January 2, 2013

Natural Foodie: A Johnny Appleseed for the 21st century

By Avery Yale Kamila akamila@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

Roger Doiron used this graphic and other outreach methods to lead a successful campaign to see a kitchen garden planted on the White House lawn.

Photo illustration courtesy of Roger Doiron

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Jason and Jennifer Helvenston of Orlando, Fla., were ordered to remove this front-yard vegetable garden by local officials who said it was in violation of city code. Kitchen Gardeners International, based in Maine, launched an online campaign to help them, and within 48 hours the city announced that it was reversing its decision and that the Helvenstons would be allowed to keep their garden.

Photo courtesy of Jason Helvenston



SCHOOL AND COMMUNITY garden organizers can apply for a package of seeds, tools and cash with a value of $600. Applications are due Jan. 11. To apply visit www.sowitforward.org.


SARAH SCHINDLER, associate law professor at the University of Maine School of Law, authored a paper in the Tulane Law Review earlier this year examining how the growing locavore movement is coming into conflict with zoning ordinances. The paper examines how municipalities are responding to property owners who want to raise their own food in urban and suburban settings. It also looks at why these bans exist and the changing societal needs that make them outdated. It concludes with guidance for municipalities who want to modernize their zoning ordinances. Here she answers a few questions about her work:

Did your research provide any gauge of how widespread zoning restrictions are on residential agriculture, such as front yard gardens and backyard chickens?

I did not conduct an empirical study or 50 state survey. Rather, my research assistant and I looked for newspaper articles that discussed municipalities where there was some conflict or debate about the existing or newly proposed urban agriculture ordinances and went from there. I also looked to some of the standard land use "thought leader" cities to see what they were doing, as I have found that oftentimes something that starts as a "wacky" or progressive ordinance in a place like San Francisco or Portland, Oregon, can wind up spreading to other parts of the country after a few years.

Is this more of an issue in certain types of communities or certain parts of the country? Or is it an issue throughout the nation?

My research suggested that these ordinances exist throughout the country. And it is not just in the standard progressive municipalities that citizens are taking a stand against these urban agriculture bans and petitioning their local elected officials to overturn them. It's fairly widespread; more and more people seem to be seeking to incorporate locavorism into their lives.


Did your research reveal any trends in residential agricultural zoning? For instance, are bans on the increase, decrease or holding steady?

Again, it is hard to say because I didn't do a survey of ordinances. However, the bans do not seem to be universally in decline. As urban and suburban chicken-raising is becoming more popular, you actually see some concerned citizens proactively petitioning to get bans in place where none existed before. The other element we must consider here is that zoning isn't the last word. MANY people in the U.S now live in common interest communities that are governed by private recorded covenants, conditions and restrictions, or CC&Rs. If these are stricter than zoning ordinances and not against public policy, they control. So arguably, even if the local zoning code says you can have a front yard garden, if a restrictive covenant in your neighborhood restricts front yards to neatly mowed lawns, you're probably stuck with a lawn.

Could you sum up why you argue that bans on urban agriculture are out-of-date and fail to address modern challenges?

Although there are some valid reasons for banning urban agricultural uses, those justifications are often antiquated and outweighed by more current conceptions of appropriate land use. Zoning was created as a land use control technique whose purpose was to protect residential uses, and particularly single family homes, from other uses, like industrial and agricultural uses, that were viewed as incompatible and potentially harmful.

But our views of what is harmful and what is beneficial have changed over time. I would suggest that the harms associated with industrial agricultural production and lack of access to locally-produced food -- food insecurity, food deserts, obesity tied to processed foods, monoculture-induced catastrophes, harm to animals, and greenhouse gas emissions -- are more harmful than the risks associated with urban agriculture. And these harms could all be alleviated, at least in part, through urban agriculture. Further, municipalities have begun to recognize that traditional zoning techniques were a direct cause of sprawl and unsustainable development in the U.S.

Thus, many localities are moving away from those traditional zoning methods and toward the creation of mixed-use zones, which allow uses that were previously viewed as incompatible to locate along side one another.

I see the removal of urban agriculture bans as part of a broader trend in land use, where municipalities are moving away from strict, centralized legal authority and toward deregulation, or at least toward more inclusive views of which segments of society zoning should seek to protect.



This public chastising apparently struck a cord, because as Doiron said "it was really a matter of 48 hours from when we hit send (on an alert email to members) to when the director of sustainability for Orlando got out in front of some TV cameras saying 'We're not going to shut this garden down."'

Doiron doesn't see the fight over front yard gardens going away anytime soon, as individual communities continue to grapple with the conflict between traditionalist neighbors and the desires of more sustainably minded residents.

"We have to rethink the suburban and urban aesthetics and consider the possibility that what might have worked for the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s is not appropriate for the world we're currently living in," Doiron said.

In addition to fighting for the rights of gardeners, Doiron's organization is also working to help others create more gardens. Thanks to series of donations, Kitchen Gardeners International is offering 50 Sow It Forward grants worth $600 each to schools, community gardens, food pantries and other community groups wanting to start or maintain gardens.

"I'm really excited we're at this point where we can become an enabler of kitchen gardens," Doiron said. "We have a lot of amazing applications coming through, mostly from the U.S. and some from abroad."

The grants include seeds from the Ark Institute, supplies from Gardeners Supply Co., gardening books from Storey Publishing, online garden planning tools from GrowVeg.com and $300 in cash from the Johnson Ohana Charitable Trust.

Application must be submittedby Jan. 11.

While a single garden -- whether in a front yard or behind a school -- is a small act and may not seem like a big deal, Doiron is confident it has the potential to create big change.

"There's a cumulative effect if we all do some little things," Doiron said. "It adds up to something quite substantial."

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:


Twitter: AveryYaleKamilaPhoto courtesy of Jason Helvenston


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