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5 Urban Farming Lessons

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Lesson No. 4: Be a good neighbor.

As development explodes around farms and as more homeowners want to cultivate their own home and market gardens, land-use disagreements are inevitable, especially when existing zoning codes don’t indicate farming or even gardening as an allowable land use. Service-truck deliveries, noises, smells, unsightly farm equipment or compost piles, and on-site commerce can raise red flags in neighborhoods that are more interested in property values than nutritional values. Nuri says that meeting with the neighborhood watch leader near one of his farm locations smoothed the path to acceptance for his urban farm. Nuri demonstrated that he took her concerns seriously, and he addressed them immediately.

In Clarkston, Ga., urban farmer Steve Miller also demonstrated neighborly concern, and that helped him in his recent fight against the county for his farm’s right to exist. Miller had been farming on a 2-acre tract of land surrounded by single-family homes for 15 years. He sold his produce off site at farmers’ markets.

The county ruled that crop production was illegal on his property as it was currently zoned. Miller hired lawyer Doug Dillard, who was not only a land-use and zoning specialist but an urban farmer himself. By proving that the surrounding neighbors were in support of Miller’s farm, that he was operating in accordance with existing nuisance ordinances, and that he would agree to additional specified conditions, Dillard was able to secure a rezoning of Miller’s property to allow crop production.

“Steve Miller’s farm is shielded from the street by fruit trees, other attractive vegetation and fences,” Dillard explains. “One of the additional conditions in the rezoning states that Miller will maintain this buffer between his farm and the neighborhood. The conditions also specify actions Miller was already taking, such as limiting his hours of operation, not creating any offensive odor, dust or noise impacts on surrounding properties, and making sure no water or fertilizer drained onto adjacent property. It’s important to note that not one neighbor had complained about his farm because he was already being a good neighbor.”

Take proactive steps to ensure positive relationships with your neighbors. Urban farmers typically share their bounty with neighbors to boost goodwill.

Jonathan Silverman of Feel the Earth, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco that provides urban-agricultural community education and events, recommends being empathetic and truthful with neighbors and forming a neighborhood group early on so neighbors can voice concerns.

Sarah Bernardi of The Farm at Walker Jones in Washington, D.C., adds, “Make your compost pile beautiful, keep it tidy, and feed and work it properly. This will keep the neighbors, the city and the soil happy, allowing you to grow a lot in a little space.”

Stacey Murphy of BK Farmyards, a Brooklyn, N.Y., farming network, suggests repurposing waste-stream products — such as coffee chaff from a local roaster, spent fruits and vegetables from a local juice shop, and leaves from the neighbors — to add to your compost pile as a way to get the community involved and supportive.

Do you think this is all too much and you don’t want to be involved in politics in any form? If you participate in urban agriculture, you’ll most likely end up at city hall at one point or another. Look at land-use ordinances in your county, city and neighborhood. Society is at a crossroads, and many antiquated zoning laws are up for review and revision. Connect with others in your community, show up at city hall, speak up, and advocate for local zoning and ordinance changes that will make your city more receptive to urban farming in all its forms. You’ll be standing up not only for your favorite urban farmer but for your community, your neighbors and your family, and you’ll meet others who share your passion. Lesson No. 5: Life (and seed-planting) sometimes requires a leap of faith.

Going back to the nitty-gritty of neighbor complaints, soil contaminants and city ordinances, I still struggle to know how on earth those of us who simply want to grow good, healthy food can keep the faith. I told Nuri that the community garden I helped start was under threat of losing its land but we wouldn’t know for another two months. If we waited for location security, we’d miss the spring planting season, and we’re growing for those in need, and they’re hungry. If we planted and lost our location, we’d lose our plants, and we didn’t have the funds to replant elsewhere. I didn’t know what to do and asked him for advice.

He answered simply, “Pattie, you plant anyway.” Yet another lesson learned.

About the Author: Pattie Baker writes the FoodShed Planet blog and is working on a book Food for My Daughters, about what one mom decided to do when the towers fell (and what you can do, too).

This article first appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Urban Farm magazine.

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