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Urban farmers butt up against business regulations

KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Steve Mann doesn't look like an outlaw as he cheerfully harvests rutabagas and lettuce bunches from a friend's garden in north Kansas City.

But technically he is violating Kansas City ordinances as he prepares to sell the produce.

Brooke Salvaggio never dreamed that she and her husband, Dan Heryer, were running afoul of city codes when they used a few apprentices in their backyard garden business in south Kansas City.

These foot soldiers in the urban farming revolution have found that, along with locally grown food, they are cultivating a controversy.

While they try to capitalize on blossoming awareness about the benefits of turning lawns into fresh fruits and vegetables, they are colliding with city rules designed to protect neighborhoods.

Those are rules that the city will be rethinking. But for now, Mann is not allowed to sell produce from a residential property he does not own.

And Salvaggio and Heryer are not allowed to use apprentices in their garden business, dubbed BadSeed Farm, because city codes prohibit outside employees at home occupations.

Urban farming is an issue confronting cities all over the country.

How can they regulate gardening as a home-based business? And how can they manage the chickens, goats and other livestock that enhance a farming operation but prompt complaints about noise and odor from nearby residents?

"Because of Kansas City's desire to be a green city," City Planner Patty Noll said, "this council has directed us to make (urban agriculture) a priority."

Not so fast, says Dona Boley, a neighborhood and historic preservation advocate. She grew up on a farm outside Paola, Kan., and says agriculture doesn't easily mix with many residential parts of town.

"We want to protect residential neighborhoods," she said.

Challenges from neighbors abound in other cities.

In June, the Overland Park City Council denied a permit for four backyard hens despite testimonials about fresh eggs. St. Louis is looking at outlawing roosters. Wyandotte County is considering some livestock restrictions after complaints about horses.

Yet across the country, many communities are welcoming urban agriculture for its small-business potential, especially in economically deprived areas riddled with underused vacant properties.

"Cities are looking at it as much as an economic development issue as a hobby or recreation," said Alfonso Morales, a University of Wisconsin assistant professor of urban and regional planning who has studied local agricultural initiatives.

Judging from the 100 people who packed a late October meeting at Salvaggio's and Heryer's BadSeed Farmer's Market, 1909 McGee St., the urban farming movement here has a lot of support.

City Council member John Sharp, whose district includes Salvaggio's backyard farm near Bannister and State Line roads, told the crowd that he thought Kansas City could tweak its rules on gardening businesses. He said the city would also look at modifying its restrictions on chickens and livestock.

"We don't want to generate constant traffic, but if we allow people to grow vegetables for more than their own use, there has to be some way for them to sell them," Sharp said in an interview.

"I think urban farming is an inevitable trend in the U.S. I think we can encourage more urban agriculture without destabilizing neighborhoods. In fact, if it's done right, this will enhance neighborhoods."

In Kansas City, gardeners can have up to 15 chickens and even two goats — if they meet certain distance restrictions from structures.

Urban farmer Steve Mann, active in a Kansas City group Food Not Lawns, said the BadSeed Farm was the "poster child" for why Kansas City's rules needed to be changed.

"This is how you build community," he said.

Yet Boley, the neighborhood advocate, wondered where Kansas City would draw the line if it relaxed its rules for small commercial produce operations in residential areas.

"If you're selling, it's like you have a nursery, or a kennel," she said. "It's like parking a business down in a residential neighborhood. Business rules need to apply."

Morales, the assistant professor, said urban agriculture needn't threaten strong residential character and could increase property values.

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