Urban Agrarianism

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The City of Minneapolis is considering how to make it easier for “urban ag” to exist in some of the most non-rural  neighborhoods in the state. In fact, the public comment period for the Urban Agriculture Policy Plan wraps up Jan. 31. Ag in the city? It’s not such a stretch. “We are still a nation of farmers at heart,” nationally recognized community gardening guru Rose Hayden-Smith told me recently. Here’s one city’s chance to help its residents express their native agrarianism.

If the Minneapolis Urban Agriculture Policy Plan is approved by the Planning Commission and City Council, it will enable the city to change zoning codes and land use policies that affect everything from home and community gardens, to production of livestock and farmers’ markets. The draft is a vital step towards creating an environment where urban farmers, gardeners, markets and ag/food entrepreneurs can flourish.

Such changes are long overdue: the zoning code in many U.S. cities was written in the 1950’s when there was a move to separate urban and rural areas as much as possible. I’ve talked to wannabe Twin Cities urban farmers over the past year who’ve run afoul of these outdated rules. Often, the city officials tasked with enforcing them confide that these restrictions no longer make sense. This isn’t just a problem in the urban core—suburbs like Wayzata are struggling with neighborhood food production issues as well.

But as LSP’s recent fact sheet illustrates, cities across the country have taken steps in recent years to develop zoning rules that treat urban ag like it deserves to be treated: as a viable part of the local community and economy. Officials in places like Kansas City, Madison, Milwaukee and Seattle have stepped up to the plate with creative solutions to zoning challenges. Milwaukee (the home of urban ag poster child Growing Power), for example, released a city-wide comprehensive plan in 2010 that encourages farming and gardening on vacant lots and under-utilized land.

The proposed Minneapolis plan has a lot of potential, recommending, among things:

• Amending the zoning code to include urban ag as a legitimate land use and determining the districts in which different urban ag activities are accepted uses.
• Establishing new approaches to selling and leasing land.
• Encouraging urban agriculture through city planning.
• Supporting economic development through a Homegrown Minneapolis Business Development Center and conducting an economic impact analysis on urban ag.

But there’s plenty of room for improvement. For example, the plan should:

• Recommend strong urban farmer and gardener involvement in determining the specific zoning changes.
• Use a more holistic set of criteria to determine what land is best used for urban ag.
• Articulate clear racial equity goals.
• Ensure positive environmental health and sustainability outcomes.

In other words, just a few zoning tweaks aren’t enough (click here for details on how you can make your voice heard on the Minneapolis Urban Agriculture Policy Plan before Jan. 31). Rose Hayden-Smith is an educator and historian who closely tracks the interest in community gardening across the country. She says that the phones of gardening experts are “ringing off the hook” as community groups seek advice on how to make their growing seasons a little more green and productive. The interest in community gardening parallels the recent buzz over gardening in general, a buzz Hayden-Smith associates with the struggling economy. According to National Gardening Association estimates, a well-maintained food garden yields on average a $500 annual return when considering a typical gardener’s investment and the market price of the produce.

“In challenging times, Americans have always turned to gardening,” Hayden-Smith told me, adding that in order for community gardening to evolve from an endeavor that is turned to out of desperation during trying times to something that is more the norm, there has to be partnerships that involve government, private enterprise and local communities.

A prime example of what such partnerships can produce was on display almost a century ago, according to Food Will Win the War: Minnesota Crops, Cooks, and Conservation During World War I, Rae Katherine Eighmey’s fascinating history/recipe book. Eighmey documents how quickly local food production was ramped-up in response to the U.S. entering the “Great War,” and how all levels of Minnesota society jumped aboard as terms like “food miles reduction” and “buy local”” (sound familiar?) became rallying cries.

For example, the Great Northern Railroad turned over to its employees 100,000 acres of free garden space along its rail lines between Saint Paul and Oregon. A Minneapolis real estate developer offered up 7,000 unused building lots for gardening, and a St. Louis Park High School agriculture instructor coordinated the cultivation of empty lots. The Minneapolis Garden Club developed Vegetable Gardening in Minneapolis, a guide that included diagrams for plots as small as 20 by 40 feet.

The U of M Extension Service, USDA and the federal government’s newly formed Food Administration promoted canning and home preservation of all that produce coming off those empty lots. In July 1918, the City of Saint Paul opened the Community Food Center, and during the next three months it hosted 102 demonstrations for 3,000 people and canned 27,792 quarts of vegetables, according to Eighmey.

Perhaps the most impressive food mobilization effort took place in Twin Cities schools. In 1917 alone, some $50,000 worth of vegetables were raised in Minneapolis school gardens, making some of those playgrounds worth $785 per acre food-wise.

Obviously, we are further removed from our agrarian roots these days, but the popularity of community gardening and local foods in general shows there is the potential to create a new, more sustainable Victory Garden movement.

“It was a real quasi private-public partnership in World War I,” says Hayden-Smith. “I think there are really good opportunities to do that right now because you have government struggling with budget issues and there seems to be a stronger interest in public engagement. One World War I example that we could emulate today is to utilize community gardens to engage people where they live.”

That will require a bottom-up approach that does everything from making kids more aware of where their food comes from to a reform of federal policy that promotes production of a handful of commodity crops above all else.

It will also require researching and recognizing the economic benefits of urban ag and community based food and farming in general. A surprising statistic reported by researcher Ken Meter is that in 2007 alone Minnesota farmers sold $23 million worth of food directly to eaters. That’s only 0.3 percent of the total farm commodity market in the state, but hey, $23 million is $23 million. Direct sales actually represent a bigger market than either the oat, apple or sheep markets in Minnesota, and are nearly as large as sunflower sales.

On the local level, one basic place to start “engaging people where they live” is to make it easier for community gardens to find permanent homes. Most are established either on public land or private lots owned by firms such as railroads. Their existence is tenuous at best, with permits often granted only on a year-to-year basis. As we’ve reported in this blog before, perhaps the most surprising barriers are the ones that are thrown up by local units of government, which are desperate to fill empty lots with traditional development that will generate tax revenue.

Food and farming activities are seen, at best, as interim uses of such space until something more lucrative comes along. Here’s a news flash straight out of 1918: no matter what real estate is going for, the bottomline payoff that results from being self-sufficient is pretty hard to beat.

2 Responses to “Urban Agrarianism”

  1. Cam Gordon

    Thanks for your comments about the Mpls. Urban Ag plan. I am interested in getting more specific suggestions for ” a more holistic set of criteria to determine what land is best used for urban ag.” and “clear racial equity goals.”

    Do you have more specific ideas or can you direct me to a set of more holistic criteria or equity goals?


  2. Sarah Claassen

    Sure! Successful urban agriculture relies on healthy land, so a more holistic set of considerations for land could include health of the soil and air, sun exposure, safe physical access, and potential for water access. Urban agriculture can thrive in a variety of conditions, and these factors do not need to be ‘perfect’ to support urban agriculture, but they should be a part of the decision.

    Clear racial equity goals can be a commitment to creating positive racial equity outcomes regarding food, land, and business opportunity through the Urban Ag Policy Plan. Some elements of acheiving this goal can be: involving groups who will be affected by the Plan in its development, measuring the impact of actions taken as a result of the Plan during implementation (is this action increasing or decreasing racial disparity?), and if actions are increasing racial disparity, exploring alternatives and taking different action. The Organizing Apprenticeship Project is doing great work on how public policies in Minnesota can advance racial equity. You can find some examples on their website, http://www.oaproject.org.