Urban farms a tricky row to hoe for Minneapolis City Council

Robert Woods, Project Sweetie Pie
Robert Woods stands beside the vacant North Minneapolis city lot he's transformed into a large garden. Woods wants to start operating it as a commercial farm.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

Robert Woods owns the vacant lot next to his north Minneapolis home. It's a brown rectangle of soil in March, but it will be bursting with crops this summer.

"Melons, cantaloupe, okra, spring greens, collard greens, peppers, sweet potatoes and a lot of weeds," he says of the anticipated bounty.

But there's a catch. Woods can eat the vegetables he grows. He can give them away to his neighbors. He can lend the land to the non-profit he founded to teach local kids about agriculture. But there's one thing he hasn't been allowed to do under the current Minneapolis zoning code -- sell his vegetables to make a profit.

"And that's bringing revenue into my household, and to my family, which I would love. And my wife probably would love it even more," he says.

His fortunes may be on the verge of changing, however. The Minneapolis City Council this week takes up a controversial set of proposed ordinances designed to encourage urban agriculture. They are part of a nationwide trend toward building small-scale commercial vegetable farms within densely-populated U.S. cities. Last year the council unanimously approved a plan to legalize commercial agriculture.

But the measure won't actually take effect until the council passes a detailed set of ground rules for farming in the city. And that's where things get contentious.

Linda Schutz sits on the board of the East Isles Residents' Association. She's lived near Lake of the Isles since 1985, and she's not on board with the idea of city farming.

Robert Woods, Project Sweetie Pie
Robert Woods is one of the founders of Project Sweetie Pie. The organization teaches young people in North Minneapolis about agriculture. Woods owns the vacant lot next to his house, which he has devoted to a large garden. He wants to turn it into a small commercial vegetable farm once the Minneapolis City Council makes that possible.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

"When we bought in the urban area, we didn't anticipate living next to farms," she says. "We already have noise issues. We have congestion and traffic and parking issues. So now you would want to introduce further nuisances that are more typical of a rural environment? You're just going to compound the nuisances that we tend to have to live with."

Schutz loves to garden. But she's worried the city won't set strict enough rules, and then the farms could become eyesores that would bring traffic, dust and unwelcome odors to her neighborhood.

Her city council member, Meg Tuthill, shares some of those concerns.

"Since we are a built city, and we live so close to one another, we also have to respect the property rights of the people next door to us, behind us and across the street from us."

Meg Tuthill
Minneapolis City Council Member Meg Tuthill supports legalizing small-scale commercial farming in city, but she wants to see some limits.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

Tuthill supports the legalization of urban farming. But she wants to place some limits on it. One of her proposals restricts the number of days that farms located in residential neighborhoods could sell vegetables on site. She also wants to set height limits on temporary greenhouses covered with plastic sheeting known as hoop houses. Tuthill wants them limited to no more than six feet in height.

"Our fences are 6 feet high. I don't want to walk out my back yard and see a plastic something 12 feet high over my six foot fence," she says.

But back in North Minneapolis, Robert Woods worries about the proposed restrictions. He wants a big tall greenhouse so he can start seedlings earlier and keep the harvest going longer. He figures that it could triple the productivity of his garden. Once he turns it into a business, that would be the difference between making $7,000 dollars a year and more than $20,000 a year.

"I think they're trying to micro-manage other people's lifestyle," says Woods, who envisions little commercial gardens like this popping up in place of foreclosed homes all over his neighborhood and putting people to work.

Cam Gordon
Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon is leading the charge to encourage small-scale commercial vegetable farming in the city.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

City Council Member Cam Gordon says that's why the city should be careful not to over-regulate urban agriculture.

"I get a little nervous, because I don't want to go to all this work and all this trouble and have something not be successful and nobody use it. So, we're trying to open the door wide enough so people can try some of these new and creative ideas and see if they can make a go of it as an economic opportunity."

Gordon says he hopes the city council can craft a compromise this week that allows farms to flourish without annoying the neighbors.

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