by Marion Nestle
May 10 2011

Agronomic angst in Oakland, CA: fighting for the right to farm

You might think that turning a deserted and trash-filled empty lot into an urban farm would please city officials, but not in Oakland CA.

Yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle has a sobering article on the efforts of Novella Carpenter, author of the terrific Farm City (a book I use in my classes), to make her working farm legal.

To continue running her farm, Novella needed a conditional use permit which would cost about $2,500.  She got the money by raising it through her Ghost Farm blog.

The good news is that city officials are listening.

Oakland planning officials said they are about to embark on an ambitious plan  to revamp the zoning code to incorporate the increasing presence of agriculture  in the city.

The plan is to develop rules and conditions allowing anyone to grow  vegetables and sell produce from their property without a permit. The Oakland  plan would go beyond that of other cities, including San Francisco, because it  would also set up conditions for raising farm animals without a permit….Oakland’s rules have always allowed the growing of vegetables and raising  animals for personal use on residential property. But selling, bartering or  giving away what you grow is not legal without a permit. The new rules will  establish limits on distributing food, including food byproducts like jam,  without a permit.

Animals are likely to be the most contentious issue because neighbors tend to  be more bothered by bleating, honking, clucking and crowing. Complaints about  vegetables are rare.

I”m guessing other cities will have to start dealing with these issues if they haven’t done so already, not least because so many people want backyard chickens.

I’m growing salad and blueberries on my Manhattan terrace, but not enough to sell, alas.  Maybe next year!

  • What kind of blueberries did you convince to grow on your patio? (I am impressed – I’ve never convinced blueberries to grow in a pot for me.) Actually, since we’re in basically the same climate, what kind of salad are you having success with? I eat maybe two sandwiches a week with lettuce, so I’m thinking a small salad patch on my fire escape (oh, how East Coast) or a window ledge would be a good investment…

  • I’m watching “Killer at Large” and kept seeing “Marion Nestle” and I thought, “Hmm. That name is familiar.” I finally popped over to my Google Reader to find out it is you!
    It’s nice seeing who you actually are!


  • Hylton

    As far as New York City goes, people growing their own vegetables is fine, but backyard livestock or beekeeping is a bad idea, we’re just too dense and it’s not really fair to the animals that should be kept in rural settings.

    It’s nice that people are enthusiastic about growing their own food but many people are incompetent and will make mistakes. Not so bad with vegetables, horrible when animals are involved. People as a general matter are just downright irresponsible with basic pet ownership of dogs and cats, sorry, but it’s true, so I feel very strongly that barn yard animals and such should be kept out of the city. It’s a safety issue. It’s a health issue. It’s an environmental issue (noise, smell etc.) It’s humane animal treatment issue, etc.

    It reminds me of the book My Empire of Dirt by Manny Howard, as he jumps into backyard farming with many consequences. According to Howard the soil in Brooklyn is highly contaminated with all sorts of toxins, so again, giving away or selling home grown vegetables without some sort of oversight in an urban setting is problematic.

    If someone really wants a backyard farm with livestock then move out of the city, otherwise, go to a farmer’s market or petition to have one in your neighborhood. Sorry, but living in a city requires personal compromises and regulations that you don’t have to deal with out in the country where there is more distance and less friction between you and your neighbors.

    These city limitations on agricultural hobby farming didn’t appear out of nowhere. These rules may seem silly and trivial to us because only a few people are urban hobby farmers right now, but these laws got into the books years ago for reasons that are still relevant today, if not more so.

    Local food is nice, I’m a fan (although I’m very skeptical that it solves he issues that advocates purport it will) but we need to be smart about how we do it and not create more problems than otherwise.

    The fastest way to local food backlash is to go about it carelessly and turn the public off to the idea.

  • I am pretty sure the city would have left her alone had it not been for someone calling them. I am happy that the city is developing progressive ordinances to encourage and not punish. Oakland is one of the ground zeros for Urban Agriculture and the city is wise to recognize that this is a good thing. It’s too bad Novella was turned in before these rules were finished and I KNOW she we will be a huge part of shaping the final policy.

  • Linda Duffy

    If I can’t hear or smell my neighbor’s animals, how is it any of my business if they have a few chickens, maybe some meat rabbits, or a covey of quail? For centuries, people in large, dense cities have even raised “squab” aka pigeon. The assumption that incorporating food animals will automatically cause a problem is pretty knee-jerk and not based on reality.

    I have had way more issues with neighbors and their dogs than someone with chickens. Our area has a hen only law so no noise issue and chickens are pretty quiet in general. I have a small suburban lot and raise ducks and quail with no issue. You can’t hear them over the neighborhood dog chorus, and if it wasn’t for the ducks’ trips to the front yard for bug patrol, nobody would even know I have them.

    The logical and fair thing to do is to have specific noise and odor ordinances. Of course, that would knock many idiots out of cat and dog ownership, but I can live with that. Responsible people would have no issue with such statutes.

  • MYoung

    Well, yesterday I was able to watch a show called “Filthy Cities” or some such. This one was about New York in the 1860’s, tenaments and the poor slums. Pigs, goats, chickens living in the apartments with the people. No running water, no heat ….. can you imagine the filth????? Disease runs rampant in filth.

    So, that show put is all in perspective for me and I can now see both sides of the argument for being able to have animals and grow food. There should be regulations and restrictions. But these restrictions should not be so inhibiting as to disallow all self sustaining possibilities. Perhaps communities can join clubs for gardening and animal raising? Similar to gym memberships? Anyhow…

    I would personally find it very dificult to have “domesticated farm animals” in the urban setting that I once lived. And that house had a very nice side yard. I now have an acre or so to grow and raise; one of the reasons we moved was for the choice to grow our food.
    It is all relative. And there is a way to solve the problems. We just need to use cool calm reasoning!

  • John

    Hylton has it right

  • Anthro


    Hylton makes a point–one that is rebutted in part by Maureen and Linda.

    Sensible regulation has worked in many cities for backyard chickens. They are far better managed than cats and dogs. I don’t think anyone is suggesting a backyard dairy farm or pig sty, but birds in limited numbers are not a problem where they are allowed. Seattle (and all of Washington State as far as I know) has always had backyard chickens, limited to three hens with free workshops widely available. Complaints and misuse are reported and dealt with. Quite simple.

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