Oakland Contemplates a “Bill of Rights” for Urban Farmers
Story and photos By Jess Watson
Annabelle had always been a difficult rabbit.
Esperanza Pallana acquired her in 2010 as a breeding rabbit for her Lake Merritt–area urban farm, Pluck & Feather (www.pluckandfeather.com). From the beginning the rabbit’s behavior was skittish and neurotic, and she showed little interest in breeding. Annabelle killed her first kit and abandoned her second litter.
Then Pallana had a revelation: she tested the rabbit’s hearing. It turns out that Annabelle was deaf.
Pallana moved her into a much larger cage where the rabbit could be alone, and an expanded hutch, referred to as her “palace,” (chandelier and all) provided ample space to hide and places to dig. The new setup gave the rabbit an increased sense of security; her behavior changed dramatically and she began to respond affectionately to handling.
(Pictured: Esperanza Pallana on her Oakland urban farm, Pluck & Feather, with Annabelle in the rabbit’s specially modified cage.)
On my recent visit to Pluck & Feather, the veteran urban farmer demonstrated Annabelle’s reflexes by snapping her fingers crisply over the rabbit’s velvety gray ears, just out of the animal’s line of sight. A rabbit’s ears are usually its most sensitive organ, but Annabelle’s didn’t even quiver.
After so much effort to understand her rabbit, Pallana found she had developed a soft spot for the creature. “All of her difficulties just made me love her more,” she says. Breeding Annabelle was now out of the question, because her hearing defect might be genetic, but Pallana was too connected with Annabelle (and the rabbit was too old) to contemplate harvesting her for meat. So, Pallana concluded, “She gets a freebie.”
Pallana is a strong proponent for the inclusion of animals within urban agricultural systems. She is very clear that apart from Annabelle, her farm animals are not pets—she raises rabbits and chickens primarily for their meat and eggs. “Animals are an essential part of a holistic farming system,” she asserts.
Pallana is the co-founder of the East Bay Urban Agriculture Alliance and has been serving as a liaison with the City of Oakland Planning Department as they negotiate the process of modernizing outmoded zoning regulations dating from 1965 to allow for a constellation of new urban agricultural uses. In addition to improving local farming infrastructure and focusing on policy change, the Alliance has been intent on identifying best practices for urban agriculture, including the handling of farm animals. The need is more urgent given the recent upsurge of interest in urban animal husbandry and the growing numbers of animals—particularly chickens and goats—being raised in the city. “There’s a lot of concern for animal welfare within our group as well. It’s not just a trendy thing to do for a little while,” says Pallana. “You’re bringing an animal’s life into your own life, and you’re responsible for that.”
Urban farming, due to its small scale, cultivates a unique quality of intimacy. There’s a kind of noticing—a give-and-take relationship with the plants and animals that the farmer has entered into. As the City of Oakland undertakes a zoning revision to allow urban agriculture, the question becomes: How do we create farming policy that encourages deep attentiveness to the needs of plants and animals in our care?
Ensuring the Right to Farm in Oakland
At the beginning of 2011, it was still illegal to farm on many vacant lots in Oakland, and regulations prohibited “urban farmer” from being listed as an official home occupation. People who wanted to sell surplus from their home gardens were unable to do so under the law. Now Oakland is in the midst of transforming itself from one of the least urban agriculture–friendly local cities to one of the most progressive.
Eric Angstadt, deputy director of Planning and Zoning for the city, describes his task as finding a way to codify farming as a right. “What we’re moving towards is allowing some level of urban agriculture by right, making it a permitted use almost everywhere in the city,” he says. “People should be able to grow their own food and supplement their income.”
So far this year, the City of Oakland has taken several important steps to ease restrictions on urban farming. The first was revising its base zoning designations, which hadn’t been updated since 1965, and were designed to keep uses strictly separated in cities: residential or commercial or agricultural. The updated designations allow more mixed use.
The next step came in June when Planning and Zoning recommended changes to home occupation laws that would allow crop raising as a legitimate business on residential properties, paving the way for urban farmers—who would first need to obtain a business license and home occupation permit, at a total cost of under $100—to sell their crops.
One of the greatest obstacles faced by many would-be urban farmers in Oakland are the permitting requirements. As the law currently stands, intensive raising of crops and animals on vacant lots zoned for commercial use requires a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) at a cost of $2,900. Novella Carpenter, celebrated author of Farm City, learned this firsthand earlier this year after a complaint was filed against the urban farm she operates in the lot next to her home. Because the lot was zoned commercial, Carpenter—who did not have a CUP and whose operations fit the intensive-use standard—was in violation of Oakland law, and was ordered to comply by obtaining a permit.
She posted an entry about the CUP on her blog (www.ghosttownfarm.wordpress.com), and within a week, its readers had donated the required fees. In the swirl of publicity surrounding the events, Carpenter became a flashpoint for the issue of animals in Oakland’s evolving farm policy, garnering praise and support from some quarters, including urban farmers in many parts of the world, while incurring harsh criticism from animal rights groups.
To avoid the burden of a CUP for most future urban farmers, the planning department is contemplating another kind of permit that is specifically for intensive farming on a non-residential piece of property. Usually permits are associated with a particular piece of land, but in this case if the farmer moved plots, the permit would go with her, and it would cost about $400 instead of $2900. This greatly decreases the amount of initial effort required on the part of city agencies, and it increases the flexibility of enforcement, should problems arise. The idea is likely to be part of a package proposed to City Council in the fall.
