Farming: Coming To a Neighborhood Near You

Last week I found myself in a conference room with an aquaculturalist, a mushroom grower, a hops grower, and a handful of CSA farmers.

 This may sound like a great setup for a terrible joke, but the occasion was a serious one. We were sitting in Minneapolis City Hall along with an assortment of other farmers, gardeners, would-be farmers, extension workers, advocates, and city planners, all with lists of policy goals spread out in front of them on the table. The extraordinary thing is that most of them do their growing right here inside the Minneapolis city limits, and that’s why they made the trip to City Hall: to have a say in the first public meeting for implementing new zoning policies for urban agriculture here in the Minne Apple.

At first blush, the very idea of urban agriculture has a nonsensical ring to it (Farming in the city? May as well put a highrise in the countryside, right?).  But Minneapolis’s official engagement with urban ag through Mayor Rybak’s  Homegrown Minneapolis initiative is proof of a growing official consensus on the value of this burgeoning phenomenon.

Urban farming is closely tied to the broader movement afoot for healthier, more sustainable food, but it also fills a unique set of needs that conventional rural agriculture doesn’t. Across the country, urban growers are revitalizing neglected urban spaces, creating hubs for youth and community work, and introducing fresh produce into neighborhoods that otherwise might not have access to it. They are creating highly visible, dynamic, and productive educational spaces for a set of consumers who are dramatically removed from the origins of the food they eat. Urban farmers are arguably even creating a small new sector in an otherwise ailing economy.

Of course, unless you’re growing it in your own backyard, this is also the freshest, lowest-impact, most local food that city-dwellers are likely to find. By necessity, urban growers often embrace high-intensity, low-chemical production practices that don’t involve a lot of heavy equipment. You may have heard of food miles, a reference to the environmental footprint incurred by shipping food from farm to consumer? Try thinking in “food blocks.”

For all these reasons, Minneapolis has just joined Madison, Seattle, Cleveland, Oakland, and a handful of other major U.S. cities to approve a comprehensive policy plan for urban agricultural activities.  Though by all accounts this plan was hardly a cakewalk to get through City Council, the work ahead will surely prove more difficult. The council has essentially passed a list of long-term recommendations concerning agricultural activity in Minneapolis; some of these are quite ambitious, many are contentious, and most are maddeningly vague. Meetings like the one I attended last week are early steps to take recommendations like, “Allow market gardens in a variety of zoning districts” and translate them into meaningful, specific policy. How big can a “market garden” be? Where, specifically should they be allowed--in backyards? On top of shopping malls? In public community gardens?

It will take a while to to answer these kinds of questions, and it will also take a lot of expertise. Other cities can serve as a rough guide, but each one faces such unique challenges that it’s hard to copy-and-paste. Fortunately, Minneapolis has taken an open, interactive approach to the process, and the city seems earnestly intent on gathering as much feedback as possible from public meetings like the one I attended. The farmers and other urban ag advocates, for their part, had strong attendance and proved themselves savvy and well-prepared. Many of them had met the weekend prior with organizers from the Land Stewardship Project to put together an impressive, detailed list of policy and zoning recommendations of their own.

But Aly Pennucci, the city planner who is heading up the nitty-gritty work of rewriting the zoning code, explains that the new code is as much for community members at large as it is for farmers. The work at hand is not merely to permit urban agricultural activities, but to integrate it seamlessly into existing residential neighborhoods, industrial zones, and commercial areas. Significantly, though, no one at the public meeting introduced themselves as “a concerned community member”--this was very much a meeting of the urban farming/sustainable ag in-crowd.

 Robin Garwood, Aide to Ward 2 Council Member Cam Gordon, helped moderate the discussion  and agrees that an important next step in this process is to better reach out to non-farming Minneapolis residents. Gordon, who is on the taskforce for implementing Homegrown Minneapolis, has been a strong supporter of urban agriculture thus far, but not everyone on the City Council feels the same. Garwood explains that some of them see the issue merely as “something a little wacky coming down the pike,” kind of “a fringe-y, treehugging thing,” and they’re concerned that many average Minneapolitans will feel the same way. 

These council members, according to Garwood, are concerned that if they’re too permissive with new zoning policies, they’re setting themselves up for a rash of angry phone calls from constituents about noisy rototillers, foul-smelling compost piles, unweeded lots, crowing roosters and who-knows-what other potential complications of living next to a working farm.

It follows that the central political challenge here is to provide meaningful enough allowances for farmers that agriculture can thrive within Minneapolis, but also to set boundaries tight enough to placate leery council members.

While for many, it’s enough that urban agriculture is a feel-good progressive issue, there are also very real, pragmatic reasons to get urban agriculture policy up and running, and soon. As if the collection of thirty-odd farmers and advocates at last week’s policy meeting weren’t proof enough, Robin Garwood assured me that, “there are a lot of people who are basically farming in Minneapolis right now.” So long as there is no code, urban growers have to function largely below board, and neither farmers nor their neighbors have any official recourse if and when they run into a conflict. 

That’s exactly the kind of unfortunate ambiguity that Seward’s Growing Lots Urban Farm recently ran into, to their dismay. They were asked by the city to get rid of their fifty laying hens not because they were in violation of city policy, but because no city policy existed for permitting chickens in their particular zoning situation.  

Unfortunately, there’s a 5-inch think binder of zoning code that Pernucci and other city planners need to dig through and revise in order to fully integrate urban agriculture into the policy. In the meantime, she says they’ll continue to host public meetings and rely extensively on community input.

Both Pernucci and Garwood are optimistic that they’ll get the zoning changes past City Council in time for next year’s growing season, but it’s unclear how many compromises will be demanded by the political reality. While urban farmers wonder “Will it be enough?”, the question for Minneapolitans at large remains: are you ready for the farm next door?

Michael Pursell is a St. Paul-born, Minneapolis-based freelance writer and journalist. Among his chief passions and interests are the production, distribution, legislation, preservation, preparation, fermentation and oh yes, consumption of food and drink.