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Urban Farming - What Are Your Rights?

The International Rescue Committee's New Roots Community Farm brings refugees together to share experiences and feel a connection to their new home through community gardening and nutrition and micro-enterprise programs.  The farm is located on 54th Avenue and Chollas Parkway in City Heights.
Ruxandra Guidi
The International Rescue Committee's New Roots Community Farm brings refugees together to share experiences and feel a connection to their new home through community gardening and nutrition and micro-enterprise programs. The farm is located on 54th Avenue and Chollas Parkway in City Heights.
Urban Farming - What Are Your Rights?
Our series on urban farming continues with an exploration of the legal problems that can crop up when backyards and vacant lots are turned into farmland. San Diego has struggled with questions about raising chickens, keeping bees and whose land is it anyway?

Urban Farming Series

Monday-The Grow It Yourself movement (GIY).

Tuesday- We look at problems with urban farming, and how that might affect local refugee and immigrant communities.

Wednesday- Low water edibles and growing your own at home without a yard

Thursday-Local restaurants embracing community farming and bringing it to the table.

City of San Diego Regulations for Community Gardens
On June 7, 2011 the City Council approved new regulations that allow community gardens to be developed easily and inexpensively in all residential and commercial zones in the City. However, the regulations will not be effective within the City’s Coastal Overlay Zone until the California Coastal Commission (CCC) unconditionally certifies new regulations. The amendment was submitted to the California Coastal Commission on August 18, 2011.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

Our series on urban farming continues with an exploration of the legal problems that can crop up when backyards and vacant lots are turned into farmland. San Diego has struggled with questions about raising chickens, keeping bees and whose land is it anyway?



Anchi Mei, manager of food security and community health for the International Rescue Committee, San Diego

Adrian Florido, reporter for

Dan Joyce, is a senior planner for the City of San Diego

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Starting your own vegetable garden, visiting a farmer's market, maybe requesting farm to table at your local restaurant, those activities are typically of San Diegans who are getting involved in the urban farming movement. But there are other groups of people growing food in the city because they need to. Refugee communities are growing the food they need to feed their families. And it's their experience to has highlighted government restrictions and community attitudes which need to change if urban farm suggest to make a significant impact in the way we get our food. Joining me to talk about the regulations and red tap surrounding urban farming are my guests. Anchi Mei is program manager with the international rescue committee in San Diego. Anchi, hello.


MEI: Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Adrian, reporter for Good afternoon.

FLORIDO: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Anchi, farming has been a big way that the.

MEI: Just a few years ago. About five years ago. The IRC started a food security program, and within a year or two after that, with just initial emergency food aircraft healthy food pantry, and nutrition education, we heard from our refugee clients that they really wanted to get back to the land. A lot come from agrarian backgrounds, and this was a way to supplement their food budget, make their money go farther by growing their own food, but also cultural connection, a way to grow the food that they're with. And culturally appropriate foods. And have that connection to the farther, to the land. A lot have been displaced from their lands. So this has been a really important emotional and cultural piece as well. So many reasons why we started.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the New Roots farm. Where is it?

MEI: It's -- on 54th street, south of yesterday in the City Heights neighborhood. It's open from sunrise to dusk. So people are absolutely welcome to come visit it.

CAVANAUGH: And how many people use it?

MEI: Well, there are 85 plots. Each plot is to a person or family. So when you think about how many people use, it's well more than 85. You've got large families so I'd say hundreds of people definitely benefit from the food that's being grown there. And you get lots of visitors, and there's a lot of educational events that happen there so the benefits are huge, but at the minimum, we've got 85 large plots. They're 600 square feet. So it's a lot of food that's being grown and feeding families and helping them patch some incomes.

CAVANAUGH: And what kind of food is being grown there?

MEI: Oh, hundreds of different varieties. In fact if you go to the City Heights farmer's market, there's three booths now that are all New Roots growers selling their produce. And you've got a lot of that really represent the different cultures there. There's three large groups, African, Latino, and Asian. And so with the Asian community, you get a lot of different green, all different types of varieties of Asian leafy greens that are really popular with the Latino community, you'll see lots of peppers and Chiles and other kinds of greens that I've -- never seen before. And then the African community, a lot of amaranth is being planted, there's a lot of collard greens and chard because that's similar to the kind of greens they're familiar with there. But it's a numerous amount of variety.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Anchi and Adrian, when you both were here before, we were talking about a story that was a lot sadder, trial, than the wonderful story about New Roots farm. We were talking about a property that had been farmed by Cambodian refugees in southeast San Diego. They'd been farming that land for many years. It made headlines when that land was basically no longer available to them because of a multilevel deal with a nonprofit and so forth. And they were not allowed back on that land to farm. This story seems to have started urban farm advocacy grandpas to realize that there were things that needed changing in the city zoning ordinances, and the permitting process. Tell us some of the things that they basically wanted to see some movement on.

FLORIDO: Well, I think the New Roots community farm in City Heights was really the one that got local food advocates to realize that there were some things that needed to change in order for urban agriculture to become possible in this the City of San Diego. They went through a really long extensive labyrinth and permitting process. Recently, the City Council has changed some Rand use laws that now make urban farming possible, actually make the establishment of community gardens possible on a lot of vacant land in the city. Up until now, there were some real restrictions on where you could plant a community garden like the New Roots community farm. You could only plant them on parcels that are zoned for agricultural use, and in residential zones, and in some industrial zone, you could plant community gardens. But it was really difficult to do. You had to go through a long permitting process, and it could cost potentially several thousands of dollars. So the city passed some land use laws that now allow community gardens on any vacant parcel in residential zones, commercial zones, and agricultural zones without the need for this permitting process. And already there are community gardens popping up around the city. People are trying to take advantage of that.

