Urban Farming: Or, Old MacRybak had a Farm
Minneapolis likes to be ahead of the curve, especially when it comes to sustainability programs. Over the past couple of years, Minneapolis has created one of the country’s largest shared bike ride programs (Nice Ride), built new light rail lines and bike trails, integrated solar power and other renewable energy sources into city buildings, and worked to increase access to healthy locally grown foods for everyone.
On Monday April 2nd, Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak signed an amendment to the Minneapolis City Council’s Urban Agriculture Ordinance. Of the new provisions, one of the most interesting is the one that allows market gardeners to grow food commercially, the first time this has been legal in Minneapolis city limits since 1963. Other changes include an increase in commercial farming on a larger scale in industrial parts of the city (as well as smaller scale in residential areas), the introduction of aquaculture and aquaponics (fish farming), allowing residents to build hoop houses on their property to prolong the growing season, and fewer restrictions on composting and anaerobic digester facilities.
All of these ideas originate with a city-wide initiative called Homegrown Minneapolis, whose mission is to expand “our community’s ability to grow, process, distribute, eat, and compost more healthy sustainable, locally grown foods.”
Of course, many compromises were made during the city council’s discussion process, most of them designed to minimize disturbances to city residents. Two important compromises directly affect economic development for urban farms and farmers. First, although urban gardeners are allowed to sell their produce on-site with an appropriate license, they are only allowed to sell 15 days per year. The second compromise relates to hoop houses, which are temporary green houses typically made out of metal pipes and plastic sheeting. They are used in northern climates to prolong the growing season until as late as December, and greatly increase the amount of produce a farmer can grow.
Under the new zoning rules, hoop houses can be up to 6.5 feet high on residential properties, and up to 12 feet high on industrial area urban farms. Although many people may not want to see a plastic sheeted greenhouse towering over their fence, for prospective urban farmers, having a taller hoop house can mean potentially tripling their productivity and income
Increased urban farming opportunities may have notable benefits to community health and economic development. In 2010, The Minneapolis City Council commissioned research by a land planning firm called Community Attributes International to examine “forecasted residential and job growth, recent development patterns, land supply (vacant and underutilized land) and land demand.” According to their findings, Minneapolis has “more than enough developable land (both public and private) to accommodate forecasted growth for at least 20 years.
Both development and urban agriculture uses can be accommodated without competition.” They identified North and Northeast Minneapolis as areas that could benefit the most from urban farming. Parts of these areas qualify as “food deserts”, defined as “an area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly low- income neighborhood and communities.”
Greater access to urban farms in these areas may help save food dollars and may reduce obesity, since low-income residents who lack access to fresh produce often buy highly-processed convenience foods. For example, Milwaukee, WI’s Growing Power, an urban farming organization started by former NBA player Will Allen, distributes food to the low-income community in which it is located, giving discounted rates on fresh produce to impoverished families. For $16.00, a CSA food box from Growing Power can feed a family of four for a week. Urban garden donation projects can also benefit emergency food providers (local food banks and soup kitchens) which rarely have access to fresh produce.
Urban farming is an intriguing concept which has the potential to decrease poverty and obesity levels, teach people about healthy foods, and transform vacant lots into vibrant community green spaces.