BY PAUL TOWERS / PHOTOGRAPHY BY BENJAMIN DELLA ROSA
The diverse crowd of several hundred people erupted into cheers on a night in late March as the Sacramento City Council voted 6-1 to pass a law enabling people all across the city to grow and sell food from their urban farms. In doing so, Sacramento joined the ranks of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle in promoting urban agriculture ("ag") within city limits.
The change didn't come easy. For over two years, the Sacramento Urban Agriculture Coalition—a mostly volunteer coalition of urban farmers, food policy wonks, composting enthusiasts and anti-hunger advocates—huddled around tables at Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, drafting the basis for the policy that was eventually passed. When they weren't there, they were out giving community presentations, meeting with city staff or researching policies in other cities.
Something seems to have clicked for community leaders as they seek to meld big-city aspirations with cherishing the fertile soils and rich agricultural heritage of the Sacramento Region. "Sacramento honors its roots and embraces new possibilities," says Sacramento Urban Agriculture Coalition coordinator Matt Read. And it rings true for a city in the heart of the Central Valley that in 2012 proclaimed itself "America's Farm-to-Fork Capital."
With a mixture of cutting-edge and traditional practices, urban farmers are finding ways to make the most of the land.
Down an alley in the backyard of a Southside Park home, Paul Trudeau has a small operation he calls Southside Aquaponic Farm. The closed-loop system circulates water that feeds plants that in turn feed fish, and the fish produce waste that provides vital nutrients for the plants. During the cold months, Trudeau uses solar panels to heat up the water a few degrees to keep the fish happy and healthy. These hyper-local, sustainably produced fresh greens end up on dinner plates at Mulvaney's B&L just a few blocks away.
But when he wanted to find other outlets for selling his produce—including from a neighborhood farm stand—Trudeau bumped into legal limits. "Gardening is great, but adding the option of selling the produce you grow adds all kinds of benefits," he says.
Across town, Michael Viscuso's seedlings in his Oak Park front yard are just starting to look promising. He's grown everything from cabbage to Brussels sprouts. A few more blocks away, he's turned a vacant lot and community eyesore into a space filled with green, fresh vegetables. But he faced the same problems, including limits on his ability to sell his produce.
Trudeau and Viscuso were two of the first at the table expressing frustration about existing laws. They attracted more and more friends and allies, and eventually found political leaders—councilmembers Jay Schenirer, Allen Warren and Steve Hansen—willing to take up the measure. City planning staff put forth a series of proposals that had been reviewed and hashed out in community workshops and at Planning Commission meetings.
The ordinance passed in March has two parts. One requires additional approval by the County Board of Supervisors, while the other goes directly into effect in the City.
Part one, the Urban Agriculture Ordinance, creates zoning changes so urban agriculture is legal in all zones—residential, commercial and industrial—across the city. It also allows farmers to sell from urban agriculture stands in front of their homes or businesses during limited days and hours. Urban farmers like Trudeau are eyeing these stands as a way to sustain their small-scale efforts.
Part two, the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone Ordinance, creates property tax breaks for landowners who allow their property—including vacant lots like the one donated to Viscuso—to be used for urban ag.
One of the reasons some pushed so hard for the law, is that it represents a step toward addressing public health problems the city faces with food insecurity and obesity.
According to a 2012 report by the Sacramento Hunger Coalition, over 80,000 people in the City of Sacramento alone are considered food insecure. Some councilmembers see the ag ordinance as a way to address some of those challenges. They consider the measure an important step toward the City's effort to support not just Farm-to-Fork, but "Farm-to-Every-Fork."
Chefs also joined the increasingly large and diverse coalition. Over three dozen of them, led by Ed Roehr of Magpie and Michael Tuohy of ESC Sacramento, penned a letter to city leaders urging the law's passage. And it's been about more than finding the perfect local bean for their new salad.
"Being America's Farm-to-Fork Capital should mean something to all Sacramentans, not just to farm-to-table restaurants, foodies and agribusiness. The urban ag law can remind us all of seasonality and our common connection to the ground. And it can bring our urban core closer to our agricultural surroundings," Roehr says.
And so it comes to honoring the region's agricultural history and embracing new opportunities. The Sacramento Urban Agriculture Coalition is already looking beyond the most recent victory, setting its sights on Sacramento County. So far, residents living in the unincorporated parts of the county have been largely left out of the opportunities offered by the new law and several county supervisors have said they are ready to take up the effort.