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More Trouble in Urban Farming-Land

Farm city My parents have befriended another retired couple in France.  They've done one home exchange and are planning another; meanwhile, my father and the other guy chat via Skype a few times a week, sometimes in French and sometimes in English, to improve their language skills.  It's a lovely friendship and, as it turns out, a fascinating cultural exchange.

The wife in this French couple, Marie, said to my dad last week, "Next time we come to visit, find a farm nearby that raises ducks.  Just get me two, and I'll kill them in your backyard and make you a nice pâté."

Uh.  You'll do WHAT in my backyard?  My parents are carnivores, and they love her homemade pâté, but they had to break the news to her that one simply does not go out and buy live animals, drive them home in the back seat, and slaughter them in the yard.  Dad said that he wasn't even sure that was legal.

Marie thought they must have run into some sort of language barrier.  What do you mean, you can't kill a duck in your own backyard? It's for dinner!

Well.  A situation has arisen in Oakland with regard to the question of what one does in one's backyard, and several of you have written to me and asked why I haven't ranted on the subject yet.  We do take requests here at GardenRant, so here goes:

Novella Carpenter, author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, grows vegetables on a vacant lot in Oakland, and raises rabbits, goats, ducks for milk/eggs/meat. She puts up a farm stand now and then and sells surplus produce. 

The comments on her blog suggest that some in the neighborhood object to the slaughtering of animals, and some of them question whether the eggs/milk/meat are only for her own use or are for sale.  The objections to what she's doing seem to be more about the animals than the selling of Swiss chard, as near as we can figure out, but it's the selling of stuff that causes her to run afoul of city zoning rules.

This article in the Chronicle sums up the trouble:  by selling the produce at a little farm stand, she's gotten herself in trouble with city officials, and now she's got to pay some fines and stuff.

So at first I thought, well, there are rules involved in running any sort of business, and like it or not, if you're going to sell people food, there are even more rules.  We've decided, as a society, that farmers can't just run farms and sell produce without some sort of oversight to ensure that some basic health and safety standards are followed.  It's a bummer when you're a one-person operation trying to become a business, but hey, rules are rules.

But here's the deal:  When she bought the vacant lot (which is next door to her apartment), she ASKED the city what she'd have to do to be in compliance.  She was told that new urban agriculture rules were going into effect soon, and just to sit tight. Then she got hit with notices to abate, fines, enforcement, etc. for being out of compliance with existing laws, with no mention of the new laws about to go into effect.

It's a big mess.  The bottom line:  Oakland could have helped her come into complaince and avoided a PR nightmare.  The new rules go into effect April 14, but apparently they don't cover animals, only vegetables, so she's still got some issues to work out. 

On her blog, you can read a blow-by-blow of the whole thing and donate to her legal bills via PayPal.  You can also read the comments, where it seems like there is still some uneasiness about the animals, the butchering of the animals, the free-ranginess of the animals, etc.

Is she being screwed by The Man?  Or is it reasonable to ask your neighbors to follow some rules and pay some fees when it comes to the raising and butchering of meat for personal use, the selling of produce, or (although we're not sure if this actually happened) the selling of meat/eggs/milk from your backyard livestock?  Discuss amongst yourselves, or head over to her blog and let her know what you think.

Posted by on April 16, 2011 at 7:39 am, in the category Uncategorized.
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19 responses to “More Trouble in Urban Farming-Land”

  1. anne says:

    Don’t get me started! Full disclosure: I am a small family farmer who sometimes feels like she is drowning in the rise in compliance requirements :), but is in support of the growing urban marketing trend, not least because it helps to make people (many of whom are now several generations removed from the farm) aware of what it takes to grow food.

    This controversy is being driven by the fast rise in urban, “grow-it-yourself” agriculture, farmer’s markets and so on. Bureaucracy lags behind innovation, but recent food scares have escalated people’s fears and therefore brought the bureaucrats out.

