Three years ago, Katie Valenzuela Garcia decided she wanted to help more people garden in Sacramento. As a community organizer, she often drove around streets in Lemon Hill, Citrus Heights and other Sacramento County neighborhoods, but she started to pay attention to what was happening in people’s yards. She realized gardening — and backyard farming — was already happening. The problem wasn’t a lack of interest: The problem was public policy.
In 2012, Valenzuela Garcia helped form the Sacramento Urban Agriculture Coalition to change laws that impede urban farming by first identifying the political barriers to growing food in this environment. The long list included issues such as holding farm stands on residential sidewalks, raising chickens and keeping beehives.
The result has been a dynamic food movement that has already successfully changed the City of Sacramento’s code to better benefit gardeners, and is now on track to change the law at the Sacramento County level too. On Dec. 12, the county’s planning commission unanimously approved moving the coalition’s proposed urban agriculture ordinance to a vote at a county Board of Supervisors meeting tentatively scheduled for Jan. 24.
Donn Reiners, a planning commissioner, says as part of his research on the vote, he visited dozens of backyard gardens. He met people growing grapes and making their own wine, as well as hobby gardeners, but his favorite undertakings were the community gardens where youth education took place, including in south Oak Park. “It’s a marvelous community spirit and pride in ownership,” Reiners says.
If approved by county supervisors, the new ordinance could mean more farm-fresh food sold in the neighborhoods where it is grown, a reduction in blight, increased educational exposure to farm animals and, ultimately, a more food literate population in Sacramento.
The coalition’s work so far has centered on redefining traditional agriculture terms for the urban landscape. “You can’t grow food for sale,” says Valenzuela Garcia, describing one major barrier the coalition aims to amend at the county level. She’s a consultant — serving in the role of coordinator for the coalition — paid by Soil Born Farms via a grant from the California Endowment. (The nonprofit where I work also receives funding from this foundation.) “Selling food is defined as a ‘market garden,’ and that’s not technically allowed in commercial, residential and industrial zones,” she says. Right now, you can only be in an agricultural zone.
To work around this problem, the coalition rewrote the definition of a market garden to incorporate other zones, such as residential. In the proposed language, one example might be a neighborhood produce stand packed with food grown in a family’s garden. Valenzuela Garcia notes that this piece of the ordinance has been the easiest to gain buy-in around, largely because it’s similar to the Sacramento city ordinance she helped get passed in 2015.
The urban agriculture ordinance as currently proposed would change the zoning so urban agriculture can take place in all zones — residential, commercial and industrial — across the county, and would allow farmers to sell from farm stands in front of their homes and businesses.
Another county-level barrier? Chickens. While the city passed an ordinance allowing backyard chickens in residential neighborhoods back in 2011, the county’s laws haven’t yet followed suit. The ordinance currently proposed would allow for a limited number of egg-laying chickens or ducks on smaller parcels of land.
Other farm animals such as bees, goats and miniature donkeys never made it into the city’s urban agriculture laws, but are included in the proposed county ordinance. For instance, the ordinance would allow for a limited number of beehives, depending on zoning and parcel size.
The importance of farm animals is invaluable. In the garden, bees pollinate plants to maintain a full harvest. Larger animals, such as sheep or pigs, would be limited in the proposed ordinance to larger lots associated with youth education programs only, such as 4H, and are also vital to helping shape the public’s understanding of where their food comes from and how it’s grown.
Valenzuela Garcia hopes residents will call their county supervisors and encourage a yes vote. “The impetus [for proposing the ordinance] was trying to get the policy out of the way from what was already a multi-ethnic endeavor all over the city,” she says. In January, those residents may see their vegetable wishes come true.
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