Changing Laws As Cities Make Way for Urban Agriculture

With the growing demand for the return of agriculture to urban spaces, cities are removing legal barriers to urban farming.

Gleaming skyscrapers, bustling sidewalks, a store for every desire—cities are a destination for those who seek to separate themselves from the “backwards” life of the rural and reside in the symbolic epicenter of modernity.  To further this divide between rural and urban, city zoning policies have been established to prohibit intensive agriculture and limit residents from taking up animal husbandry.  Conversely, state policies have been implemented to separate the urban from the rural by establishing protections for farmers from urban encroachment.

Now, urban agriculture is booming—people have once more found farming a viable way to sustain their families, make a profitable business, or simply catch onto the “go green” trend which has swept across the globe.  However, these old zoning policies which were never designed to address a shift towards urban farming remain in tact, making it illegal in some cases for urban farmers to sell or even grow their harvest.

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Right To Farm Act

Urbanites’ fear of what will happen when the rural and the urban meet can be summed up with one word— nuisance.

Take the Michigan Right to Farm Act for example—a policy that is at the forefront of conversations amongst urban agriculturalists in the city of Detroit which is currently undergoing a pivotal moment in its history.  After having undergone extensive repercussions from the recession, Detroit, a once bustling metropole and center for the American automobile industry, has been devastated by housing and job loss.  From these hardships however, residents and transplants alike are breaking ground by converting vacant lots into urban farms and coming up with innovative methods of establishing access to food in communities which, in some cases, is limited to gas stations and liquor stores.

Originally passed in 1981, the act established protections for rural farmers from being subject to urban zoning policies in the case that the land surrounding a farm was to undergo urban development.  The act maintains that if farmers comply to the Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices (GAAMPs), then they cannot be penalized for bothering or causing any damage to the properties that surround it, which includes nuisances such as unpleasant odors, visual obstructions, noise or erecting dangerous structures.

This act, for instance, has protected large farming operations such as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to emit massive quantities of pollutants into the air and water ways, putting the health of neighbors, as well as the environment, at risk.

Urban agriculture on the other hand is constructed on a significantly smaller scale and requires its own set of regulations to address the unique relationship of agriculture in an urban environment.  Despite its popularity with many, there is some contention between urbanites and the small farms which are taking up shop in their neighborhoods.

Some fear that certain farm amenities will be an unsightly view to look out on, such as plastic covered hoop houses which can reach up to 6ft; market gardens that sell their produce on-site might increase traffic and noise in the neighborhood; and there is a fear of unwanted odors from compost piles or animals, which are a separate concern in and of itself.  Still, others fear that urban farms in residential areas might lower property value in the neighborhood.

And then there is the plain and simple fact that many people move to a city to enjoy urban life, not live next to a farm.

Every state has some form of a Right to Farm Act.  The act has taken precautions so as to deny cities the jurisdiction to create their own ordinances regarding agriculture—once again in fear of what would happen if a city were to expand or move into a rural area and impose their urban-centric policies on farmers.  There has been great resistance to the creation of policies specific to urban agriculture offered by Michigan farmers, in fear of losing the rigid guidelines which protect them.

The Detroit City Planning Commission is currently working on attaining exemption from the Michigan RTFA and to propose a draft of ordinances governing urban agriculture.  Many cities around the United States are also in the process of doing this, many of which have been successful.


Oakland makes it easier for urban backyard farmers

It was only last year that farming on vacant lots or selling surplus fruits and veggies from your backyard garden, was illegal in Oakland, CA.  However, after well known Bay Area urban farmer and author Novella Carpenter was cited by the city for growing food on a vacant lot without the required $2,800 conditional use permit (CUP), urban agriculture advocates rose to change city regulations.

Thus far, the city of Oakland has worked to pass zoning laws and municipal ordinances which monitor the level of intense farming a plot of land can undergo, what types of animals can be raised and how many, sale of produce and on-site butchering of animals intended for personal consumption.

The city has decreased the cost of the CUP required to cultivate non-residential property from $2,800 to $400, making it far easier for urban farmers to enter into the industry.   The CUP is also now associated with the farmer, instead of a specific plot of land, so that the farmer has the ability to move their farm to a different plot or hold multiple plots without having to continuously attain new permits.

In a move to make urban farming a more accessible occupation, urban farmers are now allowed to register as a home-based business—a title which had been previously limited only to indoor operations.  Now, as long as no farm equipment is required for cultivation, urban farmers can sell their produce without fear that one call from a disgruntled neighbor will subject them to citations, penalty fees, and possibly forcible closure of their business.

The return of livestock to San Diego

Similarly, San Diego has amended its municipal code to ease restrictions on housing bee-hives, chickens and goats, and has sought to simplify the process for establishing a farmers market on private property

The City of San Diego was able to make these amendments with the aid of a $50,000 grant which was awarded to the city with the goal of promoting urban agriculture through the city’s general plan and municipal code.  The grant was funded through the San Diego Association of Governments on behalf of the County of San Diego Health and Human Services agencies to address alarming rates of obesity which can be headed off by introducing physical exercise and healthier sources of food into communities.

New Zealand takes a tough stand against home growers

However, not all recent urban agriculture policies have been for the better.  New Zealand’s new Food Bill 160-2 has made it much more onerous, and even criminal, for individuals to grow their own food.

Passed in 2010, the bill extends food safety regulation to anyone wishing to sell or even trade their surplus garden veg or homemade items such as fruit preserves or honey.  The new bill forces individuals to register as a food business, or apply for exemption, for even the smallest exchanges of food-related items, such as swapping seeds that might one day grow food for human consumption.  Restricting items like seeds is now possible after the bill redefined the term “food,” which  now includes not just produce but minerals, natural medicines, and beverages (such as tea you might make with ingredients from your garden).

If one is found in violation of selling or trading food (such as some apples from your yard for a bag of lemons from your neighbor’s garden) without registering themselves as a food business or filing for exemption, an individual can incur penalty fees of up to $100,000 and come under threat of 5 years imprisonment.

Read our article about New Zealand’s Food Bill.

Ready to grow your own food?

Read other articles about converting your lawn to a productive edible garden, starting a community food exchange or using underutilized urban lots to start a profitable urban farming business.

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