5 Urban Farming Laws That Need to Change—Now!

These city ordinances might sound ridiculous to urban farmers' ears, but they’re causing huge problems for city-based food producers.

by Jodi Helmer

5 Urban Farming Laws That Need Changed—Now! - Photo by D Huw Richardson/Flickr (HobbyFarms.com)

Laws matter. In farming, ordinances are designed to help protect livestock, keep peace with the neighbors and safeguard the environment—but sometimes, urban farming laws just don’t make sense.

It’s easy to feel outraged over these ordinances—and tempting to ignore the laws altogether—but joining other urban farmers to address the issues and working with government officials to change these laws can help benefit all urban farmers and the shoppers who support them.

Here’s a collection of urban-farming laws we find utterly ridiculous and what you can do about it.

1. Edible Gardens Banned

There are countless news stories about urban farmers who are forced to tear out their edible gardens because their carrots, lettuce and tomatoes are (gasp!) growing in the front yard.

A New York Times article noted that gardeners in several cities, including Tulsa, Okla., Ferguson, Mo.; Oak Park, Mich.; and Orlando, Fla. have been ordered to remove vegetable gardens from their front yards. The issue? Aesthetics. Many municipalities have by-laws that legislate landscape choices, which city officials believe help protect property values.

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Several urban farmers have fought the veggie bans and won. In Orlando, for example, Jason and Jennifer Helvenston faced fines of $500 per day for their front-yard vegetable garden. The couple fought back and, in November 2013, the City Council amended the ordinance to allow vegetable gardens in the front yard.

2. Composting Prohibited

For most urban farmers, tossing vegetable scraps or expired plants on the compost pile is second nature (and the nutrient-rich compost is an essential—and free—soil amendment), but in some cities, composting is illegal.

Concerns about rodents led Baltimore County, Md., to enact a code that, “[P]rohibits composting of food scraps in compost piles or bins.” To dispose of food scraps, the county suggests indoor vermicomposting or burying food scraps.

Most anti-composting regulations are less strict. In Chicago, for example, zoning laws allow urban farmers to compost materials generated onsite (collecting food scraps from local restaurants or the neighbors is prohibited) as long as the amount of compost on the farm doesn’t exceed 25 cubic yards.

3. Illegal Rainwater Collection

Thanks to a growing awareness of the importance of conservation, most cities allow, even encourage, gardeners and urban farmers to direct downspouts toward landscaped areas to prevent runoff and minimize irrigation demands. But in some places, like Colorado, urban farmers who collect rainwater could be fined. In other words, rain barrels and cisterns—tools urban farmers depend on to survive drought—are banned.

According to the Colorado Division of Water Resources, “[U]nless you own a specific type of exempt well permit, you cannot collect rainwater in any other manner, such as storage in a cistern or tank, for later use.”

A pilot project is underway to assess the benefits of capturing rainwater in new real estate developments. If the project is successful, it could help pave the way for urban farmers to legally collect rainwater.

4. Produce Sales Prohibited

It might be legal to grow cucumbers, corn, okra, tomatoes and other vegetables on urban farms, but some farmers are subject to laws prohibiting them from selling produce on the farm.

The law allows urban farmers in Muskegon, Mich., to grow food but not sell their harvests. City Council is reviewing proposals to change the law; proposed changes could include permitting urban farmers to sell at farmers’ markets, restaurants, retailers and institutions.

In Sacramento, Calif., residents can raise chickens and grow vegetables in their front yards, but a 2014 meeting of the city’s planning and design commission put forth a proposal that would limit produce sales to places where agriculture was the “primary use.” In other words, farmers growing produce at churches, schools or at their homes—anywhere outside of a zoned agricultural area—would need a permit to sell their bounty.

5. Forbidden Chickens

Ordinances banning chickens are among the most controversial (and common) urban farming laws. Some lawmakers argue that chickens attract predators and rodents; neighbors fear the birds will be too noisy or cause a “fowl” odor.

There are no official statistics about the number of municipalities that ban backyard chickens but the list includes Ocean Township, N.J., and Ontario, Calif.

While a growing number of cities are open to hearing arguments to reverse chicken-keeping bans, in Dec. 2014, the Tecumseh City Council in Tecumseh, Mich., in a 5-2 vote, enacted to ban residents from keeping chickens. One article quoted a councilman saying, “I grew up on a farm. I moved to the city to get away from chickens.”

In Michigan, lawmakers overturned “Right to Farm” protection in early 2014; the ruling by the Michigan Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development removes all protections for urban farmers and homeowners who keep livestock, including chickens.

If you’re subject to similar laws restricting your ability to grow food and operate a successful urban farm, attend city council meetings and contact local lawmakers to fight for changes to the laws and contact the media and use social media channels to raise awareness of the issues. As Eckhart Tolle says, “When you speak out, you are in power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out…”

About the Author: Jodi Helmer is the author of The Green Year: 365 Small Things You Can Do to Make a Big Difference.

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