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Across the Bay Area, urban farming is in season

Cities are changing ordinances to permit sales of home-grown produce as residents demand access to high-quality food and greater connection to the source.

July 31, 2011|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • Brooke Budner, 30, co-founder of Little City Gardens, San Francisco's first urban commercial farm, harvests chard for weekly customers.
Brooke Budner, 30, co-founder of Little City Gardens, San Francisco's… (Lee Romney, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from San Francisco — In a dense pocket of the Mission Terrace neighborhood, a quiet grid of streets near the city's southern edge, the afternoon fog rolls in over a rare sight: nearly an acre of land sandwiched between homes and planted with kale, exotic salad greens, bursts of flowers and fragrant herbs.

The women who work this plot are pioneers. Their Little City Gardens recently became the first legal commercial farm within city borders. Thanks to them, San Francisco leaders revised zoning laws to allow the cultivation and sale of produce in all neighborhoods.

Other Bay Area cities are following suit.

Berkeley soon will take up a measure to allow residents to sell raw agricultural products from home without a costly permit. And Oakland has pledged to one-up its neighbors by tackling the raising of backyard animals as a personal food source.

More than 300 people packed an Oakland community center this month to weigh in. While a handful of attendees — some carrying bunnies rescued from an overcrowded backyard meat venture — spoke out against residential slaughter, the majority were urban farming trailblazers who blend the Bay Area's zest for organic locally sourced food with a do-it-yourself sensibility.

"There's been a huge change in how we look at food and food production," said Eric Angstadt, Oakland deputy planning and zoning director.

That selling a bunch of backyard basil to a neighbor — or even sharing it — violates most urban planning codes may come as a surprise. But the decades-old rules date to a time when neighborhoods were zoned for living and rural areas for farming. That has resulted, for example, in a woman in Oak Park, Mich., recently being charged with a misdemeanor for growing vegetables in her front yard.

Although San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland are the first California cities to craft modern urban farming regulations, they follow others nationwide that have done so, including Kansas City, Mo., and Seattle.

The changes may lead to a proliferation of discrete neighborhood farm stands. But for Little City Gardens co-founders Caitlyn Galloway and Brooke Budner, they will test the economic viability of small-scale market gardens in a place that pays plenty of lip service to sustainability.

"The movement can become a lot more inclusive if people are able to at least supplement their income," said Galloway, 30, as she prepared bouquets packed with dahlias, wild fennel and sunflowers for tables at a nearby restaurant.

Former art students who each had interned at sustainable farms, Galloway and Budner teamed up more than a year ago to take their gardening venture to the next level

Using Google Earth, they located a suitable three-quarter-acre lot. They signed a lease and started digging — and immediately hit a snag when a neighbor complained to the city.

In 2009, former Mayor Gavin Newsom issued an urban farming directive requiring, among other things, that city departments convert unused lots, median strips and rooftops into gardens. Yet Budner and Galloway learned that growing food for sale would require a special hearing and a permit costing several thousand dollars.

"The Bay Area considers itself so progressive around food," Galloway said. "It seemed like a pretty significant gap."

City officials agreed. To ensure quicker approval of amended regulations, the raising of farm animals was excluded from the conversation.

As of April, growing and selling produce on less than an acre is allowed citywide, with the only requirement being a relatively low-cost permit. Larger operations are permitted in designated non-residential zones, as are sales of value-added products like jam.

Little City Gardens this month launched its Community Supported Agriculture plan, which now provides 27 members with a freshly harvested mix of cooking greens, salad greens, herbs and flowers each week.

The urban farming movement is driven by people's craving for a connection to their food source and for more affordable organic fare, said San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance co-coordinator Eli Zigas, and it "is forcing cities to think about how to bring back activities that we pushed out of cities a long time ago."

Across the Bay, Esperanza Pallana is party to what may be a broader set of changes. Her compact yard abuts a gas station in Oakland's Lake Merritt neighborhood and overflows with hops for beer, kale, peanuts, dwarf pears, bees, hens and Vienna Blue rabbits — first cultivated for meat in the early 20th century.

For Pallana, raising food offers a connection to her Mexican roots. She chooses seeds and breeds that are fading from use to enhance the gene pool. Raising her meat, she said, gives her some independence from "corporate food systems."

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