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Is Public Policy Turning our Cities into Farms, or Letting Them Go Fallow?

A goat rests within eyeshot of downtown Los Angeles.
A goat rests within eyeshot of downtown Los Angeles. | Photo: Ryan Vaarsi/Flickr/Creative Commons
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This is part of a series of multimedia stories curated through a collaboration between Earthworks Farm and KCETLink. Watch a segment from KCET's "SoCal Connected" and visit the project hub for more information.

In Southern California's endless sprawl of cities, suburbs, and exurbs, it's easy to forget: This was once prime territory for agriculture. Leaving aside water (that would be a separate discussion) the region is ideal -- Mediterranean climate, 12-month growing season, virtually endless space.

It's also easy to forget: plenty of people want to take advantage of those factors to grow herbs, vegetables, and fruit, or keep chickens and goats to sustain their families, and maybe make a profit. Despite that, and despite the region's history as an agricultural powerhouse -- Orange County is not named for colorful sunsets, after all -- piling up a fork with homegrown food is a challenge. Farming doesn't exactly flourish in our cities, certainly not as it did during the days of victory gardens. And it surely doesn't flourish to the extent that urban agriculture advocates and entrepreneurs would like.

And not for lack of interest. Plenty of Southern Californians want to cultivate their backyards and parkway strips, partake in animal husbandry, bake and can in their home kitchens. They would like their children to eat local food in schools and to grow food themselves on campus. California even has an office within the agricultural department called Farm to Fork.

So what stands in the way?

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One answer to that question is policy. Los Angeles, for example, until very recently carried laws on its books that seemed to have little purpose. To name a few, L.A. residents were prohibited from growing food on rented residential property, and from selling homegrown flowers.

Numerous state and local laws have cropped up in recent years to regulate -- or deregulate -- such urban agricultural practices. But this has resulted in a thicket of rules for home gardeners or agricultural entrepreneurs.

A group of UCLA graduate students tried to figure out just how dense this thicket is. They collected regulatory information from all 88 cities in L.A. County to find out what the patchwork of local laws looks like in Los Angeles County. Their report, published in 2013, does not look like a bed of roses.

Among their disheartening conclusions was that many of the rules are unclear. No city, nor the county, has a thought-out agricultural policy backed by code. City planners, they said, are "woefully behind at contributing to the practice of urban agriculture." Without policy backing, "the ultimate success, balance, longevity, or failure of this contemporary movement is yet to be determined."

Encouragingly, the research found that nearly all municipalities permit growing fruits and vegetables and raising fowl; about half allow beekeeping, raising goats, and fish farming.

The report urges local governments to develop a cohesive, county-wide regulatory strategy for urban agriculture, and "align localized policies with that vision." With that in place, local governments could then streamline municipal and zoning codes appropriately.

"It's very complex and people would have to spend a lot of time going through very dense documents to study it all," said Clare Fox, director of policy and innovation at Los Angeles Food Policy Council.

They and other academics and activists believe local municipalities should make it less daunting. "One thing we want to see is a master lease that would streamline the process and allow organizations that build gardens to have one point of contact and the terms are relatively the same," whether the lease is from City Hall or the county, Fox said.

Rachel A. Surls, a food systems advisor with the UC Cooperative Extension in L.A. County, said she would like to see the city and county compile agricultural laws into an easy-to-use website. "It's such a hassle to find information and it shouldn't be," she said.

In spite of what might be lacking from the big picture, local governments in the region have passed laws that encourage citizens to grow food.

Some of these laws wiped from the books other rules that outlaw seemingly innocuous practices, such as selling flowers grown on residential property, and growing vegetables on the grass strips separating the sidewalk and the curb.

The latter law, a rule stubbornly enforced by Los Angeles, was thankfully done away with earlier this year. L.A.'s treatment of Ron Finley, a renegade gardener from South L.A., has become urban legend.

These strips of land line nearly every street in the county, constituting an enormous wasted opportunity for food cultivation until the rule-change.

"It's a small piece of land from a big picture perspective. But from the perspective that land is hard to come by, and if you live in a food desert you probably don't have a lot of space to grow food, it's much bigger," Fox said.

Almost as silly -- and as egregiously enforced -- was a city rule barring the sale of fruit and flowers grown on residential property. Thankfully, the ban gave rise to the colorfully named "Fruit and Flowers Freedom Act." Lemons and ranunculus now join broccoli and kale as items home gardeners can sell to the public.

