Does the closure of HausBar Farms spell trouble for the urban farming movement?
The Austin City Council will soon be asked to revisit what it means to be an urban farm. For everything from increased access to locally produced foods to reduced crime rates, many look to urban farms to resolve issues of food insecurity in low-income neighborhoods. Austin's burgeoning urban agriculture movement provides ample opportunities to positively impact the community at large. According to TXP economist Jon Hockenyos, in a report commissioned by City Council to address urban agriculture and local food systems, "If local farmers and food artisans are able to produce and sell more to Austin consumers, restaurants, and institutional buyers, each will benefit to the gain of the overall community." Despite this, activists and residents alike have concerns about how the propagation of urban farms contributes to gentrification and land-use planning issues.
HausBar Farms, conceived by Dorsey Barger and Susan Hausmann in 2009, is widely considered a model for responsible and sustainable agriculture. Barger originally made her mark on the Eastside as the original co-owner and operator of Eastside Cafe. In 2011, Barger sold her share in the eatery to co-owner Elaine Martin in order to focus her attention on farming. She and Hausmann have now revitalized almost two acres of land on the Eastside into a working urban farm. Previously a fallow lot, the farm now boasts chickens, donkeys, rabbits, geese, and a bounty of vegetables. However, in recent months, Barger has been accused of exploiting the neighborhood through environmental injustice.
What started as an unpleasant odor has since escalated into an entanglement involving multiple city departments and state agencies. Further complicating the issue is the involvement of environmental justice group People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources (PODER). While an urban farm may seem an unlikely target for environmental activists, PODER accused HausBar Farms of operating commercially in a residential zone and gentrifying the area surrounding the farm. According to PODER's Daniel Llanes, the activist group had to tackle the issue because other environmental groups wouldn't touch it: "HausBar Farms and the whole urban farm movement is generally a white movement, and so here's where it clashes. You don't see SOS [Save Our Springs] over here, or Sierra Club."
Historically, PODER has worked to move industries and environmental hazards out of residential areas and, specifically, out of East Austin's communities of color. PODER takes credit for the relocation of the East Austin tank farm, a 52-acre storage-tank area owned by six major oil companies, including Exxon, Citgo, and Texaco. The tank farm, located at the corner of Airport Boulevard and Springdale Road, had been contaminating the ground water and had been linked to illness in the surrounding area. In recent months, the activist group has turned its attention to HausBar Farms, lodging a barrage of complaints against the farm.
In late November, Louis Polanco, a 50-year resident of the Govalle/Johnston Terrace neighborhood, called Austin 311 to complain about a foul smell. The stench was coming from a black soldier fly composter that is adjacent to the processing facilities at HausBar Farms, across the street from Polanco's home. This self-contained composting system utilizes black soldier fly larvae to break down farm scraps. In doing so, unutilized farm products are rapidly transformed into a low-cost and highly sustainable source of protein for chickens.
HausBar Farms is not the only Eastside farm to utilize black soldier fly compost, as it is extremely efficient. However, on this particular day, the compost was out of balance and generating the foul odor. Though HausBar had been slaughtering chickens and composting the waste for two years with no incident at that point, Polanco's complaint spurred a series of inspections by multiple city departments, including the City of Austin Planning and Development Review Department, Austin/Travis County Health Department, City of Austin Code Compliance, and the City of Austin Watershed Protection Department.
During this time, Polanco took his complaints to YNN News and the Austin American-Statesman, then reached out to Susana Almanza and Daniel Llanes of PODER. On Feb. 28, Almanza and Llanes spoke in front of City Council during the citizen communication portion of the meeting. Almanza began by portraying zoning and land-use planning as one of the most powerful tools employed in the cause of racism. While not opposed to urban farms in general, Almanza went on to describe the activities of HausBar Farms as exceeding the intent of urban farm land use in a residential area. Llanes specifically opposed the slaughtering of chickens to be sold commercially, characterizing HausBar as a "mass production" operation, slaughtering up to 50 chickens a day and risking harm to the neighborhood environment.
Barger strongly disputed these claims, contending that at the height of her operation, she processed about 20 chickens a week, far from the 250 per week suggested by Llanes. Despite the factual inconsistencies in PODER's presentation, the organization's testimony prompted further scrutiny by city officials. After an interdepartmental inspection on March 13, city officials shut down HausBar Farms, citing inadequate permits; inconsistencies in the urban farm ordinance surely must have impacted the decision, as well.
HausBar Farms is zoned SF-3, or single-family residential. Under SF-3, an urban farm is an approved use. In fact, urban farming is an approved use under all residential zoning districts, assuming certain requirements are met. While HausBar Farms is zoned correctly to operate as an urban farm, according to the city, they do not meet all of the requirements to operate as an urban farm.
