Harvesting at the farm next door

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 13, 2012 - 10:33 AM

City growers are taking advantage of new farm-friendly zoning rules that allow for commercial plots in residential neighborhoods.

It was harvest day at the farm. Emily Hanson bagged salad mix and Alex Liebman hosed the dirt off just-picked turnips, while helpers served as human lettuce spinners, their arms windmilling as they twirled mesh bags of wet greens.

Stone's Throw Urban Farm isn't your average sprawling farm field -- it's 16 vacant city lots scattered across Minneapolis and St. Paul. The food Stone's Throw produces is distributed to its CSA members and sold at two urban farmers markets, with surplus donated to a food shelf. It's also sold informally to neighbors, in appreciation of their welcoming the farm into their residential neighborhood.

"What we're doing is weird," acknowledged farmer Nate Watters.

Farming in the city is a lot less weird than it used to be. Neighborhoods all over the Twin Cities, from gritty inner-city blocks to upscale enclaves, have seen tiny food-producing enterprises sprout in their midst this growing season.

The urban agriculture movement has been building for several years, but it firmly took root in Minneapolis this summer following the city's approval in March of zoning rules that allow commercial food growing in residential areas for the first time since 1963. That includes small "market gardens" on vacant lots and even selling homegrown food.

That's not to say those activities weren't already happening.

"It made what we were doing legal. Before, we were in a gray area," said Eric Larsen, a farmer with Stone's Throw, a first-year operation that is a merger of three smaller urban farms (Uptown Farmers, Concrete Beets and Pig's Eye Urban Farm). The farmers joined forces in hopes of turning their "sustainable hobby" into a livelihood.

"We knew what we were doing was good for the city and the community," Hanson said. "We were waiting for the bureaucracy to catch up."

Seal of approval

The new Urban Agriculture Zoning Text Amendments grew out of the citywide Homegrown Minneapolis initiative, which was spurred by requests from local-food advocates.

"Lots of people were very interested in how to get local fresh produce growing in the city," said Council Member Cam Gordon. "People were already doing it, and wanted to do it legally."

The new rules allow urban growers to put up "hoop houses," plastic-covered structures that are more temporary than greenhouses and yet extend the growing season.

"Hoop houses were the big controversy," Gordon said, with some residents concerned that they would detract from neighborhood aesthetics. Hoop houses are now permitted in residential back yards, at heights up to 12 feet, for up to 180 days a year, provided they meet setback and building-code requirements.

Also new: Market gardens and urban farms that want to sell their produce on-site now can apply for a temporary-use permit to operate a farm stand up to 15 days a year.

So far, two permits have been issued, according to city planner Aly Pennucci. One was granted to the McKinley CSA, a collection of eight "pocket farms" in north Minneapolis, now in its third growing season. "It was a huge deal for us," said director of operations Jenny Skorupa. "It's nice to have a stand right there. We've done it twice, with our youth group."

The other permit was sought by the Urban Farm Project, an aquaponic production facility that has been raising perch and salad greens in a warehouse since 2008. "When we started, there were absolutely no rules in place," said owner Chad Hebert. "We were in limbo. The text amendments make it very clear, although we're still working through hurdles." He'd prefer that his stand not be limited to 15 days and restricted to outside the warehouse, for example. "Not too many people want to stand at a farm stand in January," he noted.

Sowing confusion

But while the text amendments provided clarity to Hebert, they've been confusing to many smaller growers, some of whom were under the impression that they could now sell homegrown produce from home. Under the new rules they can't; they must take them to a farmers market or other approved stand.

Susie Goldstein, a longtime gardener who recently completed the Permaculture Research Institute's urban-farming certificate program, was eager to start selling some of the food she grows in her Kenwood back yard. "I don't really need the money," she said. But with her new expertise and expanded production, she wanted to share her bounty in a broader way than just handing out veggies to a few friends.

So in mid-August she invited about 25 people to a small produce sale in her front yard and donated the proceeds to the Land Stewardship Project. Neighbors flocked to buy her heirloom tomatoes, beans, jams and even edible flowers.

"We've tasted her fruits and vegetables before -- they're delicious," said neighbor Jan Wise. "I think this is a great idea -- support the community and eat good food."

But Goldstein was surprised to learn, after the fact, that selling produce from home is not permitted under th new rules.

"I've been following them, reading about them," she said. "I understood that it was like a garage sale, that if you told your neighbors, which I did, it was OK."

She isn't the only one trying to figure out all the details and nuances, said Anna Cioffi of the Land Stewardship Project. "There is a lot of confusion. People are confused about what they can and can't do, about the permits and processes."

As a result, some market gardeners are just trying to stay below the radar, said Maggie McKenna, education director for the Permaculture Research Institute. The text amendments were a great first step, she said; "now there's a need for more communication."

Urban agriculture restrictions vary widely from city to city, she said. (St. Paul is in the process of amending its zoning code, in part to "remove undue barriers" to urban agriculture.) "People are fighting it out neighborhood by neighborhood."

The city is not out to crack down on gardeners selling their produce from home, according to Pennucci. "It would be a zoning violation but not likely prosecuted. If someone complained, we'd send a letter."

In the meantime, urban farmers are already looking ahead, advocating for access to more urban land, farm-friendly property tax structures and fewer limitations on land use.

"The text amendments were a step in the right directions," said Watters of Stone's Throw. "More steps need to be taken now to allow urban agriculture to flourish. The city owns a lot of land that's sitting there, doing nothing. We're trying to grow food and grow green jobs, and we need to push further to get permanent land for farmers."

Growers will continue to push the envelope, McKenna said. "People are hungry to grow. There's momentum -- folks just doing things rather than waiting to hear they can do something. The policy is trying to keep up with us."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

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