by Cole Mellino
Urban homesteading, in which households grow their own food and often raise animals for food in an urban environment, is becoming more and more popular as people decide to opt out of our globalized, industrialized agricultural system.
Concerned about the state of agriculture and the impact our farming methods are having on the environment, a growing number of people are doing it themselves — often in the urban setting. But growing large amounts of food and raising animals in an urban or suburban area can cause conflict too.
There is mounting pressure on cities to update old zoning laws that place restrictions on urban homesteading. In many cities, practices such as beekeeping, selling produce, and raising and slaughtering animals for food are outlawed. Those who want to change the laws argue that it’s a basic right to be able to produce one’s food. Those who are opposed raise concerns about animal welfare, cleanliness, safety, noise and general unsightliness.
Oakland has become the key battleground between these competing groups.
As of November 3, citizens of Oakland can sell the fruits and vegetables they grow at home. Oakland City Council just re-wrote its 46-year-old zoning code to allow Oaklanders to directly sell their produce to one another. City officials are in the process of creating rules on how big urban farms can get, when and where people can sell their produce, and whether residents can slaughter animals for food.
This last part, backyard slaughter, is highly controversial. In Oakland, a group called Neighbors Opposed to Backyard Slaughter (NoBS) has formed to speak out against the pending laws. NoBS fears that neophyte farmers will abuse or neglect the animals or improperly dispose of their waste. Many urban homesteaders, such as Kitty Sharkey, who raises chickens, ducks, dairy goats, rabbits, quail and bees, are quick to defend their practices. Sharkey takes extra care to clean up animal waste and to ensure that her birds are safe from predators at night. She received extensive training in proper slaughter techniques at a farm in Sonoma County before she ever killed a chicken on her own.
However, it’s not even clear under the city’s old code whether backyard slaughter is unlawful. Law enforcement only gets involved if a neighbor complains. So Sharkey and many other Oaklanders will continue to harvest their own food. But if they had the support of the city, especially in allowing direct sale of food from resident to resident, they’d be even happier and Oakland’s impact on the earth would be a little lighter.
Hopefully, more municipalities will adopt smart, progressive laws that allow for an increase in urban homesteading — allowing potential farmers to be good stewards of the earth and good neighbors.
— Cole Mellino is an intern with the energy team at the Center for American Progress