Food Science

Sac County eyes urban-farm ordinances

Saul McCoy, left, and Tirtsah Yisrael harvest squash and do bed preparation work last October for the next round of crops.  Sacramento County may follow the city’s lead on urban farms.
Saul McCoy, left, and Tirtsah Yisrael harvest squash and do bed preparation work last October for the next round of crops. Sacramento County may follow the city’s lead on urban farms.

One block is all that’s keeping Chanowk Yisrael, one of South Oak Park’s most active urban farmers, from selling his produce in the neighborhood.

For Yisrael, setting up a food stand for produce sales on his half-acre of land, as was made legal by the city of Sacramento in March, will have to wait.

If Yisrael were to step across the street on Roosevelt Avenue, he would be in the city of Sacramento, and the new urban agriculture ordinance would apply. But Yisrael’s family farm is in unincorporated Sacramento County. And in Sacramento County, you cannot sell your produce on-site if it is an urban farm.

“We’re in the county, and we still have to deal with the county,” Yisrael said.

However, Yisrael believes that it’s only a matter of time before Sacramento County allows him to sell his produce at his farm.

Sacramento County is crafting two urban agriculture ordinances. One will allow urban farmers to sell produce on their property. The other would allow urban farmers to take advantage of tax breaks. (These tax breaks have been approved by the city in its urban-ag ordinance and are awaiting a county vote).

The city of Sacramento ordinance, which allows the on-site selling of produce grown within city limits, was meant to spur the establishment of urban farms in a city that has hitched its wagon to the farm-to-fork movement.

Areas considered food deserts, including South Oak Park, stand to benefit from the ordinance. Food deserts are spots that offer few businesses selling produce and other healthful food.

The Yisrael farm is a family-intensive venture; at least one of his seven children can be found working on the farm on any given day. Most of the produce grown on the farm is sold at area farmers markets or is used for the catering arm of his farm operation.

Yisrael, a former software technician, is convinced that on-site sales could be a boon to his farm and the South Oak Park neighborhood. Currently, he grows amaranth, beets, collard greens and other vegetables.

“I think that being able to sell on-site will end up being from 20 to 30 percent of our sales,” Yisrael said.

He said that the amount would depend on how many days urban farmers would be allowed to sell each week under the ordinance. The number of days allowed has yet to be established for the county, Yisrael said.

Selling his produce where it’s grown would eliminate transportation costs, Yisrael said, a savings he could pass on to customers.

The tax-break ordinance seeks to establish urban-agriculture-intensive zones. Urban farmers in those zones would be able to get their land assessed at an irrigated agricultural land rate, which is much lower than the assessment rate for urban residential property.

Last year, San Francisco passed an ordinance that allowed urban farmers who farm vacant lots for a minimum of five years similar property assessments. In some cases, property taxes were assessed at a fraction of the cost of what they were before the ordinance was passed.

The county ordinances will likely be voted on this summer, and they’re expected to pass, said Matt Read, organizer with the Sacramento Urban Agriculture Coalition.

“The conversation in Sacramento County is shaped by its long agricultural tradition,” Read said. “Folks in the county have more experience seeing this kind of activity and know that fresh produce and farm stands don’t ruin neighborhoods. It was an unknown at the city, despite our many examples to the contrary.”

Sacramento County supervisor Patrick Kennedy, a supporter of the ordinance, said South Oak Park is the model neighborhood for urban farms.

“This area is located where there is a lot of low-income people, so this will give them the opportunity to grow their own food for their own consumption,” Kennedy said. “I would say that Yisrael is ahead of the curve and a model of what we want to come out of this ordinance.”

Yisrael said he has big plans for the neighborhood. He owns another lot nearby, which is being farmed, and he would like to keep adding acreage to his farming activity in South Oak Park.

“I have this idea of taking over every single vacant lot in South Oak Park,” Yisrael said. “But, at the same time, I see this is a collaborative thing.”

Currently there are more than 30 vacant lots in or near South Oak Park.

Yisrael’s goal is to bring back the community aspect to food sales that existed before the dominance of large supermarket chains.

“We’re trying to get people to come out of the house and start doing the things that people in a community used to do so many years ago,” he said. “My father remembers the day when everyone knew that someone would be driving up with a truck at a specific time, and that person would have produce and fruit in the back of their truck. That was like their version of the pop-up market.”

He said that once Sacramento County passes an urban agriculture ordinance, he will begin selling his produce from a cart or a tent in front of his home on Roosevelt Avenue. He’s also thinking big.

“I wouldn’t mind having a brick-and-mortar presence,” he said. “I’ve identified a couple of places on Stockton Boulevard that would be perfect.”

However, Yisrael knows that farming, not retail, is what he needs to focus on for the near future. He sees food as a conversation-starter in his neighborhood.

“I’d like to starting using food as way to engage people and getting people talking to each other,” Yisrael said. “It’s then that you can start talking about community pride and ownership.”

Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.