By Contributing Editor, Stephanie Georgieff
A few weeks before the election, in September of 2012, barely a third of California voters approved of the job the State Legislature was “doing.” The last major poll conducted in the state has pushed the rating up to a favorable 36%, a level unthinkable several years ago. In some small measure, it may be due because the Assembly and Senate are starting to introduce bills that many Californians actually care about, which will also allow greater freedom to create sustainable small businesses. With California’s global leadership in the food and agriculture sectors, it makes sense to pass laws encouraging entrepreneurship for which the Sunshine state is famous.
Passage of the California Cottage Food Law last year, finally decriminalized bake sales and home made bread purveyors. This law allows the creation of non-perishable foodstuffs such as popcorn, jams and cookies to be made in a person’s home kitchen. Such goods can be sold directly to the public now, and a permit process and limit to the number of employees and profits are in place. In our economically strapped times, allowing a family member to make an extra few bucks selling a family biscotti recipe to neighbors without fear of jail time seemed to many a good idea. It would reduce prison crowding and also increase tax revenues at the same time.
A new law under consideration in the Assembly, introduced by Democratic Assembly member Phil Ting of the 19th District in Western San Francisco has the dubious title of “Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act,” AKA as AB 551. It seemed only proper if the state was going to decriminalize goods from home kitchens, that house gardens should not only be given the same freedoms but also incentives. With populations booming around the world, development of agricultural land, the issue of feeding people in the future is on the mind of planners and legislators alike. Urban farming is becoming more and more of a need, but in the expensive real estate of California’s major urban centers, it can be out of the question.
The major thrust of AB 551 is to encourage landowners who sign a contract with their county to put their property to urban agricultural use for 10 years. After this contract is signed, their property will be assessed at a lower tax rate based on agricultural use rather than its market value. In places like Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco where the median house price can range between $500,000 to a million dollars, allowing a small urban farm in the front or back yard is a triple win. Land owners can lease their property to farmers or farm themselves, providing truly local produce to hungry cities, and cut down on food miles that rural farms must log to bring product to market. Such farms can also improve the air quality of cities, and in some instances such as roof top gardens, actually cut energy costs. Agricultural incentive zones can also create good, sustainably minded jobs surrounding food. With increased demand for farmers markets, one of the main complaints of market managers is getting farmers to come. With the development of back yard or abandoned property as farms, demand can be met while giving meaningful work to many who are struggling to find jobs. Before World War II, Los Angeles County used to be the most productive agricultural county in the nation boasting 40,000 small family farms. AB 551 may be the solution to improving access to fresh locally grown produce in “food deserts” converting depressed areas back into lush farmland, one yard at a time.
As of this writing, AB 551 made it out of committee, and is expected to pass on to the Assembly and go on to the Senate. It is exciting to see the Sunshine State take the lead on incentivizing the consumption of real, nutritious food. It is our hope, that this will be a model for other states with large urban populations. If you live in California, please contact your local representative and encourage them to vote yes for AB 551