A Cook's Garden

Kansas City relaxes ban on front-yard 'row crops'

By Barbara Damrosch
Thursday, June 24, 2010

Primaries in 12 states held the nation's attention in early June, but all I could think about was the close race in Kansas City, Mo. Would the Planning and Zoning Committee's ban on "row crops" in front yards be overruled by the City Council? Which would win, corn or pachysandra? I was betting on corn.

Kansas City, long famous for jazz and barbecue, is a city I consider edible-garden-friendly, thanks in large part to its Center for Urban Agriculture (http://www.kccua.org), directed by Katherine Kelly. The center operates a demonstration farm and provides training to people who want to get into vegetable growing, with the goal of weaving small farms into the fabric of city neighborhoods.

The Greater Kansas City Food Policy Coalition (http://www.kcfoodpolicy.org) also promotes a healthful community-wide food system. Residents welcome the availability of fresh local produce that results from these efforts and are often inspired to try their own hand at kitchen gardening.

Kelly says the city's government is supportive. The problem is that not everyone wants a farm next door.

"A small group of people," she explains, "has been painting a terrible picture of what an urban farm can look like. For them, a farm means massive fields of corn, soybeans and milo [sorghum]. It's a Midwestern concept. They have no frame of reference for urban farming."

Show them little farms that are beautiful, diverse and highly productive, she says, and people will embrace the idea.

Meanwhile, as it turned out, a much larger group of residents objected to being told what they could grow. "What if my back yard is shady?" they asked. "And what's a row crop? Can I plant corn in a circle?"

When the final vote was cast on June 10, the rules were relaxed to include planting schemes that most gardeners could live with. And what's more, regulations for small farmers were liberalized as well. Contested practices such as selling produce on-site and allowing interns or volunteers to assist got a provisional green light.

Similar battles are being fought all over America. One person's wildflower meadow or prairie restoration is another person's unmowed lawn. You might view your hens as cute or as an endless source of organic eggs. But a neighbor sees them as the onset of urban blight.

People talk about "American values," but what we value in this country changes from one era to another. During the two world wars, people displayed their victory gardens proudly, siting them wherever the sun shone best. Similarly, economic slumps can make a lawn seem useless and wasteful. And right now, as we're starting to place more value on what we eat, it seems we're quite happy to show off a well-grown, nutritious food supply, front and center.

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of "The Garden Primer."

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