Sophie Hahn, founder, Berkeley Edible Garden Initiative

Should city dwellers be allowed to sell their backyard bounty?

Sophie Hahn thinks so. The North Berkeley resident wants to share the abundance from her residential produce plot and offset some costs she incurs maintaining her edible garden.

But Hahn ran into hiccups with the city last year trying to get her idea off the ground. “I had no idea it would be so complicated,” she says. “It’s actually easier in Berkeley to have a pot collective than to have a vegetable collective,” a frustrated Hahn told  a New York Times reporter in August.

Or pretty much any other home-based business. That’s because Berkeley’s zoning codes prohibit selling or otherwise conducting commerce outside a house in a residential neighborhood. Never mind that many residents (this writer included) toil from inside their homes. City codes allow for small, low-to-moderate impact home businesses, such as piano teachers, explains Dan Marks, director of planning and development for the city.

But outdoor activities where cash changes hands remain a no-go. The laws are designed to protect the quality of residential communities from traffic and parking problems, as well as offensive or objectionable noise, odors, heat, or dirt.

Fair enough. Still, Hahn was hardly about to set up a produce stand and solicit customers via a bullhorn in her sleepy, leafy corner of the world. Her forty-by-sixty foot micro farm produces only enough food for about five or six families. She just wanted to charge a weekly fee for a basket of food, modeled along the lines of what local farmers do with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes, where residents pay a subscription in return for regular deliveries of fresh, seasonal eats.

Willow Rosenthal harvests Sophie Hahn's garden. Photo: Sarah Henry

Hahn and her supporters find it ironic that such obstacles to urban agriculture exist in a city that included building a local food system as part of its long-term Climate Action Plan.

An attorney by training, PTA president at King Middle School, and former City Council candidate, Hahn wanted to go the legitimate route. She did approach city officials about what it would take to get an exemption to the current code, but decided that the cost, public hearing, and wait period was prohibitive.

For Hahn, putting the land behind her home to good use was a no-brainer. Still, it’s not cheap: there’s the initial set-up costs, including garden bed construction, drip irrigation, animal, seed and plant purchases — in addition to ongoing payments for the two farmers who tend the garden.

Since Hahn is not a green thumb herself, she hired urban gardener Willow Rosenthal to turn her terraced, sloping backyard of ugly sod into a thriving produce garden. Eight planter boxes boast leafy greens like chard, lettuce, and kale, root vegetables, and herbs. There’s a compost bin for green waste, a chicken coop, a dozen or so hens — and more food than Hahn’s family of five can eat. It’s a clean, green, quiet, productive plot.

Plenty of other local residents grow veggies, raise chickens, and keep bees for their own use, of course, and some admit to bartering with neighbors or selling surplus on the sly to friends and acquaintances — or even to local food businesses and restaurants.

But Hahn, a longtime Berkeley dweller, is the first of a new breed of Berkeley D.I.Y. urban homesteaders to cultivate controversy by challenging what she sees as an arcane law.  Needless to say, changing city code is a lengthy and complex process, but not without precedent. In San Francisco a similarly restrictive zoning code was recently overhauled, after an outpouring of support for Little City Gardens, which ran into pushback there when it tried to expand.

Elsewhere around the country, cities including Detroit, Kansas City, Mo., and Seattle have recently relaxed bans on produce selling by farmers.

Guerrilla gardener Novella Carpenter. Photo: Sarah Henry

Following a citizen complaint, ghetto grower, Farm City author and Berkeley business owner Novella Carpenter was recently singled out by officials in Oakland, for selling chard without a business license at her pop-up farmers’ market stand at her Ghost Town Farm, and keeping livestock (rabbits, goats, and chickens) without a conditional use permit.

A community outcry ensued for the iconic urban farmer. As of yesterday, revised Oakland city codes no longer prohibit Carpenter from peddling her greens.  But selling chickens, ducks and rabbits is still illegal, since the new laws don’t apply to livestock. (Carpenter has previously made rabbit potpies available by donation.) The city will return to the issue in coming months and judging by comments on Carpenter’s blog, sympathetic press coverage, and support for the guerrilla gardener from allies like the Oakland Food Policy Council, officials can expect a healthy show of support during public comment.

Marks concedes urban agriculture code changes may be happening faster in other Bay Area cities because of community backing for high-profile cases. There’s simply not been that kind of outpouring of support in Berkeley, says Marks, adding there are no plans to tackle the matter any time soon as it remains a low priority for his department.

Such sentiment doesn’t sit well with Hahn. Berkeley’s residential gardens are a significant untapped resource for the production of fresh food for the the community, she says. Hahn has founded the Berkeley Edible Garden Initiative to put pressure on the city to update codes so small-scale ventures like her own can operate. Hahn has the support of fellow residents, including councilmember Jesse Arreguin, author Michael Pollan, and the Ecology Center, whose magazine Terrain first reported on her dilemma last Spring.  Supporters can register online on behalf of Hahn’s cause.

“I value and want to protect the residential quality of our neighborhoods,” Hahn says. “I think we can do that while still allowing reasonable economic activity associated with a social good — in this case growing fresh food to share.”

For now, Hahn gives her excess greens to grateful neighbors for gratis.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.

Urban farmer Willow Rosenthal plants seeds in Berkeley [3.4.11]
Berkeley Bites: Jim Montgomery, Green Faerie Farms [10.29.10]
Berkeley Bites: Novella Carpenter [04.30.10]
Garden teacher Kim Allen offers youth space to grow [01.21.11]