    Here’s the big question: If farmers who make a living farming have to follow, and pay for, the more-and-more rigorous compliance laws in order to grow food for sale, why shouldn’t anyone who grows food for sale? At what point do safety and liability issues cross the good intentions of people who raise food in their yards (after all, food is food)? And before you argue that a small urban backyard farmer has more control over what they grow, bear in mind that many of these folks have no training and little knowledge about growing and/or processing food, or safe food handling practices; they can do (or say they are doing) whatever they want with their gardens or livestock (I’d bet the French pate-maker learned how to do it at her grandma’s knee as a child, and not by watching a You Tube video, or reading e-how). The question puts our long-standing American romantic notions of pioneer self-sufficiency up against the reality of present-day food safety paranoia and “big-ag” agricultural issues.

    Personally, I favor having different rules for small farmers and those just starting out (and there are some in my state, Oregon), otherwise we won’t have a population of young farmers soon (partly because many children of farmers have seen how hard it is to make a living farming). But people have to understand that just living (and eating food!) is assuming some risk; that farming is often smelly (goats and fowl in the neighbor’s yard, for example), noisy, dirty and frankly, disgusting at times. Do you want that in your neighborhood? And if you do, does your neighbor?

    Thank you for this post! I have to go to work, but I’ll check back this evening.

  2. Sarah Flood says:

    I totally agree food should be safe but this case seems to be more about the City of Oakland taking money for various permits etc than food safety.
    My understanding is that it is easier to get shot in Novella Carpenter’s neighbourhood than find fresh veggies!
    I wish the piles of rules, laws, permits etc did actually make food production safer, but in my neck of the woods at least, it is more about making food production profit safer for huge multinational corporations. I think I should be allowed to buy meat, milk, cheese, vegetables, eggs etc from small farmers if I want to but I can’t because it is too expensive for small farmers to comply with all the regulations, a lot of which are not health related. For instance, recently all local farm eggs were pulled from the store shelves in my town by regional public health officials because they hadn’t been ‘inspected’. The nearest inspection station is a 2 hour drive away. Inspection tells you what size your eggs are and that they have been washed. I can see if they are dirty and size is not a health concern. So now I have to get to the farm gate to buy these same eggs…….
    I also wonder why the previous poster thinks farming is smelly, noisy and disgusting but we don’t talk about traffic or fast food joints as being noisy, smelly and bad for the health but accept it as part of life?

  3. Hap says:

    I understand the burden of dealing with cities for urban agriculture, my nursery grows most of our retail plants on long vacant industrial land and have had to deal with getting use permits and dealing with zoning rules that are vague and contradictory. Last year I was hoping to expand and was trying to buy rather than lease and looked at moving our growing operation from Berkeley to Oakland and had to give up do to getting conflicting replies from Oakland Zoning and their Redevelopment Agency… it just could not be resolved quickly enough to close the sale. Frustrating since Oakland would have gained new tax revenue and we would have more space. So I can commiserate with Ms. Carpenter, however I would be uncomfortable having an urban livestock farm next door to my home. I don’t mind our neighbors chickens and I know what happens to the laying hens when they “renew” the flock. But goats and other mid-sized meat animals are perhaps a bit much to have to put up with in such tight urban quarters as most of the close in East Bay. I would love to have a couple of pygmy milk goats and Berkeley zoning allows two nanny’s in my neighborhood, but I just don’t have room in my yard and goats and plants don’t mix so they can’t be at the nursery or our grow space.

  4. trey says:

    As much as it seems like a nice thing to raise farm animals in the city, it’s not the best use of space. Now rooftop vegetable gardens, or veggie gardens in vacant lot’s seem to make sense. The city is not the place for livestock farms. Better to locate them just outside in the suburban, or rural areas.

  5. Deirdre says:

    My fowl are not smelly, and what better use could I put the portion of my lot that floods occasionally and cannot be developed than to growing chickens and green things? Urban areas should NOT be nothing but concrete. It’s inhuman.

  6. As long as you can’t smell it, it should be ok. So a few backyard hens, fine. As long as there’s enough space for the yard to remain tidy you should have the RIGHT to backyard food. Hence regulations (but not licenses) like “ten square feet per bird, up to eight birds.”

    If you hear a hen cluck and that’s your complaint, then I suggest we remove the barking dogs, gas lawnmowers, weed whackers and leaf blowers that for some reason are supposed to be “acceptable” yet make LOTS more noise per week than any of my hens and provide no nutritional value.

