More than 300 people packed the North Oakland Senior Center on Thursday evening to discuss the future of urban agriculture in Oakland. The forum, organized by Oakland’s planning and zoning division, is the city’s latest effort to gain public input on updating its urban farming regulations.
According to Eric Angstadt, the city’s deputy director of planning and zoning who hosted the meeting, the current code related to urban farming “has its main roots in 1965, when there was a greatly different idea about what was appropriate behavior around agriculture.” For example, he said, while personal consumption of urban agricultural products is allowed under today’s laws, an expensive Conditional Use Permit is required if people want to sell their products. “Growing and processing food can be a good path to business ownership as well as entrepreneurship,” Angstadt said, adding that the upcoming update will lower the fee to a much affordable level and greatly simplify the permission application process.
The update, however, will only involve farming activities on individual properties, not in public parks, which may be considered by the Office of Parks and Recreation in the future. The issue of growing food in public parks was raised in June when Phat Beets Produce was asked to obtain a Conditional Use Permit to continue growing fruit and vegetables at the city-owned Dover Street Park in North Oakland.
While the city’s effort to update its agricultural regulations was welcomed by most of the attendants on Thursday, many came to the meeting to debate whether animal husbandry should be included in the city’s new blueprint for urban agriculture.
The debate over backyard husbandry has been broad and complex, touching on issues of animal welfare, public health, environmental sustainability and neighborhood nuisances. The city’s updated definition of urban agriculture includes animal farming, but according to the materials provided at the meeting by the city, the current regulations on raising animals for food are “confusing, contradictory or vague.” Farmers are sometimes unsure of the types and quantity of animals they can raise as well as other requirements, the materials stated.
A high profile example of this uncertainty over what can be raised—and sold—occurred in March when author and urban homesteader Novella Carpenter, who has raised goats, chickens and ducks at her Ghost Town Farm in West Oakland, was warned that she could be fined for selling agricultural products without a permit. Carpenter said she hadn’t realized that a rabbit pie she’d donated to a fundraiser was considered a “sale.” (Carpenter is a graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, which runs Oakland North.)
At Thursday’s meeting, supporters of urban animal husbandry argued that people who raise animals for food treat them with respect, and wish to be independent of the industrial meat production, which is often associated with animal cruelty and other health issues. “I can’t afford the high-end products that are the safer or more humane products, but I can afford to raise my own,” said Esperanza Pallana, who operates an urban farm near Lake Merritt and runs the Pluck & Feather farming blog. “This is an issue about how we access the food we eat in a way that’s ecologically appropriate and humane.”
Aaron Lehmer, a member of Oakland Food Policy Council, an advisory group to the city council, said it’s important to honor people’s cultural heritage as well as personal choices to raise their own meat. However, Lehmer said, the OFPC only supports butchering animals in residential areas for personal consumption. “To sell meat, you have to have it slaughtered and processed in a federally inspected facility in commercial or industrial zones,” he said.
Others in favor of animal husbandry said they believe that raising animals is a good education opportunity for children to know where their food comes from.
But opponents of urban animal husbandry said that instead of trying to clarify the regulations, the city should not allow it at all. Some argued that it could cause too many nuisances, such as odor, noise, public health issues or animal welfare concerns. Others said that given the city’s financial difficulties and shrinking resources, it would be too difficult for the city staff to oversee. The city currently relies on its code enforcement division and the Animal Services department to enforce regulations on animal raising.
“It looks like the planning department is passing off [the enforcement responsibilities] to Animal Services,” said Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, who runs a vegan advocacy group called Compassionate Cooks. “We just cut the budget for the Oakland Animal Services for dogs and cats we can’t take care of. And this sounds like ‘Let’s just let these hobbyists have animals and then let the animal shelter take care of what they can’t.’”
“If we do come up with all these regulations, how will they be enforced?” asked Tim Anderson, a Temescal resident. Anderson added that if the city needed to rely on neighbors to ensure enforcement of the regulations, “I have no idea what a sick chicken looks like.”
The draft proposal to update the municipal codes on urban farming is expected to be finished in October, according to Angstadt, who said that at least five more public meetings will be held before the final proposal goes to the city council in December.
“If you know someone who missed the [Thursday’s] meeting, don’t worry,” Angstadt said. “There will be plenty of opportunities to make your voice heard.”
To submit your comments on urban agriculture regulations, you can email StrategicPlanning@oaklandnet.com.