Ohlone Community Garden in Berkeley. Photo: Stuart Luman

A new set of zoning and rule changes governing urban agriculture in Berkeley officially went into effect on Aug. 23. The new rules encourage small-scale and larger-scale urban farming throughout the city.

Berkeley property owners who want to start a community garden, lead small-sized farming classes or workshops on their property, or produce vegetables and fruit for donation or sale are now able to do so without going to the city for a permit. For larger-scale farming projects, the newly passed ordinance will reduce the cost of necessary permits to roughly $1,000 and streamline the administrative process, according to Steven Buckley, Berkeley’s land use planning manager.

Kids at work at the Edible Schoolyard at King Middle School, Berkeley. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Previously, the city allowed community gardens only on city-owned land, which were overseen by the Ecology Center. These gardens are located at Berkeley schools, including at King Middle School’s Edible Schoolyard Project, and at several other gardens in city parks and other city-owned properties. Larger-scale farming was prohibited except in manufacturing and mixed manufacturing districts that exist only in West Berkeley and required a time-consuming and expensive permitting process. An example is Urban Adamah, a Jewish community farm and education center, which is located at Sixth and Harrison streets on the border of Albany.

“For [Urban Adamah] we had to make up rules that didn’t exist,” Buckley said. “We had to say what they were doing was not described anywhere else in zoning, we had to make a new land use to cover them and get it approved by the zoning board as a one-off special use. That’s what we’re trying to avoid, going through a $5,000 land-use process.”

The ordinance allows for community gardening and farming on both public and private land and provides rules governing the growth and sale of vegetables, fruits, lightly processed foods such as jam or preserves, and flowers and herbs. It does not, however, cover the raising of animals, which is governed by other Berkeley regulations, and it does not cover cannabis cultivation, which is covered by state law.

“You can have urban agriculture in the city, it’s happened in other cities and it can happen in Berkeley as well,” said Corinne Haskins, Berkeley Community Gardening Collaborative’s project director, which works with the Ecology Center to support community gardens throughout Berkeley. “Now the difference is that you’ll have the city back you up [because of the new ordinance].”

Similar urban agriculture rules have been instituted in Oakland, San Francisco, Sacramento and elsewhere in California and the country. The city of Berkeley makes a distinction between low-impact urban agriculture, which does not need a permit, and high-intensity urban agriculture, which are larger-sized farms. Low-impact farming can be done without special permits on pieces of land that are 7,500 square feet or smaller, that have farming-related structures covering no more than 20% of the property, that are used from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. any day of the week, and that have classes and workshops with no more than 20 participants. If a proposed urban farm were to exceed any of these “thresholds” — or if the farm wanted use pesticides — it would require a permit from the city.

Although permitting on small-scale farms is not required, any food sold or donated for human consumption is governed by all applicable food safety and health laws, according to the ordinance. The new rules also govern the use and removal of compost and garbage and the use of heavy farm equipment, which is prohibited except for initial landscaping or preparation of the land for farming. Likewise, nuisance complaints for noises, smells, dirt, etc., would be enforced by the city’s existing code enforcement division.

Urban Adamah in Berkeley is an educational farm and community center. Photo: Urban Adamah

Even though there is no new funding allocated for this ordinance, Buckley believes the new regulations will make it easier for city officials to enforce because it codifies the rules and reduces administrative workload. However, he did warn that when it comes to the safety of food sold from such farms it’s strictly “buyer beware.” “You have to trust that the people doing these things are doing them well,” he said. “It’s meant to be self-enforcing. People know the rules and they must enforce the rules.”

The planning commission has been working on making these changes since 2016 when then Councilman — now Mayor — Jesse Arreguín, proposed the rule change. With more than half of the global population living in cities — and a projected two-thirds by 2050 — urban agriculture is a movement on the rise. It has spread through California cities and in other urban centers such as Detroit and Chicago as a way to make vacant or derelict land productive, to eliminate or reduce food deserts where communities lack basic access to fresh foods, and to shorten the distance between farm and table and reduce CO2 emissions. Reducing Berkeley’s carbon footprint was a major reason put forward when Arreguín proposed rezoning to allow urban agriculture in Berkeley, citing the city’s Climate Action Plan that imagines a future where a majority of Berkeley’s food is grown locally.

Rob Bennaton, UC Cooperative Extension’s Bay Area urban agriculture advisor, who attended planning meetings and offered expert testimony during the city’s deliberations, says that the new zoning rules are a great first step, but he’d like to see more done. He suggests that the city hire two to three full-time agriculturists to offer technical advice and other assistance to would-be urban farmers.

“Establishing the zoning regulations is one thing, but establishing a program with staff that really fosters these open spaces begins with people in the know who can do it,” Bennaton said. “You’ve got to house that process in an agency with staff to do that, [otherwise existing] staff will just have more work to do.”

Stuart Luman is a freelance writer based in Berkeley. He has previously been an editor at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a fact checker at Wired Magazine, and a high school English teacher in East...