The half-acre that Chanowk Yisrael farms in south Oak Park is smack dab in the middle of what healthy food advocates call a food desert.
Residents of this unincorporated area of Oak Park have few choices for buying fresh or locally sourced food. “Most of the people in this community are served for their food needs by corner stores,” said Yisrael. “And now you can buy fast food with food stamps.”
The neighborhood is also dotted with 40 vacant lots. Yisrael views them as potential mini-farms that could supply produce to the surrounding residents.
Yisrael supports an urban agriculture ordinance that would allow him to sell what he grows to the public from a stand on his property. Such sales are currently illegal in Sacramento city and county.
“Sure, I can sell what I grow at farmers markets,” said Yisrael, who worked as a software technician before he took up farming. “But there is an opportunity for me to do something that can help people in this neighborhood get access to fresh food.”
The ordinance is expected to reach the Sacramento City Council by the end of the year, and is being assessed by the county as well, said Matt Read, an organizer with Sacramentans for Sustainable Community Agriculture, a group that is promoting the idea of urban farming.
Representatives of seven advocacy groups gathered on Thursday at Yisrael’s farm to try to build support for the urban agriculture ordinance. These included Read’s group, which presented its urban agriculture proposal to the Sacramento City Council and the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors earlier this year.
Yisreal said on-site sales could be a boon to his farm, which grows amaranth, beets, collard greens and other vegetables. By lowering his transportation costs, he said, he could sell his produce at a cheaper price to neighbors.
At minimum, Yisreal said, he wants to inspire others to do what he’s doing.
Farms like Yisrael’s are now cropping up in backyards, vacant lots and rooftops in many cities in the U.S.
The interest in urban farming is outpacing the evolution of local zoning laws, and Sacramento is an example of this phenomenon, said Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen.
“We should allow urban farmers to sell their food,” said Hansen. “The city should do everything it can to allow that kind of entrepreneurialism, because growing and selling is a form of small business.”
“There is a big economic component to this,” Hansen said. “It’s not just about beautifying vacant lots; it is about creating businesses.”
The proposed ordinance would piggyback on AB 551, state legislation that gives cities and counties the authority to provide tax breaks to owners of vacant lots who turn them over to urban gardens – or those that operate urban farms of a specific size. So far, San Francisco and Los Angeles have adopted the law, and other cities, like Oakland, are weighing the merits.
In its proposal, Sacramentans for Sustainable Community Agriculture asks that the city of Sacramento and unincorporated areas of Sacramento County be designated an urban agriculture intensive zone, which would trigger the potential tax breaks.
Those tax breaks would allow for land used as urban agriculture to be assessed at the going tax rate for the state’s irrigated farmland. That rate is $12,100 per acre, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Currently, the city allows vegetable gardens in private residential yards and up to three hens per residential parcel. It also allows community gardens on private land, and the city operates 13 community gardens. The county allows chickens on parcels larger than 10,000 square feet.
“We do not have cause to be nervous about this. A lot of cities have done it, and our proposal mirrors other cities’ best practices, but we need community support,” said Read.