CAVANAUGH: And another story you did sort of highlights the need for that. Even though there are so many farmers markets around town now. You took a look at a farmer's market I believe in southeastern San Diego which didn't really have any good fresh produce. And that's why advocates want to make it easier for people to start gardens in their own community.

FLORIDO: That's right. There's been this proliferation of farmer's markets around the county. Around the country and around the county. I think there are more than 50 or so in San Diego County alone all over the place. And they've become really popular. In the southeastern San Diego community, food advocates down there wanted to have one as well because that parts of town has the particular challenge of not having as many grocery stores or fresh food outlet it is. So they thought bringing in a farmer's market might help make up for that deficit. You know? But they came across a lot of the same problems that are prevented. Business owners from coming in and wanting to invest in these poorer communities which is that these mainstream organic and commercial farmers who go to a lot of farmer's markets around the county didn't want to set up this necessarily because they were afraid, rightfully so, perhaps that they couldn't totally recoop their costs because they're in a poorer community. I think Anchi might take issue on that based on what's happened in City Heights and the success they have had there. But what they are trying to do in southeastern San Diego is to make up for this in part now that the City Council has loosened the community garden regulations. They started a community garden on a piece of vacant property that up until now they couldn't use. And start supplying the farmer's market from within their own neighborhood. That's one very real example of how these recent law changes are allowing neighborhoods to become more self sustaining food economies.

CAVANAUGH: We have another guest on the line. Dan Joyce is senior planning for the City of San Diego. Hello Dan.

JOYCE: Hello, Maureen. Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Thanks for doing this. I'm wondering, how is the city working with urban farming advocates?

JOYCE: Closely. I'll put it that way. We've been working with Anchi. Hi.

MEI: Hey Dan.

JOYCE: And a lot of advocates for their own special interest areas, especially with animal husbandry. So we've been working closely. Innocent, we had a fairly productive meeting yesterday for two and a half hours to discuss where we think we want to go with our new group of regulations, which deal with retail farms, farmer's markets, and husbandry as it relates to keeping of chickens goats and even bee hives.

CAVANAUGH: What kinds of considerations will the City of San Diego be weighing when they make those decisions about people being able to keep chickens or bee hives? Even I heard something about Pygmy goats. That might be on the table too. Or being able to sell the produce that they grow in their front lawn on their front lawn. What do you expect to hear from not only advocates but neighbors in these communities?

JOYCE: One of the first things we start to look at is if we're going to allow these sorts of activity, first what should the limits be? And another thing is what kind of impacts do these produce? Are there issues with odors from the chickens or the goats? Safety issues related to bees? For produce, typically in residential zones we don't allow sales because it attracts traffic to the residential neighborhoods. But that doesn't mean that someone could have some of these things in their home and sell it some place else.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as you mentioned, there are some people who would think there are pretty good reasons to prohibit things like this. And that's why the city has prohibited them. Why is the city thinking of changing this now?

JOYCE: I think one of the big things is we're really looking to increase access to local, healthy foods. It makes sense for a whole lot of reasons. Currently things like eggs are grown at, I would say maybe an egg factory, so to speak. Then they're shipped to some place for p.m., then they go to the grocery store, then they come back here. The carbon we're creating by packaging and sending foods all these distances doesn't make sense if we can do it locally.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Adrian, it's not just the City of San Diego that's getting involved in this. There was recently a story out of the assistant district attorney of Santee about the idea of considering letting residents keep chickens upon tell us about that.

FLORIDO: It was kind of a funny story, actually. Back in June, the mayor wanted to allow backyard chickens there because I think you could only have one chicken for every 2,000 square feet of property you had. So he came to the City Council and said let's allow people to have chickens in their backyard as long as they have them in a pen, and a 50-foot setback or something. Interestingly, that's something that the assistant district attorney City of San Diego is trying to change. But in Santee, that's what they were proposing. The mayor wasn't successful in getting the majority of the City Council to support this proposition because there were concerns similar to the ones that you just mentioned. So that looked dead. And then one of the City Council members, Jack Dale, came back, and someone had given him a couple of chickens. He was one of the ones who hadn't supported it. And after spending a little time with his chickens real, hey, these aren't as bad as I expected them to be. And the City Council meeting I think projected a picture of his hen. And said these actually don't even make as much noise as my dogs do. And they took up again of whether the City Council should allow backyard chickens in Santee. And the city staff is now drafting that proposal to bring this back to the City Council in the next couple of months. And it looks like it will probably have the support of the City Council there.

CAVANAUGH: As you mention with the farmers markets, this is county wide. All these discussions are happening in different cities and areas all across San Diego County. How is this going to -- if these measures go through, Anchi, what would you -- it's going to change the way San Diego looks, right? So how -- can you describe to us what you envision for San Diego when it's easier for people to start growing their own food?

MEI: Absolutely. I'd call that a neighborhood food system. It's taking local to another level where we'll have a much more livable, vibrant, and sustainable network of neighborhoods that are all produce, selling, and eating food grown locally. And in city height, we're starting to already see that. When we can have food grown down the block and sold on another block, and by neighbors to neighbors and really having a sense of community out of it, but also economics, I think that's really the bases of the future food system, and we're really excited about the income potential of this, because especially for refugees and low income communities, this is a way of income patching and lively hood of farming, and we all are going to need a lot more food in the future with a lot more people. And so there's a lot more potential to really build the urban agriculture as a way to have a complete food system that can be really local.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I am really surprised, but we are out of time. I want to thank you by guests so much. I've been speaking with voice of San Diego reporter Adrian Florido, Anchi Mei with the IRC in San Diego, and San Diego City planner Dan Joyce. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

JOYCE: Thanks for having us.

FLORIDO: Thank you.

MEI: Thank you.