Photo by Aleigh Acerni
“I would rather live next door to a goat than a Rottweiler,” says San Diego, Calif. resident Dr. Laura Hershey. “Goats make great neighbors.”
This comparison — between a sometimes-aggressive breed of dog that’s welcome in Hershey’s city and the docile dwarf goats that are forbidden — is one she’s used many times to help illustrate what she sees as an unfair ban on goats in her city. And she’s not alone. Hershey is among a growing group of diverse residents who, for the past several months, have been making known their desire to become urban farmers through emails to local representatives, in online forums and at public meetings across the city.
The ban on goats is just one of the problems would-be urban farmers have with the city’s current laws, however. One rule, requiring urban farmers to keep their chickens 50 feet from any residence, is practically impossible to obey; most lots in San Diego simply aren’t large enough to comply. There are also rules against keeping bees, as well as regulations that make it a logistical challenge and a financial hardship to host a farmers market or daily farm stand on private property.
But a newly proposed urban-agriculture ordinance just might allow Hershey to bring home the miniature LaMancha goat, Bessie, she currently has on reserve. “I had miniature goats for five years, and I’m really looking forward to having them again,” she says. “They’re great companion animals, and I also make cheese [from their milk].”
The new rules appear to be a work-in-progress, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to many San Diego residents; they’ve already been a long-time coming. For the past few years, the city was embroiled in a battle to change local laws to allow for the creation of New Roots Community Garden, a 2.3-acre, multicultural community garden. The entire process took two years, a reported $40,000, and hard work from residents and several local, regional and national organizations. Yes, it was a success. But in some sense, it was also a failure: It revealed that San Diego had more urban-agriculture issues to deal with than simply the ability to create community gardens, which local would-be urban farmers didn’t waste any time pointing that out.
“[New Roots Community Garden] had just been completed adjacent to my district,” says City Councilmember Todd Gloria, who supports the new ordinances, although he is not an urban farmer himself. “In the midst of building the community support for it, other issues started to come forward, specifically about urban agriculture.”
To Gloria, making San Diego more urban-farmer-friendly is about more than just chickens and bees. It’s about sustainability, affordability and healthy eating. It’s about building a diverse and welcoming community. It’s about joining the ranks of other cities that have already tackled this issue — notably San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle. And it just makes sense. “Really what we’re trying to do is tie this together in a much larger urban-agriculture initiative,” he says. “We’re excited about it. We know that other communities are already doing this. We want to catch up, and we want to be leaders on this.”
If the new rules pass (they’re expected to land in front of City Council again in January, 2012), single-family homes will be allowed to have five chickens — no roosters — 15 feet from their homes. They can keep more chickens if they maintain a 50-foot setback. Beekeepers will be able maintain two hives, up from one hive in the first draft of the ordinance.
It’s not looking good for Hershey and Bessie, however. San Diego County Department of Environmental Health and Public Health Services has requested the removal of the rule allowing miniature goats out of fear that hosting urban goats will lead to an increase in raw-milk consumption. According to Gloria, the request has been accepted, and goats have been removed from the most recent draft.
“One piece of the ordinance that isn’t moving forward right now is the goats,” says Gloria. “County health services have raised some red flags regarding the milk. In my mind, it’s not a dead issue … This will evolve and change over time. We will, I’m sure, come back and pick it up again. The local advocates have really been phenomenal with us.”
Even if she can’t bring Bessie home just yet, Hershey will be (mostly) pleased with the new laws; although, she’ll continue to advocate for her goat companions. “It’ll still be better than it was,” she says. “It’s going to change our lives a lot.”