Many Oakland urban farmers raise animals for a healthier, more sustainable and cheaper source of food, and their backyard farms can foster positive relationships between neighbors, according to a recent report on urban livestock practices in the city.
The Oakland Urban Livestock Report was published mid-September by Esperanza Pallana, co-founder of the East Bay Urban Agriculture Alliance, and Nathan McClintock, a member of the Oakland Food Policy Council, which studies the city’s food system and makes policy recommendations to city officials. A total of 36 people in Oakland responded to on-line survey questions, and their answers were the foundation of the report.
“Urban farmers are keeping their animals in a healthy environment, where we can access food in a way that feels appropriate,” said Pallana, who is also the owner of Pluck and Feather urban farm in Oakland. “The animals are healthy and happy.”
In Oakland, urban farmers can legally grow food and raise certain animals, like chickens and rabbits, on their property for personal use. Currently, farmers cannot sell their products unless they pay a one-time fee—about $2,800—for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP). However, this may change at Tuesday’s city council meeting, when the council is scheduled to vote on changes to zoning laws that would allow urban farmers to sell produce from their homes. Regulations concerning animals will not be discussed Tuesday; the city council is considering the issue of urban livestock as part of a wider update to urban agriculture policies.
The zoning update is the latest move by city officials to develop clearer regulations for urban farming in Oakland. In March, the Planning and Zoning Department updated zoning codes for the first time since 1965, allowing urban farmers to grow crops in larger areas and raise small animals such as rabbits. Chickens, on the other hand, have always been allowed.
Pallana and McClintock developed their survey to gather more information on urban livestock practices, and circulated it online by contacting national food policy councils, the national food listserv CommFood, and various homesteading organizations and urban feed stores. They received 134 responses nationally from 48 different cities. Pallana said she will submit the national survey data for publication this fall to the Journal of the American Planning Association.
“This was an exploratory survey,” she said. “The Oakland report is just meant to be a quick snapshot of what people are practicing.”
Pallana said the report was done to fill an information gap—she said her survey was “one of the first to collect information on the conditions, management practices and neighborhood impacts of urban livestock keepers.” Pallana and McClintock gathered information about the number of animals urban farmers keep, how often they clean the pens, whether they process meat on-site, and how their neighbors react.
According to survey results, about half of the Oakland respondents raise chickens and other small fowl, 50 percent keep bees, and very few have rabbits and goats. Pallana herself keeps chickens, turkeys, rabbits and bees in her backyard farm near Lake Merritt.
The survey also found that a majority of respondents keep livestock in order to have a healthier, more sustainable and cheaper source of food, by consuming the honey, eggs, milk or meat from their own animals.
Most have never had a neighbor complain about their practices. About half said their urban farms help build community through food and meal sharing.
“It is completely overlooked that having animals in your space is a community building endeavor,” Pallana said. “People are curious, they want to learn more.” Pallana said she invites her neighbors into her urban farm and to her house for meals, to show them how she raises her animals and grows her produce.
Although Pallana shares and trades her food, she cannot legally sell her surplus from the garden because of the expense of the CUP. However, she said interim zoning changes will soon make selling food grown at home a lot cheaper. “Oakland is going through a current update right now that would enable me to do that with a home occupation permit, which is about $40,” she said.
If the zoning update is approved Tuesday, urban farmers who grow food on their own property will be allowed to sell their produce with the more economical home occupation permit. This update will not, however, extend that right to public parks, an issue raised last June when Phat Beets Produce was told they needed a CUP to continue growing fruit and vegetables at Dover Street Park in North Oakland.
The current re-zoning also has nothing to do with livestock—Oakland’s Planning and Zoning department will examine this issue separately. Although Oakland’s definition of urban agriculture does include animal farming, the current regulations on how many and what kind of animals are allowed can be confusing and vague, Pallana said.
The uncertainty over what can be raised and sold came to the forefront in March when urban farmer Novella Carpenter—who has raised goats, chickens and ducks at her Ghost Town Farm in West Oakland and is the author of the book “Farm City”—donated a rabbit pie to a fundraiser and was then warned by the city that she could be fined for selling agricultural products without a permit.
Some opponents of urban animal farming argue that, rather than clarifying regulations, the city council should not allow livestock in the city. Raising backyard animals has been a controversial topic—in July, Oakland’s planning and zoning division held a public meeting to discuss urban livestock, where some residents argued that raising animals in the city might cause nuisances like noise and bad odors, as well as public health and animal welfare issues.
Pallana said opponents of urban agriculture and livestock need more education about the potential benefits of an urban farm, along with the methods used by urban farmers and the measures they take to prevent negative effects on their neighbors. The Oakland Urban Livestock Report has been circulated among Oakland city councilmembers and is available to the public.
Read the Oakland Urban Livestock Report here.