New San Francisco legislation will jump-start urban farming | Grist

Bay Area locavores and caterpillars rejoice: An edible urban jungle is poised to sprout in San Francisco.

City supervisors approved legislation Tuesday that will help grassroots farming groups replace barren concrete and forests of weeds on vacant land and rooftops with veggie gardens, chicken coops, and honeybee hives. And the move cements San Francisco’s role as a national leader in urban food production.

“[San Franciscans] are thought of as foodies, and environmentalists,” said Laura Tam, a policy director at the nonprofit San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association (SPUR), which helped push the new rules forward. “This is a marrying of our sustainability objectives with the reputation that we have in the world.”

The legislation [PDF] follows zoning changes last year that made it easier to operate small farms and legal to sell food grown in San Francisco. This new set of laws will take it further by removing additional bureaucratic barriers for hopeful gardeners and actively searching for land they can use while providing them with seeds, tools, and advice.

A major focus of the bill is community gardening — neighbors coming together to organize, till, and cultivate plots of land in mini-farms that are managed cooperatively.

Aided by $120,000 in city funding in its first year, the Urban Agriculture Program will hire a city official or nonprofit organization to oversee all community gardening within San Francisco. The city’s utility agency will also provide additional funds to support two farms on land that it owns.

The program will audit city-owned land and rooftops in a quest to dig up potential new public gardening sites. It will also develop incentives for owners of vacant lots to allow their land to be used for community farming.

Passage of the bill follows a rise in popularity of urban farming nationally, which has been fueled by the locavore and organic food movements, and by the recession, which has left lots vacant and families hungry.

A handful of urban food gardens have popped up in recent years throughout San Francisco. Some are on public land and others are on private lots in high-density neighborhoods that are slated to be developed after the economy improves.

But hopeful gardeners still wait for years to be assigned a plot in many of the city’s community gardens. Meanwhile, some urban farmers have complained about having to seek approval and support from as many as seven different city departments. (The new program is designed to cut through that bureaucracy by creating a central office dedicated to urban farming.)

“We’re not going to be growing wheat in Golden Gate Park — that’s not why we have cities,” said Jason Mark, a co-manager at Alemany Farm, a three-acre growing co-op in San Francisco, which is cheering on the new program. “That said, there’s very real potential for backyard food cultivation and for community gardens and community farms to boost our organic fruit and vegetable production and egg production,” he said.

The co-op grows several tons of carrots, beets, kale, strawberries, plums, and other organic goodies every year that are shared among its members, among residents of nearby housing projects.

But the benefits of urban gardening extend beyond food security and health. Local agronomists say that allowing more people to get their hands dirty will help residents of the city reconnect with their environment.

“Our most important harvest is really education, toward the goal of culture change,” Mark said.

San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos, whose district is near Alemany Farm, co-sponsored the legislation. He said he’s noticed a real spike in interest in urban agriculture in recent years.

“This will make a big difference in my district. I think it’s really this ‘back to the earth’ mentality, if you will,” Avalos said. “I think there was a belief that agriculture was something that happened outside of San Francisco. We’re seeing now that there is a real way of making it happen in San Francisco.”

San Francisco’s adoption of the new urban farming programs follows a trend that has seen Detroit, Portland, Baltimore, New York, Seattle, Oakland, and other major cities craft programs and laws in recent years to encourage agriculture and gardening within city limits.

Robin Shulman, author of a new book about urban agriculture in New York called Eat the City, praised San Francisco’s program for its emphasis on community gardening — as opposed to private backyard gardening or commercial, for-profit harvests .

“This San Francisco initiative seems to go a bit further,” she said. “The legislation mentions specifically that these are to be community gardens with multiple plots and that people would be working together.”

Correction: This story incorrectly reported that Alemany Farm currently sells produce to neighborhood farmers markets. The farm was also described as being in John Avalos’ district. In fact, it is in very close proximity.

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