Last Wednesday, about 60 concerned citizens came together to discuss the future of urban farming in Austin. This was the second of a three-part community meeting series designed to crowd source recommendations on how to rewrite the definition of an Urban Farm in Austin, Texas.
The meeting took place at Festival Gardens in east Austin and was facilitated by Heather Frambach, director of the City of Austin Urban Agriculture Department and Paula McDermott, chair the of the Sustainable Food Policy Board. Jerry Rusthoven of Austin’s Planning and Development review department was also on hand to field questions.
Oh, you didn’t know that our city has an established urban farm code? Well, it does. The urban farm code was first established in the year 2000 and sets the use standards for things like site requirements, farm stand sales, and employment. Basically, this is the document that defines what an urban farm is, and can do in the city of Austin.
In order for a property to be recognized by the city as an urban farm, it needs to meet the criteria set by the urban farm code. That makes sense. But what is so great about getting a certificate of occupancy as urban farm anyway? Couldn’t you just start growing food and forget about the title? It turns out that there are a number of benefits that come along with being recognized by the city as an urban farm.
First, urban farm certification does away with some of the restrictions that home growers are usually submitted to under the home occupation ordinance. It also allows for employees. While it is not allowed for other residentially zoned properties to employ on-site workers, certified Urban Farms are allowed up to 1 on-site employee for each full acre that the farm occupies plus one additional employee for any partial acreage. Another notable advantage of the urban farm title is that it grants growers the green light to put up a sign outside and advertise their farm as a business.
The roughly 60 attendees at Wednesday’s meeting split up into 3 subgroups to wrestle with different issues regarding urban farms. The subgroup that I participated in focused on the hot topic of third party sales. Under the current Austin Urban Farm Code, it is illegal for urban farmers to sell products that were not made on site. Anything from a jar of local honey to a can of Campbell’s soup is considered a third party item, and all third party sales are prohibited under today’s code. While it may seem a little silly to deprive farm stand shoppers of the convenience of buying a little goat cheese when they go to pick up their spinach, some people are concerned about the potential of an urban farm turning into more of a grocery store and less of a farm. To legitimize this concern, Jerry Rusthoven of the City of Austin led the group through this thought experiment: Imagine someone certifies their property as an urban farm and then starts buying whole chickens at HEB and re-selling them at their weekly farm stand. As outlandish as that may sound, the city seems much more interested in being safe than sorry on this matter. They are wary that loose policy could create potential loopholes for crafty retailers to exploit.
However, along with protecting residential areas from being infiltrated by retailers, this strict no third party, not exception policy also limits legitimate urban farmers from providing access to goods that many customers have grown to expect.
Boggy Creek Farm started carrying Pure Luck dairy items and sustainably raised meats from outside vendors back in 1995. With less than 5% profit margins, these off-site products are not exactly big money makers for the farm, but because of high demand, Boggy Creek continues to carry them.
“If we don’t carry these items, many people wouldn’t have any access to them.” Says Carol Ann, one of the farmers at Boggy Creek. “When I tell people that we can’t carry this anymore, they are horrified.”
To add another level of complexity, much of the produce sold at the Boggy Creek farm stand comes from their rural farm operation. Under the current code, it would be illegal for them to sell the produce grown on this land at their urban farm stand. There was a general consensus at Wednesday’s meeting that something just isn’t quite right with this picture.
So what can we do about it?
The subgroup dedicated to tackling the issue of third party sales came up with a number of recommendations with hopes of rewriting the urban farm code in a way that would ensure accessibility to a variety of healthy and sustainably produced food products at Austin’s farm stands while also safe guarding against the possibility of retailers popping up across our residential zones.
One such suggestion was to make an exception in the code allowing for third party products to be sold at farm stands so long as they can be classified as agricultural products. This condition would keep farm stands from carrying iPhones on the table next to the kale. It also stirs up questions about what goods qualify as agricultural? For example, is beeswax agricultural?
This agricultural classification also doesn’t address the city’s concern that an urban farm will just become an urban grocer. How do we keep farmers from stocking their shelves with name brand tomato soup? The group came up with a couple possible ways to answer this question. The first solution is that third party agricultural products could be limited to only items sourced from within a certain geographic radius. This would ensure that the goods sold at the farm stand are both agricultural in origin and local. There was also a lot of talk about setting a ceiling on the percentage of total sales that could come from third party goods. 25% was a popular number that got thrown around. If such a ceiling was adopted, that means at least 3/4th of all items sold at the market would still have to be raised on the property.
Other topics discussed at Wednesday’s meeting included whether a farm could have other sources of revenue, like short-term rentals, how we can encourage eco-tourism, and the minimum size for an urban farm.
The third and final community meeting will be held next Wednesday May 15th from 5:00 to 7:00PM in the festival gardens meeting room at 2101 Jesse E Segovia St. near Lady Bird Lake. We will be discussing byproducts, environmental health, and sustainability.
Whatever recommendations the group decides to pass on to the city, it is obvious that there are some pretty significant cultural implications on how these policies are altered in the months to follow. The question on the minds of Austin’s local farmers and food enthusiasts seems to be how interested the City of Austin is in writing policy that keeps Austin on the path towards becoming a more food-friendly city. We invite you to join us next Wednesday as we make our voices heard for local food.