Urban Ag in the Desert

[Update: The next meeting has been scheduled for June 10, 6:30-8pm at the YWCA (525 N. Bonita Avenue).  You can find the official flyers here: English and Spanish.]

The City of Tucson is holding public meetings over May and June as part of an effort to revise the City’s zoning regulations on urban agriculture, including farmers’ markets, community gardens, urban farms, and the keeping of small animals.  To help you understand what’s going on, we’ve put together some background info, including some highlights in bullet form.

Background Information

As part of the Sustainable Code Integration Project, the City of Tucson is revamping the city’s zoning ordinances related to urban agriculture and local food sales in Tucson. Although urban food production has been going on for many years in Tucson, this is the first effort to bring the city code up-to-date to reflect those activities. Members of the Pima County Food Alliance (PCFA) and others have actively followed the zoning code process, and have provided input on the proposed changes.

For the most part, the proposed zoning changes are coming together nicely and will be instrumental to creating a greener and more edible landscape in Tucson. Nonetheless, there has been pushback from some neighborhood members who are concerned about the potential implications of the new ordinances. These residents have been (and will likely continue) insisting on more restrictive regulations for urban agriculture. In addition, there are a few issues that still need clarification (particularly regarding the raising of small farm animals).

Given the controversy that these zoning changes have raised among some neighborhoods, it is important that we generate a large showing at the two public meetings to demonstrate widespread support for continued (and expanded) food production in the City of Tucson. It is particularly important that Tucson residents who keep farm animals (or their neighbors) attend these meetings. There has been a lot of disagreement on issues regarding the keeping of urban farm animals. Please consider attending the meeting and/or extending the invitation to other interested parties!

Highlights of the Proposed Zoning Changes

  • The proposed changes provide guidelines to allow garden sales from homes, community gardens, urban farms, and small and large farmers’ markets
  • They propose guidelines for the size and placement of greenhouses, animal housing/corrals, and compost
  • They attempt to define appropriate set-backs and guidelines (including number limits) for raising small farm animals

Potential Problems with the Proposed Zoning Changes

  • Farmers’ markets in residential areas will require a Special Exception Procedure, an annually-renewed permit, and can only operate between 7 am and 5 pm  (this is more restrictive than current regulations).
  • The number of fowl permitted is reduced from 24 to 8. In addition, the keeping of up to 3 small animals is permitted.Small animals include miniature goats, rabbits, rodents, fowl, and other similar animals. Larger properties can have one additional animal for every additional 5,000 square feet of property. Property owners may request the number of animals be increased through a Design Development Option. No animal shelters are permitted between the building and the front street.
  • Although on-site sales of home-produced agricultural products are permitted, the sale hours are restricted to between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m.

If you want to delve deeper, consider investigating the following resources:

Arizona Public Media’s May article

Summary of Public Comments from May Meeting

Side by Side Comparison of Current vs. Proposed Urban Ag Changes

If you can’t make the meeting, but have comments to make, you can always contact:

Rebecca Ruopp, Office of Integrated Planning
(520) 837-6973; Rebecca.Ruopp@tucsonaz.gov

Also feel free to contact the Pima County Food Alliance with any comments or concerns: info@pimafoodalliance.org

2013: Year in Review

During 2013, we may have seemed less visible because we took a break from holding regular monthly general membership meetings.  This was to focus our energies on various other projects, including things like water and food production research, community events, and finishing our MyPlate project.  If you want the exhaustive details, you can check out the full report as a PDF.  But here are some highlights:

Activities and Accomplishments

  • “A Place At The Table” Movie Showing as opening to Community Food Bank’s “Closing The Hunger Gap” national conference of food banks.  We were one of only a couple dozen communities across the country awarded a grant to make the showing possible, and a successful one at that, as we had an attendance of approximately 250 at the event.
  • Gathered Stakeholder Organizations to discuss integration of work and Memorial of recognition, and STAR Sustainable Cities commitment surrounding sustainable food access to the City of Tucson Mayor and Council.
  • Arizona Department of Health Services – Gardening and Composting draft regulations – advocating for reasonable policies that encourage rather than hinder school garden activities including composting and rainwater.  New guidelines allowing for compost (both manure- and plant-based) and rainwater are expected to be released in early 2014.
  • Successfully advocated for inclusion of an Urban Agriculture section within the City of Tucson’s general plan known as Plan Tucson in 2013.
  • Actively support continuing work to negotiate removal of sewer fees on water bills to all community gardens that do not use a sewer connection.
  • Participated in Colorado River Day press conference with Phoenix Mayor Gibbs to address the importance of water resources and quality to agriculture in Arizona.
  • Support and collaboration with Southern Arizona Young Farmer’s Coalition (SAYFC) – the Arizona branch of the National Young Farmer’s Coalition, including a comment forming period regarding the Food Safety Modernization Act.  If you didn’t see already, FDA responded in what appears to be a favorable way.
  • Began cursory study of the state of our water resources in Arizona as it relates to modern and urban agriculture and commerce, published in a series of blog posts on our website.
  • Engaging with Right To Know Arizona initiative organizers on an educational basis.
  • Rincon Unified Congregational Church offers fiscal agent sponsorship of PCFA as it seeks best course of action on organizational structure that allows for effective policy change.
  • Ongoing discussion with City of Tucson regarding an “Eat 5, Buy 5” campaign to bolster local food production through increased local foods purchasing.

