October Web Exclusive


Urban Farmers Wait for Bureaucracy to Catch Up

        by Ron Stevens and Curt Harler
        City-based urban farmers are getting some recognition for their agricultural efforts, but they dream of more and bigger changes.

        Emily Hanson and Klaus Zimmermann-Mayo grow and sell crops in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn. Those two cities are not only recognizing their urban agriculturists, but also supporting them with zoning changes. In April 2012, the Minneapolis city council finalized an urban farming plan, voting to amend the Urban Agriculture Policy Plan to "ensure success" for farming in the city. Growers are seeing the benefits.

        "It is exciting that people started doing their growing based on the changes last spring," said Cam Gordon, Minneapolis city council member.

        Hanson and Mayo said that Gordon has been a friend of urban ag. "He's been the lead councilman pushing for [zoning changes], and has had a lot of meetings with farmers and done a lot to reach out and understand the issues and come up with things that made sense. Other council members were totally happy to go along with zoning changes," Mayo noted.

        Hanson started an urban farming business called Concrete Beet Farmers in 2011. "It lasted for one season, and then several of us from that farm went on to start Stone's Throw [Urban] Farm," she said. "It wasn't so much that there were specific restrictions [against urban agriculture], but before this latest round of policy changes passed, it was all kind of a gray area. There's no agriculturally zoned land in the city [Minneapolis], and yet it was unclear in the zoning codes as to whether it was legal or illegal to grow commercially on private city property." That required political action.

        "What these policy changes and amendments have done is to clarify what market gardening is, what urban farming is, and where those things are allowed under those zoning designations," she continued. "We have 16 locations--some of those are multiple vacant lots; one vacant lot used to be a greenhouse location--and our total planted space is 1.8 acres."

        Hanson noted: "Regulations haven't changed too much, except about signage. Farmers are now allowed to sell off-site, which isn't technically a farmers' market, it's just one farm marketing its own site. Now on-site sales are allowed 15 days a year. It's something held over. If they were to allow something on a weekly basis, there'd have to be a different kind of permitting, so 15 days a year puts it more on the designation of a garage sale. We went back and forth with them at the policy hearings, but most community supported agriculture operations are shorter than most farmers' markets, so a minimum of one day a week of on-site sales would be 25 days a year."

        Other growers around the city said the changes have helped, but they said there's room for improvement.

        "The changes to the urban ag plan were a step in the right direction," said Jillia Pessenda, who owns California Street Farm with her husband, Jim Bovino. Located on the city's north side, they have established a steady base of local customers buying their homegrown produce. Pessenda said, "We look forward to working with the city in the future on zoning codes that work better for us as growers."

        Jumping through hoophouses
        Under the current rules, farmers can grow for only 180 days in 6-foot-5-inch hoophouses.

        "The 6.5-foot limit on hoophouses is awkward, and the 180-day limit is simply impractical," said Bovino. The city council is aware of the producers' concerns.

        Gordon said that it's possible changes could be made to the plan. People could potentially have poultry farms, and the number of days farmers can sell their products in the market could increase due to the season's successful pilot program.

        "St. Paul has also gone through a process of changing their regulations, but there hasn't been as much of a community process," Mayo noted. "They've had a few sessions where they invited people to come and give advice, but it hasn't been the totally open public hearing process that took place in Minneapolis. They have elected one person to rewrite the code around urban farming.

        "St. Paul also seems to have been more supportive, in general, in terms of land availability and those sorts of things."

        Hanson and Mayo agree that Minneapolis made no major changes in its urban ag policy, but simply adjusted zoning to follow what the farms were doing.

        "They realized they wanted to change things, and it affects us, but on the whole we aren't going to be doing anything that much different. Whatever codes and policies we have to work within, we'll work within. St. Paul has been better about recognizing what we're trying to do and making not so many hoops to jump through," Mayo said.

        Mayo is interested in growing food sustainably, and voiced concern about the current state of the industrial food system. "I wanted to be more self-sufficient, personally and generally," he said.

        Mayo started his own gardening project, then did an internship at a farm. "At the beginning of 2011, I met two of the partners involved in Stone's Throw and got to talking with them about the project they were working on," he recalled. "I offered to help by putting up the fence on their main lot. I wasn't involved with the farming then because I was doing other projects. Then getting to know Emily has gotten me involved in the partnership."

        There are six owners of Stone's Throw Urban Farm: Hanson, Mayo, Alex Liebman, Robin Major, Eric Larsen and John Seitz.

        More issues loom
        So far, the urban farmers haven't had to lobby or struggle to find a sympathetic ear for these zoning changes, but there are bigger issues ahead.

        "The things that I think the city could help out with, where policy would make a big change, are things like land access and tax structures," Hanson said. "Those aren't the things they're talking about; they're talking about on-site sales and the exact height that you can have your hoophouses.

        "We look at what we need as farmers, and figure out what we need to get through the season and operate," she continued. "I'm glad that they're making steps, and I'm glad that they're starting to think about urban ag as a real land use, but those things don't affect us as much as if they were to start talking about 'Let's offer a tax break to people who are growing food and can't afford to pay commercial property taxes,' or 'Let's make city land available to urban growers if they're meeting these criteria.'"

        Mayo said, "We don't have any access to Minneapolis land. That's one way that St. Paul has been better; they allow some access to city-owned land. In Minneapolis, if you're a community garden or a nonprofit, you can work out some kind of agreement, but if you're a business, actually trying to support yourself by selling food, city-owned land is not available at all."

        "To do a rough comparison," Hanson added, "more extensive land in southern Minnesota is about $600 to $700 an acre for corn and soy land. On the cheaper end of property taxes in south Minneapolis, it would be about $700 per lot [about 1/10 acre]. So to be paying $7,000 an acre in rent, essentially, it just wouldn't work."

        According to Jane Shey, Minneapolis is at the forefront of urban agriculture. Shey, coordinator of the Homegrown Minneapolis Food Council (HMFC), a project to create more urban farming in the city, said, "Urban farming is a growing industry in Minneapolis. We are definitely one of the top cities in the U.S. with these kinds of programs." The HMFC is a group of local government officials, area businesses, community organizations, nonprofits and neighbors.

        Urban farmers are already looking ahead, advocating for access to more urban land, farm-friendly property tax structures and fewer limitations on land use. They feel that the text amendments were a step in the right direction, but more steps need to be taken to allow urban agriculture to flourish. They point out that Minneapolis owns a lot of land that's not being utilized.

        The urban farmers want to grow food and grow green jobs, and feel they need to push further to get permanent land for farmers.
        Ron Stevens is a freelance writer based in the Midwest and a frequent contributor. Curt Harler, who has a B.S. in agriculture from Penn State University and an M.S. in ag from Ohio State University, is a full-time freelance writer specializing in green topics.

        Photos courtesy of Stone's Throw Urban Farm.

        The Salad Spinner at Stone's Throw Urban Farm

        "The salad spinner is basically a cage built to fit a 55-gallon drum," says Klaus Zimmermann-Mayo.
Mayo said that he and Alex Liebman were "inspired by a salad mixer from an Eliot Coleman book, with some of our own innovations."

        With axles and bearings on each end, it spins freely once clamped shut. "We attached a flywheel to one side, driven by a belt hooked to the back wheel of a bicycle. The bicycle is mounted on a stand, so when the rider pedals it spins the back wheel, turning the belt, which spins the flywheel, rotating the drum," he explained.

        "We can do about 15 to 20 pounds of salad mix at a time," Mayo said. It's a great improvement over hand-spinning, which used to take up a lot of our labor hours on harvest days."