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Urban agriculture ordinance heads to fruition in Richmond

Photo courtesy of flickr user fletcher oakes

A vibrant mural announces Happy Lot Farm and Garden to visitors and anyone passing by. A greenhouse stands in the middle of the lot, and an improvised chicken coop occupies one corner. The trees and raspberry beds that head farmer Andromeda Brooks and her volunteers planted here a few years ago are now bearing fruit. And anyone who chips in gets to take home some of the harvest.

Brooks started Happy Lot almost three years ago, as a community project to improve the neighborhood’s morale.

“I sit back and giggle ... when people say: ‘People want to get back to farming. They want to grow their own food,’” says Brooks. “I never left; that was my nature.”

She’s worked hard to carve this farm out of the vacant lot next to her house -- and that work is paying off, sometimes in surprising ways. Take the colony of bees she established just last year. When an expert beekeeper came to harvest the honey, he warned her not to expect too much from a young colony. Then they opened the hive.

“And he was: ‘Holy smokes! What did you do?!’ I always say, ‘Nothing,’” Brooks laughs. “So, yeah, we got a gallon of honey and was able to distribute it to a lot of people.”

Brooks foots the bill for the water herself, hooking up a 100-foot-long hose to the spigot on her house next door. It’s her biggest expense in running the farm, so for now, she’s collecting rainwater and looking for alternatives.

“I could see a well out here,” says Brooks. “We have a pretty high water table, this close to the water shore.”

But drilling a well requires a permit, and Brooks is in a legal grey area when it comes to the lot her farm sits on. As far as permission to use the land, she has only a Memorandum of Understanding with Self-Sustaining Communities, a non-profit that leases various plots from the city. But according to the non-profit, the city never officially wrote up the lease for Happy Lot Farm and Garden. So, Brooks would rather keep a low profile.

“It’s like sticking your finger in the pond,” Brooks says. “Is this going to be the one ripple that makes them want to say, ‘That’s it’? Or is this the one ripple that’s going to make the community say, ‘That chick’s crazy’?”

Further east, near 6th Street, Doria Robinson is giving a tour around a two-block stretch of the Richmond Greenway, a former railway bed that's now a city park and bike trail. Six years ago, her non-profit Urban Tilth started planting a community garden here.

Robinson is Executive Director of Urban Tilth, which runs 13 community gardens around Richmond. Today, the second Saturday of the month, volunteers are preparing some of the beds for planting.

Robinson explains that the water at this garden is paid for by the city, because the Richmond Greenway is city land. And it turns out that watering fruits and vegetables here takes less water than sprinkling lawns.

“Drip irrigation, that’s the way that we water. It’s way cheaper for them, for us to use drip in the beds than if they had to water a bunch of grass,” Robinson says. “They actually put in irrigation lines, so there’s an irrigation line in the whole 42-block-long stretch.”

Still, the legal status of these farming projects is uncertain.

“Technically, the way that the zoning in Richmond is right now, all of the use of vacant lots or front yards or city parks for growing food is illegal; that’s the way that our planning department reads the code, you know?” Robinson says. “If it isn’t explicitly allowed, it’s disallowed, and right now we have no code addressing it, and so they say that it’s not allowed.”

Proposed local legislation may soon change that. Richmond City Council member Tom Butt and the staff at city hall have drafted an Urban Agriculture Ordinance that would define what kind of plant and animal-raising is allowed in the city, and where. It would also permit urban gardeners to sell their produce at temporary farmstands, if they have a city business license.

“It mainly provides a way that people can create urban farms or do urban gardening on a larger scale than just a backyard garden, and make it legal,” says Butt.

Richmond’s General Plan is based on a guideline called “Health in All Policies.” That means the city must evaluate every proposed law for how it will affect the health of the people who live or work in Richmond. Councilmember Butt says many people in Richmond don’t get enough fruits and vegetables.

“Richmond has been one of those cities that doesn’t have a lot of grocery stores, and people depend on small markets that are scattered all around town, some are actually more liquor stores and other types of outlets than they are grocery stores,” Butt says. “They don’t have a lot of healthy food available.”

And Butt says making empty lots productive is another plus for the health of Richmond residents.

“It becomes an asset to the community,” he says. “It’s an area where people are growing healthy food, and they not only are providing that food to the community, but oftentimes there are community people involved in it.”

More and more people in Richmond are getting involved with projects like Urban Tilth and Happy Lot Farm. And it’s not limited just to gardening. Urban Tilth’s Doria Robinson says a bike mechanic from Rich City Rides shows up every second Saturday at the Richmond Greenway, to fix the gardening volunteers’ bikes -- for free.

“It’s an awesome service,” says Robinson. “You know, we don’t have a bike shop in Richmond, so they’re here to do that, volunteer bike mechanics.”

Meanwhile, the weeds in the berry beds have grabbed Robinson’s attention; she stoops to pull them out. And Robinson doesn’t only get her hands into the dirt. When the first draft of the ordinance did not allow gardens near large apartment buildings, Robinson and other community advocates dug into city politics, too.

“There are some concerns about bees and animals and whether or not you should have community gardens in high-density living spaces, which for me is like a no-brainer, of course you should!” she says. “That’s where you need them most, because people don’t have access to land.”

The revised ordinance now allows small community gardens near dense apartment buildings. And that may expose even more people to the fun of digging in the dirt.

The entire City Council hasn’t yet seen the draft ordinance, but city staff have proposed  presenting it to them in September 2014 to get feedback and direction.