Urban farming. Depending on who you are and what you love, those two words either fill you with excitement or make you cringe. For those of us in the sustainable food movement, urban farming equals an opportunity to grow and produce food locally — often times right in our own yards or neighborhoods. For those of us who grew up on conventional farms, urban farming means the smell of dung, diesel, and the noise of chickens invading your picturesque urban space.
Balancing the needs of these two segments of the population can challenge even the most forward-thinking “green” cities, as Kansas City has recently discovered.
Steve Mann doesn’t look like an outlaw as he cheerfully harvests giant rutabagas and luscious lettuce bunches from a friend’s garden in Kansas City, North.
But technically he is violating Kansas City ordinances as he prepares to sell the produce.
Brooke Salvaggio never dreamed that she and her husband, Dan Heryer, were running afoul of city codes when they used a few apprentices in their backyard garden business in south Kansas City.
These foot soldiers in the urban farming revolution have found that, along with locally grown food, they are cultivating a controversy.
While they try to capitalize on blossoming awareness about the benefits of turning lawns into fresh fruits and vegetables, they are colliding with city rules designed to protect Kansas City’s cherished neighborhoods.
Those are rules that the city will be rethinking. But for now, Mann is not allowed to sell produce from a residential property he does not own.
And Salvaggio and Heryer are not allowed to use apprentices in their garden business, dubbed BadSeed Farm, because city codes prohibit outside employees at home occupations.
Urban farming is an issue confronting cities all over the country.
How can they regulate gardening as a home-based business? And how can they manage the chickens, goats and other livestock that enhance a farming operation but prompt complaints about noise and odor from nearby residents?
In this area, people are hoping the Kansas City Council will take the lead in balancing these competing interests.
“Because of Kansas City’s desire to be a green city,” City Planner Patty Noll said, “this council has directed us to make (urban agriculture) a priority.”
Not so fast, says Dona Boley, a neighborhood and historic preservation advocate. She grew up on a farm outside Paola, Kan., and says agriculture doesn’t easily mix with many residential parts of town.
“We want to protect residential neighborhoods,” she said.
Challenges from neighbors abound in other cities.
In June, the Overland Park City Council denied a permit for four backyard hens despite testimonials about fresh eggs. St. Louis is looking at outlawing roosters. Wyandotte County is considering some livestock restrictions after complaints about horses.
Yet across the country, many communities are welcoming urban agriculture for its small-business potential, especially in economically deprived areas riddled with underused vacant properties.
“Cities are looking at it as much as an economic development issue as a hobby or recreation,” said Alfonso Morales, a University of Wisconsin assistant professor of urban and regional planning who has studied local agricultural initiatives.
Among examples Morales cited: Cleveland and Boston allow urban agriculture districts within their city limits. Sacramento, Calif., has relaxed its rules about front-yard vegetable plantings.
Kansas City is not necessarily unfriendly to urban farmers. It has relatively liberal rules governing chickens and some other aspects of producing local food, noted Katherine Kelly, executive director of the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture, which has helped about 50 area urban farms.
But as the movement gains momentum, Kelly said she thought Kansas City’s code could be even more progressive and serve as a model for other cities.
Judging from the 100 people who packed a late October meeting at Salvaggio’s and Heryer’s BadSeed Farmer’s Market, 1909 McGee St., the urban farming movement here has a lot of support.
It wasn’t very long ago when no one batted an eyelash if you kept chickens in your backyard, hung laundry out to dry, or grew vegetables in even the tiniest, postage stamp sized lawns. Yet that was also a time when most families only had one TV or one vehicle (if they had a vehicle at all). Since then, our urban culture has become much more concerned with the outward appearance of things, and our lives have become considerably more luxurious. Raising chickens became low-class, and home owners association rules started prohibiting hanging your laundry out to dry.
So, is it just me, or do you think the tide is starting to turn? Is the pendulum finally starting to swing back in the opposite direction? I’m constantly reading hopeful stories like the one above about average people working with their cities to try to negotiate reasonable rules surrounding the growing urban agricultural movements. Yet I wonder just how vociferous and widespread this is becoming.
Tell me your stories. What’s legal where you’re at? What’s not? How are your city codes and regulations changing?
(picture by thevikingjoker)