Urban Right To Farm Laws

Causaubon’s Book

This is a lightly revised version of a previous essay of mine from ’09, but I wanted to run it again because I have more to say about this subject after the holidays, in part because this is starting to become an emerging reality, with several muncipalities trying create model urban-right-to-farm laws, and a legal conference last year taking up the subject. In parallel, in Britain, there’s an emerging movement to create “Transition-Friendly” legislation that would open up possibilities for a wide range of Transition activities without requiring legal challenges for each, and barring nuisance law suits. There is an emerging recognition that one of the things we need is to remove barriers to small scale subsistence activities in urban and suburban areas. So I’m re-running this piece, in part as background, for another essay refining this idea in early January.

One of the things I’ve been saying for a long time is that we’re going to need to address zoning questions early in the process of adaptation. Our world has so many people, and the global north tends to hold uncritical assumptions that subsistance activities are dangerous, unattractive nuisances that should be removed as much as possible from places where people live. At the extremes are barriers to things like clotheslines or even food plants in front yards, things that require us to consume more resources and pollute more.

Over the last few decades, rural areas, in response to suburbanization and an influx of new residents who enjoyed rural vistas but weren’t comfortable with the realities of rural life like manure, slow hay wagons and other material realities, have found themselves fighting these battles.

What began to emerge in the 1970s were right-to-farm laws, which protected existing farms from common-law nuisance suits around normal, accepted agricultural practices. I would argue that the state-wide right to farm law that pre-empts local zoning (as it does in some states) or the local right-to-farm laws that cover a range of activities and spare farmers from having to establish their right to keep chickens, then pigs, then cows, then spread manure is a model that we need to take seriously as self-provisioning becomes more necessary.

Obviously in city centers, standard right to farm laws can’t be applied wholesale. First of all, most of the farms have been removed – that is, we’re not talking about protecting existing farmers, but enabling new ones. Thus, the “sniff before you move” test can’t be applied here. Second of all, I think we can all reasonably agree that some kinds of agricultural and livestock production are probably not appropriate in urban environments, and that living in cities requires a high degree of accomodation of others.

That said, however, 5 of the 6 largest US cities permit chickens in backyards. Many have minimal or no restrictions on urban livestock – there are goats in LA and pigs in Brooklyn, and chickens nearly everywhere, and people manage to get along quite well. A friend of mine has 5 acres in an affluent suburb of Boston (it wasn’t affluent when she bought them), and has horses, goats, a pig, chickens, turkeys and geese that you would never know were there – there have been no difficulties with noise or odor. I know another person with three cows inside the city limits of Evanston.

But there are also cities that permit no livestock, not even poultry – as Gene Logsdon has put it, “you can have a barking, crapping dog the size of a pony, but not three quiet hens.” In other cities, there may be elaborate and excessive laws that benefit neither residents nor the city that has to enforce them – for example, in Beverly, MA, where my mother and step-mother keep 4 hens, they were required to get permission from every single one of their abutters, to have their property inspected, and have a yearly inspection by the town vet. Any increase in flock size requires more queries, more permissions, more visits. Meanwhile, the next town over has a “six chickens per household” flat policy – no inspections. Given the cost in time and effort to her city, as well as the barrier having to approach your neighbors, this process really ought to be streamlined.

The same goes for gardening – some cities and suburbs restrict front yard food gardening, or don’t permit the use of sidewalk marginal strips, to which ornamental gardeners have full access, to be planted in food plants. The reality is that growing food is at least as beautiful as flowers, and we need to change those laws.

We also need to clarify laws about water use and capture, that make home scale agriculture possible in the dryer parts of the US – rainbarrels should be permitted in every state and city in the US. In many cases, the dryest parts of the US are subject to heavy rains, when they come, and large portions of the rain is lost into flooding on asphalt and overflowing storm sewers – allowing homeowners to capture rainwater is an essential part of the picture of creating sustainable cities.

Moreover, some cities make no distinction between lawn watering and food garden watering – Gary Nabhan, in “Coming Home to Eat” his book about living the 250 mile diet in one of the dryest areas of the country cites research that confirms that sustainable home food production uses less regional water than trucked in produce – the high water cost of most electrical generation means that growing appopriately and water sensitively in your yard, less water in total than buying produce that was shipped and held under refrigeration.

In the city of Albany, there is presently a challenge going on to the prohibitions of chickens within the city limits. In fact, these prohibitions have not successfully prevented people from having chickens, they have merely made them vulnerable to reporting by neighbors. This challenge emerged precisely because some people who had been violating the poultry laws without causing any disruption, problem or unhappiness in neighbors decided that they wished to be legitimized.

My mother and step-mother who hold an annual open-house every May to teach people about the local poultry laws and how to accomodate them were astonished, when the first such weekend event occurred, to discover just how many people in their small city have chickens already, most without permits. It is a waste of time for Albany residents and residents everywhere else to have to fight out their right to have chickens, to hang laundry, to put gardens in their front yards, when there is a way to obviate these time and energy consuming debates and establish basic, appropriate guidelines that recognize the right of people to consume less, feed themselves and meet their own basic needs as long as they do no harm to others.

What is needed, then is a set of consistent legal parameters that can be applied in cities and suburbsthroughout the country. These should be pointed to as a reasonable norm, that protect the neighbors of city dwellers within reason, but that also balance that protection with the right to practice subsistence activities, and the recognition that urban dwellers already accept nuisances of all sorts as part of living with neighbors. That barking dog next door, the cats that pee on the back fence, the rumble of trucks delivering to the grocery store, the traffic pollution are not inherently any less troubling than the laundry on the line – we’re just used to them. If we’re going to complain about the smell of a neighbor’s rabbits, it would have to be an abnormally strong smell – not the earthy smell of reasonably kept rabbit cages, which is less strong than the smell of diesel exhaust to which most urban dwellers are accustomed, and, which unlike mild natural odor of the rabbits, indicates unhealthy and dangerous conditions.

I’m not a lawyer, and these guidelines would need to be drafted appropriately by one, but I’d love to see some discussion here about the appropriate way to begin establishing an urban right-to-farm movement, and the appropriate parameters for one. Because in our increasingly poorer world, it cannot be left to an accident of geography – where our jobs or our family are – to decide whether we are to have enough good and safe food to eat, or whether we can use less and share more.

One Comment

My aim is to be able to keep dairy goats in town. My reasons are many-food security for my neighbors, real world experiences for the kids, increased community involvement, sustainable farming for me. The prejudice against goats is amazing-‘ewww goats! yuck! scary! I try to tell people “hey you like these chickens, these chickens would love the scrap milk and whey from cheese making, goats and chickens and gardens go together”. Goats are safer for humans to be around than dogs, (less leadership skills needed) and more sustainable (weed eaters). We need transition friendly laws so that people can create their own green jobs.