Urban Homesteader Challenges City on Sale of Edibles

by Sarah Henry on April 15, 2011 · 15 comments

in berkeley bites,community gardens,growing greens,urban farming,vegetables

Sophie Hahn, founder, Berkeley Edible Garden Initiative.

Should city dwellers be allowed to sell their backyard bounty?

Sophie Hahn thinks so. The North Berkeley resident wants to share the abundance from her residential produce plot and offset some costs she incurs maintaining her edible garden.

But Hahn ran into hiccups with the city last year trying to get her idea off the ground. “I had no idea it would be so complicated,” she says. “It’s actually easier in Berkeley to have a pot collective than to have a vegetable collective,” a frustrated Hahn told  a New York Times reporter in August.

Or pretty much any other home-based business. That’s because Berkeley’s zoning codes prohibit selling or otherwise conducting commerce outside a house in a residential neighborhood. Never mind that many residents (this writer included) toil from inside their homes. City codes allow for small, low-to-moderate impact home businesses, such as piano teachers, explains Dan Marks, director of planning and development for the city.

But outdoor activities where cash changes hands remain a no-go. The laws are designed to protect the quality of residential communities from traffic and parking problems, as well as offensive or objectionable noise, odors, heat, or dirt.

Fair enough. Still, Hahn was hardly about to set up a produce stand and solicit customers via a bullhorn in her sleepy, leafy corner of the world. Her forty-by-sixty foot micro farm produces only enough food for about five or six families. She just wanted to charge a weekly fee for a basket of food, modeled along the lines of what local farmers do with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes, where residents pay a subscription in return for regular deliveries of fresh, seasonal eats.

Willow Rosenthal harvests a Berkeley backyard garden./Photo: Sarah Henry.

Hahn and her supporters find it ironic that such obstacles to urban agriculture exist in a city that included building a local food system as part of its long-term Climate Action Plan.

An attorney by training, PTA president at King Middle School, and former City Council candidate, Hahn wanted to go the legitimate route. She did approach city officials about what it would take to get an exemption to the current code, but decided that the cost, public hearing, and wait period was prohibitive.

For Hahn, putting the land behind her home to good use was a no-brainer. Still, it’s not cheap: there’s the initial set-up costs, including garden bed construction, drip irrigation, animal, seed and plant purchases — in addition to ongoing payments for the two farmers who tend the garden.

Since Hahn is not a green thumb herself, she hired urban gardener Willow Rosenthal to turn her terraced, sloping backyard of ugly sod into a thriving produce garden. Eight planter boxes boast leafy greens like chard, lettuce, and kale, root vegetables, and herbs. There’s a compost bin for green waste, a chicken coop, a dozen or so hens — and more food than Hahn’s family of five can eat. It’s a clean, green, quiet, productive plot.

Plenty of other local residents grow veggies, raise chickens, and keep bees for their own use, of course, and some admit to bartering with neighbors or selling surplus on the sly to friends and acquaintances — or even to local food businesses and restaurants.

But Hahn, a longtime Berkeley dweller, is the first of a new breed of Berkeley D.I.Y. urban homesteaders to cultivate controversy by challenging what she sees as an arcane law.  Needless to say, changing city code is a lengthy and complex process, but not without precedent. In San Francisco a similarly restrictive zoning code was recently overhauled, after an outpouring of support for Little City Gardens, which ran into pushback there when it tried to expand.

Elsewhere around the country, cities including Detroit, Kansas City, Mo., and Seattle have recently relaxed bans on produce selling by farmers.

Guerrilla gardener Novella Carpenter./Photo: Sarah Henry

Following a citizen complaint, ghetto grower, Farm City author and Berkeley business owner Novella Carpenter was recently singled out by officials in Oakland for selling chard without a business license at her pop-up farmers’ market stand at her Ghost Town Farm and keeping livestock (rabbits, goats, and chickens) without a conditional use permit.

A community outcry ensued for the iconic urban farmer. As of yesterday, revised Oakland city codes no longer prohibit Carpenter from peddling her greens.  But selling chickens, ducks and rabbits is still illegal, since the new laws don’t apply to livestock. (Carpenter has previously made rabbit potpies available by donation.) The city will return to the issue in coming months and judging by comments on Carpenter’s blog, sympathetic press coverage, and support for the guerrilla gardener from allies like the Oakland Food Policy Council, officials can expect a healthy show of support during public comment.

