcia says one big wrinkle to iron out before the City Council votes on the proposal later this year relates to where locally grown food can be sold. Her coalition wants to see the ordinance make growing and selling allowed at all plots – not limited to areas where agriculture is the primary use, such as vacant lots.

“We are also concerned with residential lot growing, community gardens, and institutional – schools, churches – gardens,” Garcia says. “Our main objective is to make as much as possible ‘by-right,’ meaning folks do not have to get conditional use or other permits, which can be very costly and time consuming, if they want to grow or sell produce.”

That, she says, is the only way to truly close the gap between residents who are hungry and the healthy food they want to consume.

Sena Christian
Sena Christian is a newspaper reporter in California, but enjoys writing about social justice and sustainability for magazines in her free time. She is an avid soccer player and recently planted her first vegetable garden.

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