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A few things to keep in mind as urban farm code heads to City Council

Addie Broyles

An almost year-long debate over urban farms in Austin is coming to a head this week.

Thursday, the City Council will vote on proposed changes to the city’s urban farm ordinance, which has been under scrutiny since late last year, when an East Austin resident called 311 to complain about a smell coming from HausBar Farm.

UPDATE: Today (Thursday), the council announced that it was postponing the vote until November but didn’t give any additional details.

UPDATE (11/21/13): The coucil is again slated to vote on the proposed ordinance changes today. Last month, council members asked city manager Marc Ott to get more input from stakeholders, but those conversations didn’t get very far.

The farm’s chicken composting system, which usually doesn’t smell any worse than what’s inside a trash can, had gotten out of balance, and the neighbor, understandably, wanted something done about it.

For almost two years, HausBar owner Dorsey Barger had been processing chickens for food on her 1.8-acre site, and last year, she’d secured what she thought were the proper inspections and permits to sell the meat to customers.

But the neighbor’s call to the city in December prompted a number of departments to look a little more closely at the farm’s zoning, as well as the existing urban farm code, which was sorely out of date. The farm stopped slaughtering chickens for sale and eventually was able to start selling vegetables again, but not before the controversy became more than what was just happening on Barger’s farm.

After months of back-and-forth between committees, the revised urban farm code is heading to City Council on Thursday, and everyone from the Statesman’s editorial board to local chefs are chiming in on the debate.

Not long after HausBar’s initial run-in with the city, the people speaking out against the urban farms, in particular PODER’s Susana Almanza and Daniel Llanes, started making a bigger argument against urban farms, saying that because the properties are zoned for single-family homes, that their best and highest use isn’t growing food.

They’ve argued that commercial enterprises shouldn’t exist in residential areas but without addressing the many home-based businesses that are allowed to operate in such zones, including day care centers or short-term rental properties.

Almanza and Llanes keep talking about the fear of outsiders coming in to buy up land in East Austin to build more farms, as if there is so much financial incentive to buy (increasingly expensive) property, tear down the existing single-family homes and then turn that plot of land into a farm.

For one, with land and home prices what they are already, you wouldn’t be able to recoup that investment on $3 bunches of kale.

And second, that’s not how any of the current farms came to be.

Before becoming farms about five years ago, two of the properties weren’t just eyesores, they were hazards. The dilapidated structures on HausBar’s property were frequently used for drugs and prostitution, and the 4-acre land that is now Rain Lily Farm was a neighborhood dump. It took owner Stephanie Scherzer a full year to clean the decades of trash that had piled up. Boggy Creek owners Carol Ann Sayle and Larry Butler started their farm, which is considered one of the first urban farms in the country, in 1992, and about five years ago, Springdale Farm grew out of Glenn and Paula Foore’s long-running landscape business.

What would have happened if some developer had seen the economic potential in that property and purchased the land before these farmers?

If the empty lots that have been used to cram as many single-family homes that will fit in a lot in my neighborhood are any inclination, The Homes That Could Have Been (like these $300,000 East Austin townhomes that were announced this week) would in no way be affordable for low-income (or even middle-income) families. It’s hard to watch happen, no matter if it’s in your own neighborhood or one on the other side of town, but this is capitalism in a quickly growing economy at work, for better or worse.

But even if these farms did take away the opportunity to build affordable housing, what are they contributing to the community instead?

In addition to selling organic produce in an area of Austin where the few grocery stores that do exist don’t sell much of anything that’s organic, these farms host events ranging from school field trips and weddings and plays to supper clubs and South by Southwest parties, the kinds of cultural food events that draw the kind of international attention that the city loves to tout. (Some of these events do cause parking situations that some neighbors don’t love, but this is a problem happening in many parts of the city, no matter if you’re living next to SoCo or soccer fields.)

Urban farms are also a key piece of the bustling local food economy that was the focus of that economic report that the city commissioned earlier this year. They employ dozens of workers and provide educational opportunities for people who want to learn more about growing their own food at home.

They are also a crucial piece of Austin’s food infrastructure, providing thousands of pounds of produce a year to local restaurants. Just this week, more than 50 of those chefs, whose boldface names you’ve probably seen in national publications like Bon Appetit and The New York Times, signed a letter of support, citing the farms’ location as key to drawing agritourism and attendees for fundraisers that support dozens of local nonprofits throughout the year.

What urban farms are, as well as what they should be and could be, has been the focus of no fewer than four public meetings hosted by the city’s Sustainable Urban Agriculture and Community Garden Program and the Sustainable Food Policy Board. Starting in April, they hosted meetings to discuss very specific aspects of urban farming and its impact on the city, including labor, environmental impact and even topics like aquaponics, a quickly growing subset of the local food industry.

But the PODER activists are now say that there wasn’t enough opportunity for input (that “they heard us but didn’t listen,” Llanes said in this Statesman story), and the Statesman’s editorial board has written twopieces in their favor, saying that the people charged with rewriting the code should have gone straight to neighborhood associations and individual homeowners for input instead of expecting them to attend the meetings or chime in via public comments.

What’s missing from this conversation is the acknowledgement that the farmers and the committees who developed the proposed changes have already been in contact with many of the residents and neighborhood association leaders, the majority of whom support their operations and the changes they have affected on the community, according to notes from the stakeholder meetings and farmer conversations with neighbors.

(It’s worth noting that when this controversy first started, the folks from PODER, having never visited the farm, initially went to city council claiming that HausBar was slaughtering 50 chickens a day, when the actual number was closer to 20 a week.)

It’s entirely possible that the City Council Thursday will send the ordinance back to committee to iron out some of the kinks, which despite input from stakeholders supporting small-scale animal processing, could include scrapping meat production, but my argument here is that if we want to continue to see Austin’s food scene flourish, we need to find a way to allow urban farming to take place within the city limits.

Cities need green spaces as much as they need food, and everyone is better off when we have a better understanding of where food comes from and the incredible amount of effort it takes to produce it.