By Jessica Conrad
Jessica Conrad is a gardener, researcher and writer.
Imagine being able to purchase kale, carrots, beets and garlic on a nearby street corner from your favorite local farmer — who also happens to be your next-door neighbor. It hasn't been legal within the city limits of Minneapolis since 1963. But that could change soon.
Last April, Mayor R.T. Rybak and the City Council unanimously passed the Urban Agriculture Policy Plan to promote urban agriculture in Minneapolis. In order for the plan to be implemented, however, the council must formally approve certain text amendments to the zoning code.
The most important zoning change would allow commercial food production in Minneapolis at market gardens in residential areas, and on urban farms in industrial and commercial areas. Does this sound outlandish? It would not be a first for Minneapolis: From 1924 until 1963, the law explicitly allowed farming and "truck gardening" in low-density residential areas. The changes proposed by the text amendments under consideration would restore the law to this standard.
Of course there have been concerns about what the city allows in terms of commercial operation and home occupancy. Some council members question whether market garden farmers should be allowed to sell directly to the public, and others say market gardens should not be allowed at all. They fear the change would increase neighborhood traffic, noise and commotion. Still others are concerned about the height and size of season-extension structures, such as hoop houses, in residential areas.
I recently moved into a small house in south Minneapolis, where my partner and I have a garden in the backyard. Last summer we dug up the ground and planted a variety of vegetables. Little did we know that the garden would yield gallons of volunteer cherry tomatoes and 150 pounds of squash.
And yet, while I love the idea of setting up my own stand on the street corner to sell what we couldn't eat, it wouldn't happen for a number of years. It takes a long time to develop a productive garden (we just got lucky last year). So the idea that the corners would suddenly be crowded with vegetable stands is hard to imagine. As for 12-foot-high hoop houses — who wouldn't accept one next door in exchange for some fresh produce? It's not about how the structures look; it's about what they can do.
The best reason to support the zoning code amendments comes down to this: Our world is changing. Our knowledge of small-scale food production and the city's ability to support agriculture as a viable urban land use are becoming increasingly important. "As gas prices rise and our climate changes, our urban adaptability and ability to produce our own food will make or break this city," says Louise Erdrich, urban agriculture advocate, author and owner of Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. "If the option of driving out of the city to have a garden is a luxury now, and an impossibility for many, what will it become in the future?"
Minneapolis has a role to play in building a strong local food system. We need to encourage urban development that supports locally grown foods for the health, well-being and security of generations to come.