Across the country, demand is growing for healthy, local, sustainable, and safe food, and Pinellas County is no exception. Urban farming – whether in the form of a community garden, rooftop garden, vertical garden, or a hydroponic system – is a way to grow food locally, but it comes with challenges. Local and state regulations meant to protect farmers might actually work to restrict agriculture in urban areas.
With urban gardeners and urban planners alike looking for guidance, Forward Pinellas is continuing its Knowledge Exchange Series to provide technical assistance relevant to the unique challenges of planning within a redeveloping Pinellas County. Our latest project has been conducted in partnership with the City of St. Petersburg, exploring ways to allow and encourage urban agriculture to meet the needs of our diverse county.
For conscientious consumers, agricultural cultivation and processing gives rise to important questions. Where does my food come from? Has it been treated with chemicals? And how sustainable is it? Many of these consumers have turned to locally grown food because of this, or are taking part in its cultivation because they enjoy the act of farming. Currently in Pinellas County, there are a combined 44 community gardens, urban or hydroponic farms.
Feeding the Community
Mark Trujillo, public health specialist with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/ IFAS) Extension Family Nutrition Program in Pinellas County, says, “We have a lot of people who are in need, and a great way to make people healthier is to ensure people have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”
The benefits of local produce are numerous and far-reaching, and the need is great. In the United States, 38% of adults and 20% of children are classified as obese, and only one in 10 adults get enough fruit or vegetables. Forward Pinellas estimates that only 15% of Pinellas County residents are within walking distance of a grocery store, which indicates that some areas of the county are located in a food desert and cut off from healthy food, like fresh fruit and vegetables. For those affected, a lack of reliable transportation may exacerbate the problem.
Urban farms and gardens can help address this shortage and improve residents’ access to affordable produce. According to Ray Wunderlich III, founder of Wunderfarms community gardens in St. Petersburg, more than 7,400 pounds of produce from just one garden were donated to local charities from 2015 to 2016. Urban farming has other benefits too; studies have shown that those who participate in the food growing process tend to increase their fruit and vegetable intake, which in turn can lead to better health.
Urban farming can have important secondary economic effects, as well, including boosting the local economy, raising property values, and building social capital. Jenny Fessler, associate director of the Open Partnership Education Network at the University of South Florida, states that there are a variety of industry sectors surrounding urban agriculture, such as restaurants who use local food, creating additional jobs and opportunity. In other parts of the country, research has linked a rise in property values to properties in close proximity to urban farms, indicating people will pay a premium to be located close to this open space amenity. Urban farming builds social capital and neighborhood cohesion by encouraging interactions between people in a shared space, where they learn to rely on each other as a support system.
Modernizing Farm Regulations
Many local governments in Pinellas already allow limited urban farming and community gardens in their zoning regulations. The term “agriculture” covers a large spectrum of activities, but municipalities typically include plant-based crops, horticulture (the growing of decorative plants), and backyard poultry (chickens and ducks). Beekeeping is also permitted by state law. Other more intensive uses, like livestock farming and large scale operations that produce runoff and waste, are restricted to rural or industrial areas. Local regulations are governed by the Countywide Plan, which is maintained by Forward Pinellas and coordinates land use throughout Pinellas County.
These countywide regulations may inadvertently restrict other types of farming that are compatible with the urban environment. Beyond a traditional farm or garden that uses open land for growing crops, urban farming techniques come in a variety of other creative forms. Plants can be grown on building surfaces, such as rooftop gardens, or by vertical farming on indoor or outdoor walls. Hydroponic farming grows plants primarily in water rather than soil, often in fully enclosed buildings. Fish may be raised in indoor or outdoor tanks, alone or in symbiosis with hydroponic crops (known as aquaponics). On-site sales of farm products in residential neighborhoods can also help relieve food deserts. Few of these modern practices were contemplated when the current regulations were drafted.
To address this issue, Forward Pinellas is proposing new language later this summer to support broader urban agriculture. The new regulations will give each community more flexibility to allow desired farming uses in locations it considers appropriate.
Another complex issue surrounding urban farming is the Florida Right to Farm Act (FRTFA). In 1979, the Florida Legislature enacted FRTFA to protect agricultural activities in rural areas that were becoming more urbanized and to prevent burdensome nuisance lawsuits against farmers. FRTFA prohibits local governments from adopting regulations that limit farming operations on land classified as “agricultural land” by the property appraiser. But the statute is worded so broadly that it could prevent even local governments in urbanized areas from regulating all but the most extreme impacts on neighboring properties. It should be noted that the law only applies to “for-profit” farms seeking an agricultural tax exemption on private land; it doesn’t apply to nonprofit farms, farming that takes place on public land, or gardens for individual or residential use.
This has forced many cities across the state to think creatively when seeking to both encourage urban farming and to protect neighboring properties from impacts. One potential option that some local governments have implemented is to steer farming to public property, allowing the governments to exert more control as landlord than they can through zoning regulations alone. The City of St. Petersburg is currently putting together a land inventory to identify available publicly-owned vacant lots appropriate for agricultural uses.
Building on the work done by St. Petersburg, and in cooperation with UF/IFAS, Forward Pinellas has created a technical assistance package that can be used by any community. If your community decides that it wants to encourage urban farming, please see our Urban Agriculture handbook, which includes an introduction to the basics of urban farming, including how it’s being regulated and incentivized in Florida and around the country, with links to more in-depth studies and publications.
The Knowledge Exchange Series
In an effort to provide technical assistance relevant to the unique challenges of planning within a redeveloping Pinellas County, Forward Pinellas created the Knowledge Exchange Series (KES). An integral part of aligning land use and transportation planning is rooted in understanding the housing needs of the county and its relationship to how people move from place to place. Finding the Missing Middle, explores the gap in housing options in Pinellas County and provides guidance for local governments to fill that void. For more information, see the Knowledge Exchange Series page.