Austin City Code 25-2-863 relating to urban farms permits farmers to raise fowl, including the processing/slaughtering of said fowl, and to sell the agricultural products from the site. At first glance, HausBar would appear to be operating within the appropriate guidelines. However, the trouble is with a seemingly insignificant provision: Section E of the code clearly states that one dwelling is permitted. Planning and Development has interpreted this section to mean an urban farm may have only one dwelling.
According to Barger, prior to their purchase of the property, plans were being made to turn the land into a 26-unit condominium. When Barger and Hausmann acquired the property, the existing structures were dilapidated, uninhabitable crack houses, so the couple moved a 780-square-foot cottage onto the property and renovated it. This plan was submitted to Residential Building Review and approved. After the older structures were repurposed into a hen house and barn, and the garage was converted into a commercial kitchen/poultry processing facility, Barger and Hausmann obtained all the necessary city permits for the construction of their dream home on the back of the property. Although no one at the city questioned this at the time the permits were issued, with the recent addition of this home, HausBar Farms no longer meets the one-dwelling requirement of the urban farm ordinance. In order to remedy this situation, city officials have proposed solutions ranging from subdividing the property to severing the utilities on the original front house, making it ultimately uninhabitable.
Having two dwellings on the property isn't the only issue. HausBar is licensed through the Texas Department of Agriculture for the wholesale of graded eggs. Additionally, the farm has a rabbit and poultry exemption from the Texas Department of State Health Services, allowing Barger to raise and slaughter rabbits and poultry and sell those products wholesale to chefs, restaurants, and caterers. However, Barger failed to obtain a building permit for her commercial kitchen/processing facility. While DSHS inspected the farm's kitchen/processing plant before issuing the rabbit and poultry exemption, the kitchen was not initially inspected by the Austin/Travis County Health Department. According to Barger, she thought the state inspection by DSHS was sufficient.
According to Vince Delisi, assistant division manager for the Austin/Travis County Health and Human ServicesDepartment, upon inspection of the kitchen, he found no health code violations and would like to work with other city departments to get Barger back in business. While she has since filed for the building permit to change the use of the garage into the processing facility, it is stuck in a backlog and may not be approved for months, during which time HausBar Farms will remain closed.
PODER, Barger, and all the city departments involved seem to agree on one matter: The urban farm ordinance needs to be rewritten and clarified. Currently, the Process and Code Coordination Working Group of the Sustainable Food Policy Board is working on language to lessen the restrictions on urban farms, especially concerning livestock, farm size, employees, and dwellings. Once the planning commission approves the amendments to the urban farm ordinance, it will go to City Council for approval. "We are currently working to propose a new, clear, streamlined urban farm code that protects farmers and their ability to make a living without getting bogged down in technicalities," explains Heather Frambach, research analyst and urban agriculture planner for the City of Austin's Sustainable Urban Agriculture & Community Gardens Program. "I am hopeful because this is precisely what our program was created to do: act as a strong liaison between communities, people who grow food, and the city."
Throughout the entire ordeal, Barger received misinformation and confusing instructions from various city departments on how to proceed in order to become compliant with city regulations and the urban farm code. She was initially granted a change-of-use to operate as an urban farm, but it was rescinded as a result of the two dwellings. The permit process was confounded by a lack of communication between city departments, HausBar Farms, and PODER. In the end, frank and open dialogue must be encouraged in order to draft a new urban farm code that will sufficiently address critical issues and contribute to a secure future for urban agriculture.
For Barger, that moment can't come too soon. "We built our farm in good faith," she says. "We obtained the only licensing we were aware that we needed to have in order to process chickens and eggs from the state of Texas. We've proceeded in good faith in all of our efforts to start an urban farm with the city of Austin's blessing and now find ourselves unable to sell any of our product. ... If we were able to get back in business while we go through the permitting process, we could make this work, but as much as individual departments in the city would like to help us, they've been unable to even tell us how to proceed to get into compliance."
Barger is working diligently with the city to meet the urban farm requirements, but even if she is allowed to reopen, PODER shows no signs of backing down. According to Almanza, the factual number of animals being processed is beside the point; PODER and neighbor Louis Polanco want that aspect of the operation stopped. Ultimately, issues of zoning and ongoing gentrification will demand a continued discourse among farmers, the community, and city officials. Says City Councilman Mike Martinez, "Urban farms are a way for us to address both sustainability and access to healthy food for our entire community. While we want to promote these types of activities, we also need to be mindful of what is suitable in the middle of a neighborhood. We'd like to keep a community dialogue going to determine what is and what isn't. I think of urban farms much like I think about home businesses. We have rules about running businesses out of your home, but we have to be mindful of the intensity of use and how they interact with the neighborhoods and uses around them."
As local food enthusiasts make plans for this weekend's East Austin Urban Farm Tour (see sidebar, right), the future of HausBar Farms remains uncertain, though a meeting earlier this week between Llanes and Barger at HausBar Farms is an encouraging step. What is certain is that navigating the changing landscape of East Austin will be a balancing act between neighbors requiring both patience and perseverance.