Marks concedes urban agriculture code changes may be happening faster in other Bay Area cities because of community backing for high-profile cases. There’s simply not been that kind of outpouring of support in Berkeley, says Marks, adding there are no plans to tackle the matter any time soon as it remains a low priority for his department.

Such sentiment doesn’t sit well with Hahn. Berkeley’s residential gardens are a significant untapped resource for the production of fresh food for the the community, she says. Hahn has founded the Berkeley Edible Garden Initiative to put pressure on the city to update codes so small-scale ventures like her own can operate. Hahn has the support of fellow residents, including councilmember Jesse Arreguin, author Michael Pollan, and the Ecology Center, whose magazine Terrain first reported on her dilemma last Spring.  Supporters can register online on behalf of Hahn’s cause.

“I value and want to protect the residential quality of our neighborhoods,” Hahn says. “I think we can do that while still allowing reasonable economic activity associated with a social good — in this case growing fresh food to share.”

For now, Hahn gives her excess greens to grateful neighbors for gratis.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

You might also like:

Urban Farmer Willow Rosenthal Plants Seeds in Berkeley
Urban Farmer Jim Montgomery of Green Faerie Farm
Grow Your Own Row
Adventures of an Urban Farm Gal
The Urban Homestead: An Old Idea is New Again
Dig It: Growing Greens, Creating Community, and Feeding Families
Garden Teacher Kim Allen Offers Youth Space to Grow

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

MyKidsEatSquid April 15, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Interesting. If Hahn were to set up a bartering system instead of one based on cash would that make the process any easier? Would that be at all a possibility?

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Sarah Henry April 15, 2011 at 12:30 pm

It might work, MKES, but it’s probably the sort of thing that sounds good in theory but not something she wants to add to her busy day — and I think some of the motivation is to recoup some of the costs she’s ploughing into the land.

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Susan April 18, 2011 at 2:22 pm

I was just going to suggest a barter system! But Sarah raises an excellent point that that could complicate things.

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Melanie Haiken April 15, 2011 at 9:12 pm

Wow, one gets the feeling they’re writing and revising these codes on the fly, trying to keep up with changing times. Which I guess makes sense, but I wonder how many less well-known folks had to give up their chickens and rabbits before this happened?

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Sarah Henry April 15, 2011 at 9:17 pm

Interesting take, Melanie. The thing about govt codes is that they’re supposed to be “living, breathing, and of the times” — it’s just such a long process to change things and sometimes these regs can feel like they’re stuck in another era (like maybe post-WWII when growing roses was considered preferable to planting radishes or raising rabbits.)

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Sheryl April 16, 2011 at 6:27 pm

It’s really a shame that Hahn can’t offset some costs by selling some of her bounty, which sounds like it would really be in high demand. Too bad she’s not my neighbor; they are lucky to be able to enjoy and share her goodies!

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Sarah Henry April 16, 2011 at 11:56 pm

I know, Sheryl. Imagine if you only had to walk next door to pick up your produce.

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merr April 17, 2011 at 12:56 pm

So true, what Sheryl said (and you, too, Sarah!). I would welcome the chance to buy fresh food from someone nearby!

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Sarah Henry April 18, 2011 at 11:50 am

I know what you mean, I love it when my neighbors share their salad greens or blueberries and we can return the favor with Meyer lemons.

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Ruth Pennebaker April 19, 2011 at 12:36 pm

I admire her for trying to do this the hard way. And yeah, I wish she lived next door.
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..Daze of our Lives

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Sarah Henry April 19, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Someone has to blaze a trail for change, right?

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Jane Boursaw April 19, 2011 at 6:12 pm

Oh for gosh sakes, that’s ridiculous. Of COURSE urban dwellers should be able to sell their garden goods. Ack, rules and regulations drive me nuts sometimes. Most of the time.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..DVD Spotlight- TRON and TRON- Legacy

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Sarah Henry April 19, 2011 at 8:50 pm

Yes, I find my rebellious self chafing at all the code complications too, Jane. I understand why we need such guidelines and yet changing regs so they reflect the times can be such a time-consuming, costly, and cumbersome process.

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