As of press time for this magazine, public meetings soliciting input and comments for the Comprehensive Urban Agriculture Farming Update Revision to the Zoning Regulations were set to begin in July, with the first urban agriculture community workshop scheduled for Thursday, July 21, at the North Oakland Senior Center and the second still to be set. Planning and Zoning hope to be able to submit their changes to City Council for approval by this fall.
Should a “Bill of Rights” Include Animals?
One of the most contentious issues in the urban farming policy debate is whether Oakland’s zoning laws should allow residents to raise farm animals. Many neighboring city codes duck the issue entirely, or shunt it into a gray zone of action and enforcement based largely on complaints from neighbors.
“San Francisco just made a very liberal law affecting crops, but didn’t deal with animals. Berkeley is the same way,” explained Angstadt. “I think for most people, animals are part of urban agriculture. So instead of just bifurcating and taking the easy route, we’re going to try to take on the whole of the problem.”
The Oakland Food Policy Council (www.oaklandfood.org), in its “Statement on Urban Agriculture,” voices strong support for allowing animals within a diverse range of food-growing practices, and is circulating a petition that uses Carpenter’s case as an example. They are currently bringing together a range of stakeholders in collaboration with Bay Localize and the East Bay Urban Agriculture Alliance to offer official recommendations to the City of Oakland.
Not all Oakland residents agree that animals have a place within urban agriculture, however. Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, a vegan chef and cookbook author (www.compassionatecooks.com), staunchly believes that animals should not be allowed under Oakland’s new farm policies. She has been organizing with a small cadre of other animal rights activists to argue that including animals under new zoning laws would create a whole host of problems for the City of Oakland, including “the public health issues, the noise issues, the smell issues, the resource issues for the city and the police, and of course the slaughter issue.”
Patrick-Goudreau is particularly concerned that because keeping farm animals often involves killing and eating them, it will contribute to Oakland street violence. “I really think that as a city that’s already plagued by violence, I don’t think what we need to do is encourage more violence,” she asserts. “You have to cut off a part of yourself in order to do that; you have to desensitize yourself.” While she concedes that it may not yet be possible to demonstrate the precise degree to which this link exists and functions, she adamantly maintains: “We know that the relationship between killing animals and killing people is there.”
Others find the link more obscure. “To say that processing and cooking animals you have raised is a contributing cause of urban violence is a gross misconception,” counters Esperanza Pallana. “The causes of violence are complex factors such as institutionalized inequities that have led to crushing poverty and severe lack of resources, including access to unadulterated healthy food.” Pallana feels that having a direct relationship with the animals she eats makes her value their lives even more.
The planning department would like to be able to stay on the sidelines of this particular argument. “Philosophically, we want to give people the maximum flexibility to use their property in such a way that it does not cause impacts off the property to the surrounding properties,” Angstadt explains. “We’re trying to not deal so much with the end product, because that’s when you get into cultural and philosophical and moral arguments that frankly are not our purview.”
Varying Receptions for Urban Agriculture
Policy change supporting urban agriculture isn’t happening just in Oakland. In Vallejo, farmers Rachel Hoff and Tom Ferguson of Dog Island Farm (www.dogislandfarm.com) have been actively working with city council member Marti Brown to advocate for new policy that would support sales of excess produce.
“We have really high unemployment here and a lot of poverty, and I would like to see people be able to be more self-sufficient. If they have the ability to grow food and sell it and make some money for themselves, that would be awesome,” Hoff explains when asked about her larger motivation for wanting to see Vallejo’s laws change. “People who live in food deserts . . . could get their produce from a neighbor who’s growing food. I think that would be fantastic; it would be fresh, it would be nutritious. I think that would really help our community.”
(Pictured: Dog Island Farm, Rachel Hoff and Tom Ferguson’s urban farm in Vallejo, where they raise vegetables, fruit, chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, and goats. The couple is attempting to change the city’s zoning laws to allow for sale of produce from urban farms.)
Councilmember Brown is currently working on amending city code in ways suggested by the Healthy Eating, Active Living (HEAL) Cities Campaign. The campaign encourages revisions to city laws to create more open space and pedestrian-friendly walkways, set limitations on fast food, and relax restrictions on urban agriculture.
Richmond has taken a very progressive stance toward urban agriculture, largely led by City Councilmember Tom Butt, who tends his own herd of sheep and goats. Butt spearheaded the recent West County Urban Agriculture Summit, which helped identify constraints to urban agriculture at the city and county levels, and served as a networking tool for related organizations. A majority of the Richmond city council members support the move toward urban agriculture, and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin is pledging to help with matching funds to support the “emerging market.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Alameda allows residents to keep no more than six hens, and in Albany, which also imposes a six-hen limit, residents must apply for a special permit and the hens must be kept 50 feet away from all surrounding buildings. In Lafayette, residents may keep only four hens.
Should Oakland seize the opportunity and pass this ambitious set of changes to its laws—institutionalizing farming as a right—it could vault to the forefront of cities striving to reinvigorate local food production and create sustainable economies across the nation. Hopefully it will prove more than up to the challenge.
For more information on local urban farms, check out Farm & Food Connect, www.farmfoodconnect.com, an online farming and food directory founded by Esperanza Pallana to encourage the exchange of both information and materials among urban farmers.
Jess Watson is a freelance journalist on the urban farming beat and a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at UCSC. She spends far too much time fermenting, foraging, canning, and blogging about it all from her North Oakland home. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or just check out her blog at www.quirkyurbanite.blogspot.com