Urban farms brace for redo of city rules

A handful of urban farms in East Austin have become a community mainstay over the past 20 years, with the blessing of a loosely worded city ordinance that encouraged them. Then one of the urban farms started slaughtering chickens to sell to restaurants, and it started composting the leftover parts. The neighbors complained about the smell. And now it’s back to the drawing board. The city of Austin has temporarily shut down Dorsey Barger’s 4-year-old HausBar farm on Govalle Avenue over the chicken complaint. She can’t even sell her produce until the city approves a new site plan and she clears several code violations. Meanwhile, a citizens advisory group has been charged with updating the city code to define what an urban farm can and can’t do. The issues are more complex than they were 2000, when the initial urban farm rules were set, and the farmers are already feeling picked on.

“All we do is grow good, healthy food,” said Larry Butler of Boggy Creek, a five-acre farm on Lyons Road that was the first, established in Austin in 1992 before the city passed an ordinance. Now four urban farms are nestled in the same East Austin Govalle neighborhood, drawn by rich soil and, until recently, relatively inexpensive land. When Barger of HausBar bought her place in 2009, it was a former drug house. Now it’s featured on the annual bike tour of urban farms in the neighborhood.

Barger’s troubles cropped up because she was processing about 20 chickens a week, Barger says. She’s hired an attorney to help her deal with City Hall. “We’re out of business,” Barger says. “We’re trying, but the city can’t even tell us what to do to become compliant.”

The Sustainable Food Policy Board, a citizens advisory group established by the city and Travis County to promote local food production, is pushing for a more clear definition of urban farms, specifically to consider livestock, the size of a farm, the number of employees a farm can have, and more.

Maybe the new rules will allow HausBar to resume slaughtering chickens. Maybe they won’t.


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