Cities Cultivate New Approaches to Urban Agriculture

 

When the upscale cafeteria-style restaurant Forage opened in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood in early 2010, it did so with a new take on the “farm to table’” movement that’s slowly been gaining ground in California, as well as the rest of the country in recent years.

Forage features produce grown not only by local famers, but, most unprecedentedly, by urban farmers, inviting the latter to bring their backyard harvest to the restaurant for use in its kitchen (in exchange, growers receive market price or store credit). With a stack of positive reviews and a feature article in the Atlantic Monthly, Forage’s chef Jason Kim has gained national recognition for this concept. Despite its popularity, Forage’s “foraging program” was shut down by the Los Angeles County Health Department soon after its inception but has now been reinstated, as long as all participants get grower certified by the county at a fee of $63 dollars annually. And the restaurant is thriving. 

That Kim’s fairly simple idea should have drawn so much attention and in many ways come off as radical, hints at an assumed division between the food found in cities and where that food comes from. California has been the most productive agricultural state in the country for over 50 years, but most of the production takes place in decidedly agricultural areas—in the Central Valley or Imperial County—not within a city’s limits. 

Even with a grow-local movement that ultimately dates back to the environmentalism of the 1960s, big-city zoning codes have reinforced this rift. 

According to Daniela Aceves of the food sustainability advocacy group Roots of Change, in San Francisco: “Zoning policies exist in the first place because of the belief in incompatible land uses.” Activists like Aceves contend that, in cities throughout California, these codes are now proving outdated, keeping out desirable uses, as more and more people turn to agriculture in urban areas for both personal and financial sustenance, to reduce carbon footprint or simply for lack of better options for access to fresh produce and animal products. Many proponents also contend that city-grown foods can help cut down on traffic and greenhouse gas emissions, because of reduced distances from field to table. 

A spate of legislation throughout the state in the last two years reflects this trend. 

In June of 2010, the Los Angeles city council passed an amendment to its 1946 general plan, which indirectly outlawed the cultivation of anything other than vegetables for sale off-site. Written at the behest of an embattled flower farmer in Silver Lake and informally dubbed the “Fruit and Flowers Freedom Act,” the bill, introduced by Council President Eric Garcetti in 2009, sought to define truck gardening to include berries, flowers, fruits, herbs, mushrooms, ornamental plants, nuts and seedlings, essentially ensuring the legality of small-scale agriculture throughout the city by clearly addressing the previously murky term. 

"In Los Angeles, there's definitely been a growth of interest in locally-grown food, and I was proud to author an ordinance that clarified city policy on urban farming.  L.A. has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to sustainable living," said Garcetti, himself an avowed gardener. 

Other recent changes throughout California, include a 2011 ordinance passed by the City of Santa Monica that allows backyard beekeeping on single-family residential properties, allotting a maximum of two hives per residence to be registered with Santa Monica’s Animal Control Office. 

San Diego passed an ordinance in February making it easier for city dwellers to keep chickens by easing up on property line restrictions that had called for them (up to 25 only) to be kept at least 50 feet from residential structures. Under the new law, as long as coops are well ventilated and provide six square feet of space per chick, depending on space, residents are able to keep a varying number of chickens on their property, from five to 50. San Diego also passed a law in January allowing residents to keep two—for companionship’s sake—miniature goats per property (though products such as milk and cheese are still for personal consumption only) as well as two beehives. 

In Northern California, at the urging of local urban farmers whose livelihoods were directly being affected, in May Berkeley’s Planning Commission passed an amendment (known as the Berkeley Edible Gardens Initiative) on the zoning code’s permitting process for Moderate Impact Home Occupations (the permit has been waived previously for home teachers). If the ordinance wins approval of city council, home growers will be able to avoid a permit for selling their produce that can cost upwards of $3,000 and take as long as six months to obtain. 

Finally, in April of 2011, the City of Oakland passed a law updating its zoning to allow for the growing of vegetables on empty lots without a conditional use permit. Planners are  currently working on a further overhaul of their city’s zoning regulations in relation to urban agriculture. 

