Thursday, Dec 18, 2014

Push is on for new laws to help urban gardens expand, thrive


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ST. PETERSBURG — A nonprofit group wants to build an urban farm on a 15-acre plot of unused land close to Lake Maggiore.

Dubbed the Edible Peace Patch Project, it would include 9 acres of commercial crop growing, with community gardens and an education center and kitchen to cook and sell fresh vegetables to local schools.

But to make the venture work, the farm would need to sell surplus crops. And that is forbidden under city rules.

The burgeoning interest in urban farming and popularity of community gardens has led the city council to call for new rules to encourage the creation of urban farms across the city. Activists say the farms would boost the city’s economy and provide a cheap source of healthful food to neighborhoods such as Midtown.

“We want to address the education and dire diet issues that come from poverty,” said Peace Patch founder Kip Curtis. “We need the new rules to do this.”

New rules could be drawn up and adopted as quickly as three months, but officials may also have to get changes made to countywide regulations to permit farms in areas zoned for residences and commercial businesses, city officials said. That could take 18 months or more.

The city adopted laws roughly five years ago for community gardens, areas where fruit and vegetables could be grown. Some gardens, such as Bartlett Park Community Garden in Midtown, donate fresh vegetables to residents. But the restrictions on sales mean groups lose out on a potential revenue stream, activists say.

Among those pushing for new rules is Sustainable Urban Agriculture Coalition, a nonprofit group that promotes growth of organic food in inner cities as a way to improve the diet and lives of residents.

“It’s part of the whole local food movement,” said board member Diane Friel. “It’s demystifying the whole process of growing food.”

New regulations likely would limit hours of operation and the use of pesticides and fertilizers. To protect neighbors, there may also be limits on how many vehicles can be parked at urban farms and a 10-horsepower limit on farm machinery.

They also could stipulate whether budding farmers would have to test soil for contaminants before growing crops, to protect consumers.

A truckload of mulch was delivered to Bartlett Park Community Garden on Thursday morning, part of the garden’s expansion into a lot donated by a local housing nonprofit group.

Curly kale, collards, Swiss chard and red giant mustards already are grown at the garden, a half-acre site on Highland Street South in Midtown.

The extra land will mean the addition of a chicken coop and growing space, said Andrea Hildebran Smith, executive director of Green Florida, which runs the garden.

Bags of produce from the farm are given away to residents on a first-come, first-served basis. But the group has not ruled out selling surplus crops to raise money if city rules change.

“The city could create some language that could do some good things to promote urban farming,” she said. “It may be the right time to do that.”

codonnell@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7654

Twitter: @codonnellTBO

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