Those cases are examples of a truth about urban agriculture: policies are well behind real-world practices. Even now, Fox sees trends that have taken off, urban aquaponics for instance, and old mainstays, such as street vending, where policy doesn't meet what citizens want or need.

"People are moving from the start-up phase to commercial scale, and at that stage there will need to be some clarity on how those businesses can operate and sell food," Fox said.

All in all, policy work in this realm has barely sprouted, said D'Artagnan Scorza, the founder and executive director of Social Justice Learning Institute. "We haven't begun to do significant urban ag shifts. We haven't developed systems around local food production. There are some phenomenal models out there, but they haven't been adopted in a systemic way."

State law has undergone rapid evolution in recent years, too.

In 2008, SB 732 was signed into law, creating the Strategic Growth Council, which aims to "assist state and local entities in the planning of sustainable communities," among other goals. In 2010, the Council awarded the city of El Monte, considered a food desert, with funding to establish an Urban Agriculture Initiative Program, which was a one-year program that looked at ways in which the city could achieve sustainable food production policies within the city. Possible solutions included establishment of farmers markets, community and school gardens, and potential changes to city policies and ordinances.

Since 2012, Sacramento has passed several more bills related to urban agriculture. The California Homemade Food Act, or cottage food law, made it legal for small scale prepared-foods producers like bakers and canners to sell products made in their homes. Prior to that, food products had to be made in a commercial kitchen, a cost that can outweigh the profits of making small batches of foods.

As KCET has reported, the law legitimized small scale producers working under the radar and spurred others (maybe some who chose not to run afoul of the law) to jump in the game.

The following year, 2013, saw the passage of a law that industry-watchers say could go a long way toward boosting agriculture in cities. The Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act gives a property tax break to landowners who lease small plots of land for farming for five years or more.

But there's a catch: participation by cities and counties is voluntary, and they have to create urban agricultural zones for landowners and farmers to take advantage of the law. As you might imagine, many urban farmers are still waiting for supervisors and city councils to get their act together on this matter.

Earthworks Farm in El Monte, CA
Earthworks Farm in El Monte, CA

L.A. has yet to impose an urban agricultural zone, though city council members introduced a measure to do so last fall.

In 2014, lawmakers gave the strongest signal as to their intent to grow urban agriculture and, more specifically, access by city dwellers to farm fresh foods. AB 2413, passed last September, created the office of Farm to Fork under the state department of agriculture. The law tasks the office with coordinating among state agencies and the USDA to identify food deserts, areas without access to fresh foods, and swamps, areas with an overabundance of foods of low nutritional value, and find ways to turn them into food forests.

Its big initiatives are to bring California-grown meats and vegetables to schools and combat food insecurity through programs like CalFresh. Then again, schools could just grow food on site for its students, right? That was the idea behind an unsuccessful 2006 bill. Even if supporters do eventually materialize in force, turning campuses into farms might not be as simple as tweaking policy, said Fox. "The bottom line with school gardens is they need resources to be sustained."

Another 2014 bill, AB 2561, dealt with an issue that, while not very visible, ag-advocates believe can be quietly powerful. The California Neighborhood Food Act legalized food cultivation on rented residential property in single-family homes and condominiums. "It's really a tenants' rights bill," Scorza said.

Other less-game changing bills have focused on regulating products sold, by registering the sellers. AB 224, passed in 2013, protects consumers at farmers markets by requiring labels to reflect whether growers are part of single- or multi-farm groups and to label various foods.

And AB 1990, also passed in 2014, "would authorize a city or county health enforcement office to require a community food producer or gleaner to register with the city or county and to provide specified information, including, but not limited to, the name, address, and telephone number of the community food producer or gleaner. The bill would also authorize an enforcement officer to enter into and inspect the operations of a community food producer or gleaner in response to a food safety recall or food safety complaint."

Surls said the law could help boost sales of homegrown foods by making sellers legitimate. "It allows people to grow in their backyard or community garden and sell it to the public legally," she said. "It opens up the playing field to a lot for people."

Whether or not policies are helping spur, or holding back, urban agriculture in Southern California is a complicated question. But it is clear is that, as Sharma said, "We can grow an awful lot of food, especially in a city like L.A. that it is so spread out. The climate is so ideal and there is so much land available to grow food. We're just not using it to do that."

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