Changing local policies can be daunting, whether you’re working alongside officials to create solutions, or engaging your community to fight for your collective rights. We’ve gathered three firsthand accounts of folks who’ve helped transform their place on the planet at the city and state levels. Common steps led to the success of all three: speaking up, including the community, finding allies, and persevering. We hope you’ll be inspired by them and know that, no matter how daunting, positive change is possible when we work together to achieve common goals.
Livestock and Pollinator Policy Changes in Lawrence, Kansas
When the conditions are right, planting a seed may be all it takes to reap a bounty. When making a case for urban agriculture in Lawrence, Kansas, the seed was a simple question about placing a bee hotel at a university farm site on the edge of town. The bounty turned out to be an opportunity to help define and build a set of policies specifically geared toward making urban agriculture more accessible. These policies would open the door for city residents to grow crops in their yards; sell their produce on-site; and keep goats, sheep, fowl, bees, and other small agricultural animals in town.
Organize the Effort
At the time, city policy didn’t allow for beehives within city limits, so the university that oversaw the student farm site was initially unwilling to have a bee hotel placed there. Knowing that a bee hotel for solitary bees is very different from an entire hive of honeybees, some of us began searching for solutions. Local grower Emily Ryan and I soon found ourselves at meetings for the Douglas County Food Policy Council, a diverse group of about 20 individuals who represent the many aspects of our local food landscape. The food council took our question about keeping bee hotels to the city of Lawrence. The city commissioners were interested in looking at urban agriculture as a whole because of the need to establish standards for the crop agriculture uses that were already allowed, so they initiated an amendment to the city code, and city/county planner Mary Miller worked with the food council to come up with a proposal. Before long, I became a representative on the food council as well.
To define what “urban agriculture” meant for local residents, we first needed to understand the needs and wants of our community. We sent out electronic surveys to inform our draft policy and then held a public forum to review it and gather comments. The feedback we received was invaluable and formed the foundation of our efforts. Not only did it give us a look into what folks wanted, but it also gave us a way to prioritize, introduced ideas we hadn’t considered, informed the public of what we were working toward, and strengthened our case when we presented our changes to the city commissioners.
Unexpectedly, our surveys revealed that people wanted some allowances the city already granted. This showed that an important aspect of having an effective policy is having an equally effective way to communicate and share those policy changes with the community. To get the word out, the Douglas County Food Policy Council teamed up with the county sustainability office and Emily Ryan to create easy-to-understand booklets and brochures outlining the urban agriculture policy changes to pass out to community members. The city of Lawrence also made these materials available on its website.
Anticipate Hurdles, Then Overcome Them
While we had the support of the city commission, that doesn’t mean we didn’t face hurdles. It’s the commissioners’ duty to look out for the interests of the community as a whole, and while we had a strong case, there were many questions to answer and perspectives to consider. Of all the changes that were proposed, the major sticking points surrounded small animal agriculture within city limits. Concerns included everything from zoonotic diseases to what organization would be responsible for picking up a goat if it got loose in town. We began seeking answers. We contacted the state veterinarian about the zoonotic-disease concern; got in touch with the animal shelter about loose goats (which they wouldn’t take; however, we were able to collaborate with a local farmer to create a temporary solution); and reached out to other cities that allowed agricultural animals to gather their perspectives and establish precedence. After months of outreach, meetings, and policy revisions, we finally gained approval from the city commission, and the policies were officially adopted.
Engage the Community to Help Ensure Success
Throughout this process, everyone involved learned a lot about our community and about the strategies that helped us positively affect city policy. Perhaps the most important ingredient for success in this case was including and engaging the community right from the beginning. The more people and organizations you can include in the process, the better chance you stand of succeeding. The city commission didn’t approve all the changes we advocated for, but it did approve most of them, and that was a huge victory. Every step forward is progress, and what we weren’t able to achieve this time may be achievable next time. When all was said and done, folks within the city of Lawrence were able to grow and sell vegetables in their front yards, keep bees and other small agricultural animals in town, and start urban farms. And on top of all these great changes, now, to my knowledge, Lawrence is the first city in the United States to specifically allow (and encourage) the keeping of bee hotels within city limits without restriction.
Baked Goods Policy Changes in Wisconsin
My journey took me all the way from my kitchen to the courthouse, as I and three fellow farmer friends successfully sued the state of Wisconsin to lift a ban on selling cookies and other baked goods.
Championing cottage food opportunities and the right for people to sell home-baked goods has been my passion for the past five years in Wisconsin. I first learned about cottage food when Wisconsin passed the “Pickle Bill” back in 2010, allowing the sale of high-acid canned goods, such as pickles and sauerkraut, made in home kitchens. I immediately fell in love with the possibility of selling food items without the expense and regulatory burden of a commercial kitchen. However, selling homemade baked goods in Wisconsin was illegal. Oddly, I could legally serve muffins made in my home kitchen to guests at Inn Serendipity, a small bed-and-breakfast my family and I have run for over 20 years, but I couldn’t sell those same muffins to someone because of the baked goods ban. My frustration started percolating, and I felt compelled to take action.
First Stop: Legislative Branch
With the Wisconsin Farmers Union (an organization that advocates for farmers and rural businesses) and a coalition of home bakers, we worked with our local state legislators to introduce in 2013 what we called the “cookie bill,” expanding our state’s cottage food opportunities to include nonhazardous baked goods.
