The Really Big Fight Over Urban Farming Is Playing Out in Small Towns

San Francisco and Austin may have figured this out, but places like Muskegon, Michigan, are a better reflection of the obstacles ahead.

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REUTERS

Cities around the country are slowly embracing urban farming by modifying their zoning codes to allow for commercial growing in residential neighborhoods. San Francisco's done it, Austin's on the verge of doing it, and Baltimore announced just yesterday that it wants to do more of it.

But not every city is equally zealous about the urban farming movement. A dispute over the rights of urban farmers is playing out right now in the city of Muskegon, Michigan (pop. 38,401). Urban farmers Joshua and Anna EldenBrady own several residential lots near their home on which they'd like to farm. They'd also like to open a farmers market on two lots they own that are zoned for business. But the Muskegon zoning board has refused to issue a business license to the EldenBradys on the grounds that urban farmers aren't allowed to make money. Dave Alexander from MLive.com explains:

The city of Muskegon created a provision in its zoning ordinance in 2010 to allow for “community gardens.” Such community gardens can only be operated by community groups, non-profits or groups of citizens living near the garden site, according to the city’s zoning ordinance. Commercial, for-profit farming is not allowed, city officials said.

The city's zoning administrator doesn't want the EldenBradys farming, because the couple could then use the Michigan Right to Farm Act—designed to "protect existing farms from nuisance lawsuits"—to evade being regulated by the city. And that, the city argues, could lead to a slippery slope:

“With animals could come bee farming and we might have people with bee allergies living right next door,” [Zoning Administrator Mike Franzak] said. “That can be a huge problem. So there is a lot more to this than just allowing urban farming.”

Another member of the zoning board (which cast a unanimous vote against the EldenBradys farm plan) said approving their small-scale commercial farm "would have opened up farming throughout the city," and that "is not tolerable.”

Let's put aside, for a moment, that the whole point of urban farming is to grow fresh produce among the residents and businesses who will consume it and that charging money for that produce doesn't make the goals of the urban farming movement any less achievable or admirable.

The Muskegon zoning board is simply not doing its job. If I buy a home, and my neighbors decide to turn the lots across the street from me into a farmer's market, there's a good chance I'll be affected. Will I have to fight customers for parking? Where will my neighbors dispose of their commercial garbage? What about pesticides? What about the odors generated by composting? These are all good questions! And answering them is much easier than it used to be thanks to the many instances in which urban farmers and city governments (like Detroit) have worked together to integrate urban farms into the cityscape. Merely declaring that small-scale commercial urban farming is "not tolerable," either just because or due to the apparently horrifying possibility that people might actually do more of it, is basically an abdication of responsibility. 

Top image: Husband and wife urban farmers Olivia Hubert (L) and Greg Willerer, owners of Brother Nature Produce in Detroit. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

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