    Selling your food is another matter, regarding regulations / licenses, and should be fairly applied as any similar business. But the suggestion to give a graduated fee for new vendors, suggested above in the comments, is intriguing- kind of like a provisional hunting license… to help people getting their feet wet know if they truly embrace it before making steep investments.

  7. susan harris says:

    Reminds me of a problem with my next-door neighbor when I bought this house back in ’85. Animals were being slaughtered not as part of a suburban farming operation, but because the owners were – I swear to God – a voodoo priest and priestess whose services for their clients involved sacrificing animals, for some reason I never inquired into. I DID see some of it going on while gazing out from my deck, though. Before neighbors’ objections were dealt with the priest died, the priestess moved away, and an animal-loving lady lawyer bought the place. Peace.

  8. Faye says:

    Uh. You’ll do WHAT in my backyard? My parents are carnivores, and they love her homemade pâté, but they had to break the news to her that one simply does not go out and buy live animals, drive them home in the back seat, and slaughter them in the yard. Dad said that he wasn’t even sure that was legal.

    I’m sorry, I haven’t been able to get past the first part of the story…I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time.
    I will try to gather my wits about me and comment!
    Off the cuff from the 1970’s grow you own food movement: the focus should be on the inferior food being raised by ‘big commercial farms’.
    I will try to add more later… because I do think it is a serious problem. and,I am still laughing. Thanks I needed it.

  9. Daughter of a small Wisconsin dairy farmer here. I can’t help but think that a lot of these issus have the underlying substance brought about by the brain-washing done by Big Agriculture. All the regulations and compliance rules are a lot less hard on industrial agriculture with the economies of scale to support the hiring of a separate compliance person and have a lawyer on retainer. A couple of urban farmers trying to make a go of it, don’t penalize them; be an informed consumer instead.

  10. Frank Hyman says:

    Against the odds, in Durham, the city council unanimously passed an ordinance legalizing back yard hens. The key was that we didn’t let ourselves get bogged down dealing with entry level bureaucrats–and you shouldn’t either.

    My advice, as a former city council member and former community organizer (trained by the same people who trained Barack Obama) is to not be afraid to link up with a city council member and the city manager. They work for you, and as long as you stay polite and persistent you can get a face-to-face meeting with them (don’t let anyone tell you different) and get them on your side in moving things your way no matter how large your city is.

    And of course it always pays to read the actual existing ordinances yourself, before getting into trouble. :-)

  11. emily says:

    So slaughtering livestock in your yard is wrong? I think it’s more wrong to pretend that meat springs into existence in cryovac-ed packages in the grocery store. As pointed out, there is plenty of noise and mess that we do choose to accept.
    But perhaps that’s because I live in the country and I have friends and neighbors who slaughter animals (chickens, rabbit, & sheep mostly). What about the people who butcher the deer they shoot? I think it would be more reasonable to be concerned about the frequency and technique in question.

  12. Laura says:

    I support Novella’s efforts, and I think it’s too bad Oakland doesn’t simply give her a hand-slap and then make her comply with the new rules for urban gardens and work out the rest.

    I currently raise a very small number of meat rabbits for my own and my children’s consumption. I started raising them two years ago in response to the soaring cost of meat and because I didn’t know what would happen when the economy plummeted. I wanted to make sure my kids had food to eat.

    I live on 2/3rds acre inside the city, and my neighbors are supportive although I know some of them wouldn’t be able to slaughter a rabbit.–It’s a lot of work and not pleasant! However, the cows, chickens, and pork we eat were also alive at one time and my rabbits get the VERY best of care along with hand-picked greens on a daily basis.

  13. Anne says:

    I would love to have someone in my ‘hood who occasionally offers up their homegrown produce at an urban farmstand.

