The Green Plate: Is Urban Farming the Next Green Cottage Industry?

ColumnAn urban farming legalization trend sweeps the country.

Looking for a work-at-home green job? You might consider tilling the backyard and planting a few crops.

No more fossil fuel burning commute, no need for professional attire purchased from sweatshop supporting retailers, no more disposable containers from the workaday desktop lunch, and no driving to the gym to counteract your sedentary lifestyle.

Not to mention, you’ll be helping the soil, planting oxygen-producing plants, not fertilizing (and mowing) a lawn, producing local food that doesn’t have to travel far, and building your own little food shed.

The urban farming trend has blossomed over the past few years, but most of the people growing food are only doing it for themselves and maybe some friends and neighbors. While commendable, imagine if urban farming were a viable career and a dependable source of food for city dwellers? We need more people producing food in this country. The average age of farmers is mid-50s and only one percent of people in the U.S. list farming as their occupation. Urban farming can benefit communities by serving as a cushion against recession, a safety net during times of disruption in services, and can also increase urban self-reliance, foster a sense of community and shared purpose, not to mention bring urban dwellers closer to the cycles of nature.

Could urban farming be a burgeoning green business allowing more eager, young farmers to build a career?

If this all sounds a little pie-in-the-sky, it might soon be a reality in many parts of the country.

Energetic young urban farmers all over the U.S. have been working hard to raise awareness and lobby for laws that will let them grow (and sell) food in their own neighborhoods, and they’ve been making progress.

The San Francisco planning commission unanimously supported a proposal to simplify permitting to allow home gardeners to sell their produce. The measure now goes before the Board of Supervisors. This is great news for Little City Gardens, the only urban farming business I know of. The garden provides salad greens and culinary herbs from its 3/4 acre spread to a few restaurants and caterers. Little City Gardens was the trailblazer, but I imagine many more gardeners would start such businesses if only there was legal framework.

Here’s a look at what’s happening on the urban gardening front:

– In Berkeley, the City Council is working with the planning commission to get home-based gardens added into the city code as a legal home-based business.

– In Vancouver, WA, urban farmers teamed up to form a co-op and open their own farmers market to sell home-grown produce.

– Last summer, Seattle changed the city zoning codes to allow for more urban farms, increased the number of chickens residents could legally keep, and made it legal for growers to sell backyard produce.

– Also last summer, Los Angeles made it legal to farm within the city limits and to sell home-grown produce through the Food and Flowers Freedom Act.

– The town of Sedgewick ME, just last week passed The Local Food and Self Governance Ordinance, which not only exempts direct farm sales from state and federal licensing and inspection, but goes even further to also allow the sale of foods made in the home kitchen.

– Last summer, Kansas City passed an ordinance allowing home gardeners to sell their harvest.

– Similarly, Michigan’s Cottage Food Law allows the sale of certain approved foods produced in residential kitchens from homes, farm markets, or roadside stands, county fairs, festivals, and other events, provided the food is labeled as coming from an un-inspected home kitchen.

Detroit, being perhaps the nation’s epicenter of urban farming, hopefully won’t have long to wait to achieve official recognition of its many urban farms currently operating without the proper zoning to legitimize them.

All over the country, citizens are working with their local governments to take back the production of their own food. The names of some of the new laws are telling: “freedom act,” “self governance ordinance,” this is the language of change, maybe even revolution.

People are ready to wrest control of what they eat out of the hands of big food. Though these movements may seem tiny, looked at together they represent a mighty wave of people taking up hoes to make real change in their neighborhoods.

Do you have an urban farmer inside of you? Maybe you want to get ahead of the competition. Try these 5 ideas for transforming your own backyard.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: Christine Paulus

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.