Zoned for farming

New rules could help make urban farms into viable businesses

Since first sprouting in Minneapolis a half-decade ago, urban farms have been embraced by farmers market shoppers and endorsed by city leaders — but they’ve never had a place in city code.

A proposal to rewrite significant sections of the city’s zoning code would create a regulatory framework for urban agriculture for the first time, allowing the city’s for-profit growers to emerge from a legal gray zone.
A draft of the new rules was released in November and is on track for a February City Council vote.

Approval would mark the start of a new era of legitimacy and regulation for urban farmers like Nate Watters of Stone’s Throw Urban Farm, a start-up business formed from two farms in Minneapolis and one in St. Paul.

“[City planners] got a lot of input from the urban farmers,” Watters said. “For the most part, I feel that’s reflected in the [proposed] zoning laws.”

Even backyard gardeners have a stake in the zoning amendments, which would allow food and ornamental crops from home gardens to be legally sold off-site.

The zoning amendments codify policy set by the City Council when it adopted the Urban Agriculture Policy Plan in April. That document, which set guidelines for farming as a new land use in Minneapolis, was an outgrowth of the Homegrown Minneapolis local foods initiative.

Anna Cioffi of the non-profit Land Stewardship Project emphasized the potential economic impact of the zoning changes.

“We’ll see a lot more jobs created by this,” Cioffi said, envisioning a future where city residents can grow extra income in their backyards and even start small agricultural businesses. “This revenue stream is there. The demand for local food is really, really high right now.”


Zoning refugee

The new rules come too late for Jeremy McAdams, who might be considered a Minneapolis zoning refugee.

Multiple-star restaurants like Birchwood Café, Restaurant Alma and Craftsman served the shiitake and oyster mushrooms that, beginning in 2009, McAdams cultivated on whole logs piled in his and other backyards in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood. But the log piles and the tarps used to shade them drew complaints from some neighbors, who may have found them unsightly, followed by several citations from zoning inspectors.

Initially, McAdams avoided trouble by moving the piles from yard-to-yard.

“Literally, last year I was on the run,” he said.

But after another citation this spring, he moved Cherry Tree House Mushrooms to Maplewood. Minneapolis lost a business McAdams said has doubled in size every year, adding the Wedge and Seward co-ops to its customer list along the way.

“According to my projections, I’m getting pretty close to where this will be a nice supplemental income,” he said.


Risky business

Operating at the edges of existing zoning laws was potentially risky for urban farmers. And it also hampered efforts to grow viable businesses.

For example, some urban farmers installed temporary “hoop houses” to shelter crops and extend the growing season — even while knowing a neighbor’s complaint could trigger an inspection, and force the structure’s removal. They would be allowed under the proposed zoning amendment, a change welcomed by Watters, whose hoop house-grown greens were some of the first on the market last spring.

“That was a week of extended sales, and the greens are our highest seller, so that was great,” he said. “… This is kind of what it’s all about; we’re making these zoning regulations because we want to be a legitimate business.”

As Uptown Farmers, Watters and two business partners last year grew flowers and vegetables on six vacant residential plots, mostly in Southwest. Under the new rules, those plots would be considered “market farms” and be treated for the most part like the community gardens that have existed for years in Minneapolis.

Larger “urban farms” would be restricted to specific commercial- and industrial-zoned districts, but could combine growing and processing on one site. They could also include water-based agricultural uses, such aquaculture or hydroponics.

Watters welcomed new rules that would allow market farms to erect tool sheds and bring in heavier equipment at the beginning and end of the season. But he and others also anticipated a few of the new rules would invite pushback from urban farmers.

Controversial rules

The proposed zoning amendment would allow market farms to sell produce from on-site farmstands, but limit that activity to 15 days per year, which Watters argued was not enough.

Aly Pennucci, the city planner who led the amendment process, said that proposed rule attempted to strike a balance between expanding opportunities for market farms and protecting neighborhoods from traffic, noise and the other negative impacts that come with increased commercial activity. That trade-off and others will be a source of debate as the zoning amendments work their way through the city process.

Cioffi was disappointed that the proposal generally prohibited the keeping of animals. Although the city recently allowed homeowners to keep chickens and other fowl in backyard coops, that privilege won’t be extended to market farms or urban farms, and the city isn’t ready to consider legalizing other farm animals.

“With a diversified operations, you could really make a great profit on animals,” Cioffi said. “They are a very intelligent and functional part of a good farming system.”

Another touchy subject is compost. Urban farmers need it to improve the soil, they use a lot of it and it can be a major expense, but they’re limited to making only a small amount on site.

Pennucci said state laws and the city’s housing maintenance code govern compost making — not the city zoning code — so it will have to be dealt with in a separate process.

Despite those gripes — and a few others that surely will emerge as the new rules wend their way to the City Council — the proposal was viewed as much-needed progress.

“It’s a great step forward, and I’m really happy,” Watters said.

Reach Dylan Thomas at dthomas@mnpubs.com.