Our cookie bill initially received strong bipartisan support and passed the Wisconsin State Senate unanimously. However, when the bill moved over to the Wisconsin State Assembly, it came to a screeching halt. Speaker Robin Vos never put the bill on the agenda for a vote, something apparently in his power to do, and the cookie bill died. It was an unexpected curveball that one individual in the Assembly had the power to control whether our bill, which received strong public support, would continue through the process. Vos had no interest in meeting with us or collaboratively working toward a solution. It was time to regroup and plan a new strategy.
Next Stop: Judicial Branch
Here’s where democracy works in our favor — we have three branches of government: legislative, judicial, and executive. When the legislative side failed us, we turned to the judicial.
The Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm that champions cases that hit unjust legal barriers, approached me and two of my farmer friends, Kriss Marion and Dela Ends, to file a lawsuit on behalf of home bakers. We officially filed the suit in January 2016, and our hearing took place in May 2017. After that hearing, Judge Duane Jorgenson of the circuit court of Lafayette County, Wisconsin, unequivocally ruled in our favor. He stated that the primary effect of this ban was to protect established businesses from competition. Not only is protecting other businesses from competition un-American, but it’s also unconstitutional. The Wisconsin Constitution protects the right to earn an honest living, and we’re very pleased the court agreed.
The Ongoing Battle for Baked Goods
After our victory in the courts, the State of Wisconsin still fought the ruling by claiming it only applied to the three plaintiffs: Dela, Kriss, and myself. Nuts, right? We needed to go one more legal round, and in October 2017, the judge issued additional clarification that his initial ruling indeed applied to everyone in the state.
The battle for baked goods likely won’t ever end, and I’m in it for the long haul. The state still has a right to pass a reasonable law, so we need to keep an eye on that process. While a chocolate chip cookie may bake in about 10 minutes, I’ve learned the democratic process can take a bit longer — although the rewards of a sweet success are certainly worth the wait.
Urban Agriculture Policy Changes in Kansas City, Missouri
Cultivate Kansas City, a nonprofit dedicated to creating healthy local food systems, became engaged with codes and zoning out of our support for Badseed Farm and its founders, Dan Heryer and Brooke Salvaggio. The couple’s farm was on a large residential semi-suburban lot in Kansas City, Missouri. Inspectors were prompted to visit the farm multiple times due to complaints from a neighbor, citing the farm for rank vegetation, not obeying setbacks, and other small infractions.
As we delved into the details of the citations and the operations that took place on the farm, a growing number of questions cropped up. And while Kansas City’s codes weren’t as restrictive as many other cities’, there was a lot of ambiguity that made operating an urban farm feel risky because of concerns that an unhappy neighbor could shut down an operation.
How We Engaged the City
Initially, staff at Cultivate Kansas City, the couple at Badseed Farm, and city leadership sat down to work out the issues with the farm’s pending citations. Kansas City was, at the time, going through an overhaul of its zoning codes, and the planning department and Councilman John Sharp proposed that we work with them to address urban agriculture. The planning staff negotiated the gray areas between the rights of neighbors, the rights of farmers, and the public interest in a healthy, local food system. Councilman Sharp helped us enlist the support of other council members and to negotiate the reactions of other community stakeholders, including homeowner associations and the Kansas City Regional Association of Realtors.
We also engaged the Greater Kansas City Food Policy Coalition in the process. Together, we set up a committee of citizens, farmers, and advocates to lead the process on our end. Also critical was the engagement from a handful of neighborhood leaders who provided us with a more nuanced understanding of the values and concerns at stake.
We also held a fairly aggressive campaign to mobilize the general public in support of urban agriculture. We didn’t have a budget for paper mailings, so we relied entirely on social media and our organizational email list to reach supporters and advocates. We wrote sample phone scripts and letters of support. We also lined up different angles for advocacy so people could speak to their issue, whether it was health, community development, entrepreneurship, or the possibility of neighborhood-based employment in struggling parts of the city. Throughout the process, hundreds of emails and phone calls were made to city council members.
Public reactions varied from aversion to urban farms on one end, to positive associations of good food, health, and engagement with nature on the other end. These differences facilitated perhaps one of the most valuable benefits of the entire process: the conversations the code efforts started within the community. We were proposing a paradigm shift — a different vision for what a healthy neighborhood would look like. We were doing this at a time when the city land bank was taking over literally thousands of vacant lots for nonpayment of taxes and abandonment of houses. Anxiety was high about the future of neighborhoods. The conversation, as heated and polarized as it became at times, was part of a broader exploration of what our neighborhoods should look like and how they should function. Ultimately, the idea of urban agriculture became more normalized, and, once the policies had been changed and no disasters had occurred, the furor died down.
If you ever find yourself in a situation where you want or need to make changes in your own community, here are a few key elements I encourage you to consider.
1) Look for allies in city planning and on your city council. In our case, both brought different strengths and networks to the process and were critically important to guiding us.
2) Recognize that urban agriculture, even today, offers a different vision of an urban neighborhood that can be both wonderful and potentially threatening at the same time. Expect people to have emotional reactions; we each hold our vision of where we live dear, and we’ve invested both emotionally and financially in that vision.
3) Look for a good balance of working with city officials and organizing community members. Work as well as you can with your city, but know that your power to change codes comes in part from your ability to mobilize voting residents.
Since the policy changes have taken effect in Kansas City, Brooke Salvaggio and Dan Heryer have established their home and latest farm, URBAVORE, on 13-1/2 acres that had been sitting vacant for 60 years within Kansas City’s urban core. To learn more about URBAVORE and Dan and Brooke’s journey, you can visit Urbavore Urban Farm.