Views on Food: Tending the concept of urban agriculture

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It’s not easy being green. Ron Rutherford has been toiling for a year now, trying to sustain a community garden in a vacant lot.

Heaped with junk, strewn with hypodermic needles, the dusty plot in Sacramento’s Oak Park was a mess in the autumn of 2012 when he bumped into a couple of neighbors clearing trash there. The neighbors saw blight; Rutherford, a resident of public housing, saw a shot at cheap produce.

So they got the lot owner’s permission and on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they did a communal planting. After a week or two, though, it became clear why so many still view urban agriculture as an oxymoron.

First a neighbor had second thoughts about volunteering his water. Then friends backed out, declaring the garden a lost cause without irrigation. Undaunted, Rutherford filled trash cans from his own faucet and ran a hose from across the street through traffic. Then, just as a small grant restored supplies and momentum, the lot – now verdant – was put on the market.

Then someone sneaked in and yanked his collard greens out by the roots, apparently unaware that that’s not how to pick them. Then the last straw: Rutherford’s truck died.

“You think, ‘Oh, why all this adversity? Why do I do this?’ ” Rutherford joked one recent morning, tending an emerald row of baby lettuce.

But the bounty around him – peas and beets, kale and cabbage – was its own answer, and his determination showed no sign of letup, even in the midst of this drought.

These are determined times for urban agriculture, a concept that, as recently as a decade ago, struck most people as either farfetched or improbably nostalgic, the civic equivalent of resurrecting all the victory gardens from World War II. Dreamers like Rutherford aren’t the only ones blurring the lines between concrete and cropland. From New York to San Francisco, metropolitan areas are sprouting: Hydroponic farms in Brooklyn, rooftop gardens in Chicago, shipping crates turned into massive raised-bed planters in Detroit.

In San Francisco, an ordinance to incentivize urban agriculture led last year to a statewide property tax break for landowners who commit vacant land to community gardens. In Los Angeles, an effort to grow veggies in street medians led to a wholesale rethinking of local landscaping regulations and a flowering of edible front yards.

“It’s a different role than cities have played in the last half-century or so, but there’s a lot of food-production capacity in cities,” says Shawn Harrison, founder and director of Soil Born Farms, which grows produce for food banks in Sacramento, and recently has been looking for a place to plant an urban orchard.

“It’s about looking differently at the urban environment.”

Like Rutherford’s garden, that thinking has taken some cultivation.

“For a long time, mainstream agriculture didn’t pay attention to us,” says Michael R. Dimock, strategic adviser to the California Food Policy Council, which backed last year’s property tax legislation and met recently in Sacramento to discuss priorities for 2014.

Over time, however, activists have managed to make the point that urban gardens can remind an increasingly citified public where food actually comes from while offering poorer neighborhoods a little fresh, organic produce.

Now, Dimock says, policymakers have started to pay attention, and the movement is entering a new phase – codification. So in the next year or so, city dwellers here and elsewhere can expect more laws and ordinances that will build agriculture into city landscapes and make life easier for guys like Rutherford.

What should that codification look like? The answer varies from city to city, but here in the “Farm to Fork” capital of the farm-to-forkiest state in the nation, everyone seems to have an opinion, from downtown loft-dwellers who’d like to see fewer vacant lots and more fresh tomatoes to artisan farmers out near the city limits who see no reason why they shouldn’t get to raise goats.

Compared to most urban areas in California, Sacramento already is pretty open-minded about healthier landscapes. In recent years, the city has installed at least a dozen community gardens in parks and on public land, and new ordinances have opened the door to things like front-yard gardens and urban chickens.

Meanwhile, nonprofits like Harrison’s have broken new ground in exploring the possibilities of larger-scale urban farming. Soil Born’s 55-acre farm on the American River is big compared to the urban ag in most cities, and its gleaning operation gathers tons of surplus fruit for the needy from Sacramento-area backyards. Another organization, Ubuntu Green, has installed more than 100 home and community gardens in the city over the last couple of years.

But as Rutherford’s case shows, it’s not enough, particularly in a place whose civic boosters have built their marketing around food movement street cred. If Sacramento wants the rest of the state to think of it as the “farm to fork” place, rather than “Sack O’Tomatoes,” it needs to be a showcase when it comes to the possibilities of eating local.

Advocates say that much more could be done to make this not just a city of trees, but also of gardens. The city’s general plan is in the midst of an update, for instance, and new language could make it clear that urban agriculture is a mandate.

Also, the city could pass a comprehensive urban agriculture ordinance to further spell out ways that Sacramento could reflect its inner farmer. It’s still too hard for people to sell what they grow, and zoning confusion still makes it hard for larger lots to be cultivated. Water also is an issue – unlike rural farms, most urban spaces rely on tap water – and even before the drought, the cost of installing meters and drought-conscious irrigation was prohibitive for too many.

That statewide tax break passed last year won’t make anyone’s vacant lots any greener unless counties opt into it and start offering it to landowners. And if Sacramento really wanted to go all out, it could follow the lead of San Francisco and Berkeley, where initiatives to tax sugary sodas are moving toward the November ballot. Though the beverage industry has beaten back that idea so far at every level, that kind of revenue – even locally – could fund innumerable public health projects, from anti-obesity programs for children to, say, people trying to grow vegetables in vacant lots.

The fact is that growing food is hard work, and growing it in a city is harder, and growing it sustainably is harder still. But people need to eat, and land shouldn’t be wasted, and it shouldn’t be this hard to give everyone, rich or poor, a shot at a decent salad.

It’s not easy being green. But it could be easier.