Urban homesteader challenges city on sale of edibles

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 Sophie Hahn's 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.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.

Related:
Urban farmer Willow Rosenthal plants seeds in Berkeley [3.4.11]
Berkeley Bites: Jim Montgomery, Green Faerie Farms [10.29.10]
Berkeley Bites: Novella Carpenter [04.30.10]
Garden teacher Kim Allen offers youth space to grow [01.21.11]

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  • The Sharkey

    Imagine if Thomas Lord (aka Bruce Love) actually put all of that energy towards something useful instead of just trying to stymie change and pat himself on the back.

  • deirdre

    Ugh. Just stop it.

  • The Sharkey

    Just stop what? If he put as much effort into working with people who are trying to improve things in this city as he does into his posts here, he could be a really powerful agent for change in Berkeley.

  • The Sharkey

    RE: point a) — Who defines what “landscaping” is? Where is it stated that “landscaped” plants cannot be edible? If the definition is a simple matter of aesthetics that are pleasing to the eye, I see no reason why a garden cannot be considered “landscaped.” Have you seen what Martha Stewart’s gardens look like?

    RE: point b) — Comparing cannabis crops ($1,800+ per pound street value) with some backyard beets ($5 per pound) is patently ridiculous. Why even make such a stupid comparison? It’s just dumb.

  • The Sharkey

    RE: point a) — Who defines what “landscaping” is? Where is it stated that “landscaped” plants cannot be edible? If the definition is a simple matter of aesthetics that are pleasing to the eye, I see no reason why a garden cannot be considered “landscaped.” Have you seen what Martha Stewart’s gardens look like?

    RE: point b) — Comparing cannabis crops ($1,800+ per pound street value) with some backyard beets ($5 per pound) is patently ridiculous. Why even make such a stupid comparison? It’s just dumb.

  • deirdre

    Pot. Kettle. Black.

  • Bruce Love

    For what little it might be worth:

    As I’ve written I think that Ms. Hahn’s efforts here are noble and important. To be clear, we very much need an ordinance in this spirit, in my opinion.

    I wrote some long and detailed replies as an “open letter” here because looking at precedent (including the recently passed San Francisco changes) — I think that the proposed changes here won’t work. Either they won’t pass because they don’t recognize the complexities of the legal issue or they will pass but won’t have the apparently intended effect — these are my expectations.

    It would be nice to see more smart and engaged people weigh in on such details.

  • GPO

    Bruce:

    Don’t OVERestimate yourself and the value of your byzantine contributions to our civic discourse:

    “For what little it might be worth…”

  • The Sharkey

    You flatter me, but I doubt you can point to any single post I’ve made anywhere near as lengthy as what Thomas has posted about this subject so far.

  • DRogers

    I told my daughter about this edible garden initiative and she thought it was hilarious. Honestly, hiring gardeners and then complaining that the city won’t let you sell your produce? It’s Onion material.

    My daughter made enough money over the years to pay for a large chunk of her college expenses by selling bags of mesclun mix and bunches of mignonette to our neighbors. At any given point in time she had several dozen customers, some of whom worked for the city. There was never a question of anyone making a complaint over a municipal code violation. So I really cannot imagine why anyone who wants to sell bags of produce to 5 or 6 people needs to go to the trouble of making a big production of changing the municipal code, unless they want to make it part of a campaign platform. Who would even know what they were doing as they dropped off bags of potatoes? Frankly I am tired of politicians who use a trend to sell themselves, especially if they want to claim themselves as an urban farmer when they can’t even sow their own seeds.

    I guess we’ll find out the purpose of this initiative if those of us who signed it start getting campaign emails when Ms. Hahn runs for city council. She actually seems like a qualified and good candidate for office except for this bad PR idea.

    My daughter asked whether Ms. Hahn had any kids who could do the gardening for her. She suggests the kids, if there are any, take over. If not, she also offered a great name for this enterprise: Petit Trianon Farms.

  • DRogers

    Thanks for reporting your experience with the fruit vendors that are on street corners all over town. It demonstrates that municipal codes are only enforced when there is a complaint (I’ve been told as much by city personnel). It really is silly that there is such a hoopla over changing the municipal code to allow people to haul some extra tomatoes over to a neighbor’s for a few bucks, when we all see those fruit vendors throughout the year engaging in commercial transactions on our street corners.

  • DRogers

    Good point re landscaping. There’s an entire area of horticulture called ornamental edibles. The proposed code change only refers to edibles, whereas my daughter made more money from mignonette than mesclun–she also sold toona, which is used as an ornamental as well–is edible some Pavlovian term in Berkeley with totemic qualities that causes glazed eyes and slack jaws?

  • EBGuy

    Another post bites the dust. Let’s try again. Look ma, no html tags.
    Looks like SF is moving forward with their urban ag reform.
    “The new ordinance allows for the sale, pick-up and donation of fresh food and horticultural products grown on-site throughout the city.”
    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/cityinsider/detail?entry_id=87463

  • Sophie Hahn

    A number of things here I would like to comment on . . . We did not start this garden for political reasons! We started it to feed our family. One of our neighbors at our previous home had provided us with occasional fresh produce and we really missed it when we moved to out current location. When we learned we could easily feed a lot more folks than ourselves, we decided to maximize the square footage for planting and make it possible to share the produce with neighbors and/or friends.