    Instead I’ll share a food story from where I live, an in-city n’hood of Seattle. We had a great little store we could walk to and which used to carry produce and other basics. It went under. The space sold and new owners recently re-opened. The new store is appalling in it’s legality and intent. I counted over 200 kinds of candy, over a 100 non-alcoholic things to drink (mostly sugar-laden soda pop), tons ‘o beer and wine, and almost every kind of packaged food industry chip or snack product, and cigarettes. And I don’t even live in a low-income, hardly any food choices neighborhood! Now a stone’s throw from hundreds of households is the full range of known disease and disability-inducing products…and it’s all perfectly by the book and legal.

    Consider that one of the primary functions of gov’t is protecting the health, safety, and welfare of people. What Novella and others like her are doing who have some extra produce to sell is quite different than the products peddled in my little n’hood store.

  14. anne says:

    What a sad story, Anne. I’m willing to bet part of the reason the first store went under had to do with the fact that such a small store couldn’t sell perishable items (milk, produce, etc) at prices competitive with the larger supermarkets most people shop at. Hohos and cigarettes, on the other hand, will last forever.

    Consumers have more power than they think; let your legislators and local government know what you want. The difficulty is being willing to assume some of the risk (financially and otherwise).

    Meanwhile,there is one way to get around the rules: barter. Even though I have a farm, I have also got “backyard” chickens from time to time, and then I have an “egg list”. People on my list get eggs “for free”, but I get all kinds of things in return: tea, baked goods, odd jobs, etc. It’s a loose arrangement, but could be well-organized in the right neighborhood.

  15. Heidi says:

    I’ve heard horror stories about small scale farmers getting cracked down on by the FDA. All in all, I think that people tread on the “too anal” side of sanitation, but then again, I’m glad that I can purchase things from the store and feel relatively safe. It’s a trade off. The only way to get out of that vicious cycle is to do it yourself, for your own family. There are times when I dump our farm fresh milk or eggs or produce but I make that call and I know exactly how it was handled.

    I have to disagree about butchering. It’s not a big deal. There is almost nothing to it if you know how to do it, but you can really acquire a lot of flies and stinky garbage if not. When you’re used to field dressing animals in the wilderness, pretty much any spot is fine for dumping a carcass. That becomes more difficult in a regulation sized trashcan.

    Probably my biggest complaint would be poo. We live in the country with all our animals. Their stench is contained to their barns. The only time I realize I’m in “the country” is when the farmer spreads manure on the field. In a smaller space, a few goats and chickens make a stinky difference, especially in the summer. Cleaning up is a big chore. And again, easier in the country. We have fields we can dispose of it into where it turns into wonderful compost.

    I think for many reasons, most of them relating to the convenience of the farmer and the peace of mind of neighbors, raising livestock is best left to more rural spaces.

  16. Michelle D says:

    It has taken me a lifetime to not visualize the chicken breast that lays perfectly seasoned with sprigs on parsley on my dinner plate walking around the chicken yard clucking to its friends.
    Uhg…nope, no could do. Eat Chicken Little from the back yard ? NO!
    That’s when tempeh and tofu became my guilt free friends.
    I could never imagine ‘free range bean curd’, so it was good in my odd little mind.
    I thought my years of eating tofu and tempeh were behind me and that I had overcome my neurotic obsession of eating Chicken Little,Bambi and Porky but all this imagery has me chopping up tofu for lunch again.
    Thanks for nothing.

  17. Nancy Szerlag says:

    My late husband’s Mom, having immigrated from Poland, made duck’s blood soup on a regular basis. She purchased her live bird at a local market and “processed” it the basement. No one was ever the wiser.

  18. Sarah Jane says:

    I wonder if there is a way that livestock could be raised on the urban lot, within city guidelines, and then transported somewhere within 25 miles for slaughter? In our County (where I work for the big, bad, planning department) I believe this to be common for slaughtering anything larger than chickens in the urban area. I don’t know all the details, as I’m only a vegetable farmer on my own urban lot, but I’m sure in the well-supplied East Bay there must be some options for Ms. Carpenter.

  19. Jessica says:

    I’ve driven by Harris Ranch slaughterhouse on the 5 here in California, and everyone should be encouraged to see it. One glimpse of that monstrosity, and people will go running back Novella Carpenter and her low-tech ways.

    Just because it goes to a slaughterhouse, don’t assume it’s sanitary, especially when the product is knee-deep in it’s own feces.

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