St. Pete drafting regulations to allow small urban farms
ST. PETERSBURG - Small urban farms have sprung up in communities across the United States, catering to a growing demand for locally grown and organic produce. That includes Tampa, where Sweetwater Organic Community Farm’s pesticide-free produce has grown in popularity. Farm owner Rick Martinez would like to start a similar operation in St. Petersburg, but city regulations do not permit growers to sell their produce on-site. That could change soon, with city officials drafting land regulations they hope will encourage urban farms to spring up across the city. Local activists say the farms would act as an economic stimulus to the city and provide an inexpensive source of healthy food to neighborhoods such as Midtown, which recently lost its only grocery store. “There is a lot of demand for being able to grow and to get locally grown produce at reasonable prices,” said Carol Smith, marketing chairwoman of the Sustainable Urban Agriculture Coalition, a group that promotes urban farming. “But right now, it’s illegal to have an urban farm in St. Petersburg.”Proposed regulations could govern when farms can sell produce and how they use machinery, fertilizers and pesticides. “There is an interest in figuring out how we can grow this,” said St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Karl Nurse. “Some folks are looking at plots that would help them feed their family and earn a little bit of money.” St. Petersburg does have flourishing community gardens, including Bartlett Park Community Garden. The garden is just half an acre but shows how local growers can alleviate so-called “food deserts,” neighborhoods that have no place to buy fresh produce within walking distance. Located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the county, the community garden produces enough to fill 30 large grocery bags with collard greens, kale, beans, sweet potatoes, basil and other produce every two weeks. The bags are given to families on a first-come, first-served basis, said Andrea Hildebran Smith, executive director of Green Florida, the nonprofit group that runs the garden. “You can’t overstate what that means to a family that otherwise is living on noodles,” she said. If the city revised its rules, the garden could raise more money by selling some produce, though feeding residents remains its primary goal, Hildebran Smith said. Council members offered general support for the idea but said they want to make sure runoff containing fertilizer does not harm city waterways. “One of the worst things you can do is get a big lump of manure and put it on the ground,” Councilman Steve Kornell said. Small urban farms that the city hopes to attract would need at least 6 acres of arable land to produce enough crops to be sustainable, said Diane Friel, a board member of SUAC. She said the farms could cater to restaurants that want to use local produce, a practice that could extend to school kitchens. “Our whole goal is to bring growing your own food to the city and making it become second nature,” Friel said.