    Regarding permitting – many people surely do this – and other things – without required permits. We don’t. It’s strange to be questioned for doing things this way – I am sure folks would be very angry if I were found out to be doing something that required a permit but had not obtained it! At the outset, we had NO IDEA any permit would be required, let alone such an onerous one. We went down to the City thinking we needed a simple business license. We were very surprised at what we were told.

    First we were told we needed a variance. That is impossible to get and didn’t seem right. We went back and asked them to justify this requirement. They looked again, and suggested something different (can’t even remember what it was). Finally, we went back again, highlighting that this was a very limited activity and surely there was a way for it to be done, and they settled on the need for a use permit which costs almost $3000 and takes months, involving public hearings etc.

    The choice then became to pursue this costly and onerous permit and set a precedent that would be extremely negative for others who might want to do similar things, or to try and get the permitting process changed so that others would not run into this barrier. In studying the code (now that we had been told what aspect of the code was a barrier) we could see that there wasn’t a desire to specifically bar this activity. The code simply did not anticipate and therefore enable it. The “fix” is fairly minimal/easy and it seemed worthwhile to try to make the changes.

    On doing the gardening one’s self vs. doing it cooperatively vs. paying others to do it, I think there should be as many models as needed to make this kind of produce growing a widespread reality in Berkeley and elsewhere. It’s great that some folks are good gardeners and enjoy the activity but it’s unrealistic to think that enough people will have the knowledge, time or desire to do all the work themselves. If that is the only model, the activity – and its many health, environmental and other benefits – will never become widespread.

    Our yard is cultivated in a manner that consistently produces, +/-48 weeks a year, enough fresh produce for 5 families. These families can count on a wide variety of vegetables and some fruit, largely precluding the need to shop for fresh food – all year. The expertise required to know when to plant what, how to tend it, exactly how many weeks until it can be harvested, what quantity to plant, etc. is not inconsequential.

    I readily admit that no one in our family has this expertise. And I have enormous respect for the wisdom of experienced farmers who do. Being able to pool resources to hire such an individual – someone who can produce a regular, varied and consistent food source – seems worthwhile to me if this activity is going to go beyond the few who will chose to gain the knowledge and expertise, and put in the time, themselves. If you buy food in a market – even a farmer’s market – it was grown by others. Most likely others who are not very well paid. We pay a “living wage” and know and respect the person who grows our food. Providing decent incomes and working conditions for those who grow food is not an inconsequential benefit.

    If you would like to come visit our backyard please contact me. It’s hard to fully understand what we are doing without seeing it in person. It is both less and more than most people imagine (less space, more involved from an expertise perspective). Thank you for your lively interest in this topic.

  • Sophiehahn

    Some of the articles have misunderstood what we are seeking to do/permit. We seek a mini CSA-type arrangement where people share the cost of maintaining the garden in exchange for produce. The payments received would be based on costs with no added margin. It’s not about making money. It’s about making it viable for people to grow and share food in an urban setting. This cooperative arrangement, because it would involve exchange “for gain”, is considered a “sale” by the City Code and everything that applies to “sales” is brought forward.

    I note that the changes to the code we are seeking would allow for different models, including one where an individual grows him or herself and sells, in the more classic sense, to make money. It just isn’t what we are pursuing. As growing food in urban settings provides many benefits to health and the environment, it doesn’t seem like a bad thing to allow some profit for those who might seek it. The activity likely can’t generate much money, because it is limited by the size of one’s garden, the amount of time/expertise one brings to the enterprise, and by nature, who takes her own time growing things. It might be a source of supplemental income for a household, but in a residential setting it’s hard to imagine it could be much more. I was a strong supporter of the DAPAC Downtown Plan, which includes lots of downtown housing (including low income).

  • Sophiehahn

    Some of the articles have misunderstood what we are seeking to do/permit. We seek a mini CSA-type arrangement where people share the cost of maintaining the garden in exchange for produce. The payments received would be based on costs with no added margin. It’s not about making money. It’s about making it viable for people to grow and share food in an urban setting. This cooperative arrangement, because it would involve exchange “for gain”, is considered a “sale” by the City Code and everything that applies to “sales” is brought forward.

    I note that the changes to the code we are seeking would allow for different models, including one where an individual grows him or herself and sells, in the more classic sense, to make money. It just isn’t what we are pursuing. As growing food in urban settings provides many benefits to health and the environment, it doesn’t seem like a bad thing to allow some profit for those who might seek it. The activity likely can’t generate much money, because it is limited by the size of one’s garden, the amount of time/expertise one brings to the enterprise, and by nature, who takes her own time growing things. It might be a source of supplemental income for a household, but in a residential setting it’s hard to imagine it could be much more. I was a strong supporter of the DAPAC Downtown Plan, which includes lots of downtown housing (including low income).