School Garden, Meet Rainwater and Compost…

On Wednesday, January 15, the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) released updates to its school garden program guidelines, which guide how food must be grown in schools in order to be served in the cafeteria.  This was a long process of negotiation, and we’re extremely happy with the outcome, as our three areas of concern have all been dealt with:

1. School-made compost now can be used to grow food for the cafeteria;
2. Rainwater now can be used as a source of irrigation water;
3. Non-latex disposable gloves are no longer required for harvesting; just proper hand-washing.

That said, schools will still need to get certified by the state school garden sanitarian and show they are maintaining the compost and rainwater up to the standards specified.  You can find more details on the ADHS School Garden page, specifically with the Program Guidelines and the Food & Garden Safety page.

It’s a lot to sift through, so let us break it down for you with some broad generalizations, FAQ style:

What’s all this business about SOP’s and Attestations on the Food & Garden Safety page?

SOPs are standard operating procedures.  ADHS has provided sample SOPs for your benefit.  They are based on good science, so if you want to copy (and follow!) them word for word, you’ll be in good shape.  However, they are not hard and fast rules.  You can tweak them a little or make up your own from scratch.

The attestation is, first and foremost, a form you sign to attest that you will actually do what you say you’re doing in the SOP.  Someone—ideally an individual closely involved with the garden, or the school principal—needs to sign the form and send it back to ADHS.  Unlike the SOP, the rules listed on the attestation ARE hard and fast.  If you decide to alter or write your own SOP, you need to make sure it at least follows the parameters set forth in the attestation.

What are the regulations for school-made compost?

School-made compost can now be used, so long as the school follows proper protocols.  In a nutshell, this entails getting the pile to a high enough temperature, which happens naturally through microbial processes when the proper ratios of materials are added.  For plant-based piles, 131 degrees (F) must be reached for 3 days; 15 days for compost piles with manure in them.  These temperatures are easily reachable if you have a large enough pile and are balancing the input materials properly.

There are some other guidelines in there, such as keeping your compost pile a safe distance from flammable structures, since there have in fact been cases of compost spontaneously combusting.  Also, washing hands and tools properly after handling compost.  Things like that.

What are the regulations for using rainwater?

Rainwater can now be used to grow food for the cafeteria.  We had quite a bit of conversation with ADHS about whether the water would need to be tested first.  The end result is this:  Testing is only required if you’re applying the water directly to the plant such that the edible portion is at risk of being contacted AND your rainwater is coming from a poorly designed and/or maintained system.

Another way of stating that is that if you have a well-designed and maintained system that meets their standards, you’re good to go!  Alternatively, regardless of your system’s design, if you’re careful to apply the water directly to the soil (e.g. via drip irrigation), you’re good to go!  No testing.

Pretty doable, we think.

What about gloves for harvesting?

Non-latex disposable gloves are no longer required.  However, proper hand-washing will be required and as such, you should consider holding a proper hand-washing training with your students.  In addition, harvesting equipment will need to be cleaned and sanitized between uses, so use hard plastic or metal containers, rather than, say wicker baskets.

What do we need to do to actually start serving food in the cafeteria?

Probably the biggest hurdle will be getting all your policies together into a central place, and making sure everyone is following them and keeping track of them.  Consider making a binder and holding trainings for other teachers and students to cover the essentials.

With the unfortunate but very real danger of litigation in our society, documenting your practices will be essential.  You’ll need to keep track of harvest days, trainings, soil history, etc.  If you’re using your own compost or rainwater, you’ll need to keep track of temperatures for your compost piles, days when you emptied out the first flush on your cistern system, etc.

Once you have all your ducks in a row, you can contact Kathryn Matthewson at ADHS and request a site visit.  Once she inspects your garden and gives you the green light, you’re free and clear.

What about other policies, like that of my local health department of school district?

You should clear your plans with your own district leadership before attempting to bring garden food into the school cafeteria.  Following the guidelines put forth by ADHS though will put you in a good position.  For example, in working with Tucson Unified School District, they have stated that they will abide by ADHS’s recommendations.

As for your local county health department, ADHS has been in touch with all the counties across the state and is taking care of all the legwork by providing an ADHS sanitarian to do the school garden certifications.  Furthermore, the counties cannot make policies that contradict those of the state health department.  As such, we feel confident in saying that if you follow ADHS’s guidelines for school gardening, you’ll be in good shape.

Is all this really worth the trouble?

Kids who participate in Farm-to-School programs do better academically on average, have fewer behavior problems, increase their knowledge, and develop healthier eating habits, according to many studies.  Making the leap from the garden to the cafeteria helps kids make a difficult connection: that the food they eat both at home and in the cafeteria has the potential to be every bit as awesome as the food they’re so excited to grow in the garden.  Cafeteria integration is a key part of Farm-to-School around the country and this new ruling clears the way for Arizona’s schools to make some really good headway.

Now Accepting Applications for the Leadership Council

Update: The application period is now closed.  We’ll have more openings around Christmas later this year, so be sure to check back in!

The leadership council is the place where decisions get made for the Pima County Food Alliance, and where much of the exciting work and coordination actually gets done.  We are a roughly 16-member body that meets monthly to discuss projects, share information, talk about partnership opportunities, and figure out how to accomplish our food-related goals.

This year, we’re interested not only in people with extensive food systems experience, but also people with event planning and facilitation experience.  Why?  During 2014 we’d really like to bring back the general meetings in some form or another, after our long hiatus.  We think it’s great for people to get together and talk food, network, and learn—we just want to make sure it’s done in the most useful way for everyone.  Another key area we could use help is with our internal communication and organization.

So regardless of your level of food systems experience or expertise, if you think you can contribute in either of these areas, please consider applying.  Applications can be downloaded here, and submitted, with a résumé, back to us at info@pimafoodalliance.org.