The most dramatic actions, however, have been taken by San Francisco, which passed two major ordinances in the last year and a half. 

The Urban Agricultural Ordinance, passed in 2011, permits farms in virtually all areas of the city and, even more progressively, allows farmers to sell their produce on-site as well. The zoning for the ordinance is based on size (operations must be under an acre) as opposed to category— such as commercial, community, demonstrational—the way it is in other cities. 

Eli Zagas, a Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager for the San Francisco based nonprofit SPUR thinks that’s a wise decision. 

“If what you’re concerned about from a zoning perspective is intensity of activity or possible nuisance or just general noise or smells, you could have a community garden that’s not commercial at all, that’s attracted lots of people, and has ended up being a very big operation, and smelly,” said Zagas. “And you could have a market garden that was just one or two people working and was quiet and run very well, so the real risk for impact for a neighborhood or area of the city, I think, comes more from size than what they’re doing with the food itself."

In April SPUR published Public Harvest: Expanding Land Use for Urban Agriculture in San Francisco, a report that outlines a number ways that the city can further promote urban agriculture. Though seven separate agencies spent nearly $1 million on urban agriculture in San Francisco in 2010-11, SPUR deemed the efforts uncoordinated and lacking focus. 

Supervisor David Chui recently introduced urban agriculture legislation that reflects many of SPUR’s recommendations. The draft ordinance proposed that the city set goals with outlines and timelines, create a single urban agriculture program that could bring together disparate government agencies, and commission an evaluation that would take stock of the current state of existent programs and decide how best to move forward, whether with a city agency or a nonprofit partially funded by the city at the helm of things, by the end of 2012. Last month the Board of Supervisors approved the ordinance unanimously 

This legislation is intended to provide more comprehensive support for urban agriculture in San Francisco, giving farmers a kind of “one-stop shop” for application processes on public land. It will also provide information and technical assistance. However, hurdles still remain for farmers in urban spaces. 

“The obstacles are land resources and institutional support,” said Zagas. “People finding a place to start growing food has been a big obstacle at least here; I think in Detroit, for example, it’s not a big obstacle but it certainly is here.” The cost of materials, water, permits and farmers’ ability to support themselves through full-time farming remain in question. 

Some farmers across the state are, nonetheless, making a go of it. 

Jennifer Little, who runs Little Farm Fresh from her home in San Gabriel, started farming just a couple of year ago and is now working at her business full time. She sells an eclectic mix of fruit, vegetables, herbs and seedlings, many of them lesser known or heirloom variety. She claims that her and her partner, James Imhoff, are about two-thirds of the way to being sustainable. 

“Being so small, we are limited in how much we can produce,” said Little.  “We want to get a larger plot, perhaps city owned land, but we would need a loan or a grant to be able to do it. It's really hard to find available resources that apply to us since we are so small. Of course all of the normal problems that farmers face with pests and plant diseases affect us too. We grow everything organically, so we spend a fair amount of time squishing bugs.” 

Little’s business model is so rare in Los Angeles that the coordinator for a study she’s participating in on urban agriculture through the UC Extension Program often tells her that there’s hardly anyone else in the city doing what she does. She wonders if that might mean she’s “crazy, or revolutionary.” “There are lots of great things about being an urban farmer,” she said. “For one, it's really nice to be home together all the time. Also it feels really good to work hard all day in the dirt with the sun beating down on you, and even though we don't make much money, we know we earn every penny.” 

  Though Los Angeles ranks low opposed to other cities in California and the rest of the US for urban agriculture, if policy continues to shift, Little might not be alone too much longer.  

“The city benefits from the people growing food, said Zagas. “Individuals benefit, but the city as a whole does as well so we think it’s important for the city to meet that demand and continue to help support people who are trying to grow food.” And what shape that support will take in the future seems to be continuing to grow as well. 

Contacts: 

 

Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager, SPUR :: San Francisco Planning + Urban Research, 415.644.4881

Daniela Aceves, Communications Manager, Roots of Change, 415.391.0545 

Eric Garcetti L.A. City Council President, 213-473-7013

Jennifer Little, Owner Little Fresh Farms, 

 

Kate Wolf is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.