Farms OK; ac­tiv­i­ties an­other mat­ter

Farm

Austin American-Statesman - - THE SECOND FRONT - A Watch the video in­ter­view with the owner and a neigh­bor of the Hausbar ur­ban farm in East Austin with this story on­line at states­man. com. Con­tact Ri­cardo Gán­dara at 445-3632. Con­tact Gary Dinges at 912-5987. Twit­ter: @gdinges

Now, that life on her HausBar Farms on Go­valle Av­enue in East Austin is rub­bing against a re­al­ity of city liv­ing: government reg­u­la­tions. While ur­ban farms are al­lowed by mu­nic­i­pal code, with re­stric­tions, there are ques­tions as to what ac­tiv­i­ties fall within that def­i­ni­tion.

Barger’s prob­lems started when neigh­bor Louis Polanco, who has been in the neigh­bor­hood far longer than she — 50 years to be ex­act — called Austin 311 in Novem­ber to report a foul odor. It ap­par­ently came from an out­door composter of chicken parts dis­carded dur­ing the slaugh­ter­ing process at HausBar Farms.

“It smelled ter­ri­ble that day, and other peo­ple in the neigh­bor­hood were talk­ing about it too,” Polanco said. His com­plaint trig­gered three city de­part­ments to re­spond and visit Barger’s op­er­a­tion. In­spec­tors found that while Barger was within her rights to op­er­ate an ur­ban farm, she was in vi­o­la­tion of three city rules to op­er­ate her busi­ness.

The an­i­mal en­clo­sures — chicken coops and a barn for two minia­ture don­keys and a goat — are less than 50 feet from neigh­bor­ing prop­er­ties, which is too close, ac­cord­ing to city an­i­mal reg­u­la­tions. She lacked a food per­mit nec­es­sary to han­dle the chick­ens that she slaugh­ters for sale to restau­rants and chefs. She also needed a state per­mit for any dis­charge of ma­te­ri­als into storm sew­ers.

Barger, a former part owner of the East Side Cafe, said she was un­aware of all the city rules and is work­ing to com­ply. Fail­ure to do so could re­sult in a misdemeanor com­plaint against her in Austin Mu­nic­i­pal Court and a pos­si­ble fine. Health of­fi­cials said Fri­day that Barger told them she has put her food per­mit ap­pli­ca­tion in the mail. She has un­til this week to move the an­i­mal en­clo­sures far­ther away from neigh­bor­ing prop­er­ties.

“It’s go­ing to squeeze me in and af­fect what I can do now,” Barger said.

The city de­fines ur­ban farms as prop­er­ties be­tween 1 and 5 acres where landown­ers can raise pro­duce as well as chick­ens that are kept in en­clo­sures at least 50 feet away from neigh­bor­ing homes. Barger has about 100 chick­ens and har­vests about 20 each week. Barger has two minia­ture don­keys, and those are al­lowed, too, as long as their en­clo­sure is at least 10 feet from a neigh­bor’s house.

Her neigh­bor’s com­plaint raises big­ger is­sues about the trend of farms tak­ing root in long­stand­ing neigh­bor­hoods like hers. Within a mile are three other ur­ban farms — Boggy Creek, Spring­dale and Rain Lily — that are next to sin­gle­fam­ily homes on smaller lots. So far city of­fi­cials report no prob­lems or com­plaints, other than roost­ers crow­ing too early in the morn­ing.

Those farms, which are al­lowed in sin­gle­fam­ily zon­ing, are pri­mar­ily bou­tique op­er­a­tions that sell pro­duce and eggs. Barger’s is the only one sell­ing meat raised on the farm, but it might be a sign of things to come.

To at least one city of­fi­cial, it also brings up the ques­tion: What con­sti­tutes an ur­ban farm?

“I have noth­ing against ur­ban farms, but they’ve evolved much like the old his­tor­i­cal farm­ers mar­kets and fes­ti­vals, where we now have con­cerns about food han­dling, food prepa­ra­tion and food sam­pling be­cause peo­ple are cook­ing,” said Vin­cent Delisi, di­vi­sion man­ager for the city of Austin’s en­vi­ron­men­tal health ser­vices de­part­ment. “There are health and safety rules to fol­low.”

As for the farms, “the big is­sue for me is the zon­ing is­sue,” said Delisi. “To have a back­yard garden and give eggs to your neigh­bor is one thing, but to process and sell chick­ens and rab­bits for whole­sale? That’s a full-fledged busi­ness in an im­prop­erly zoned area.”

Melissa Martinez, spokes­woman for the Austin Code Com­pli­ance De­part­ment, said the in­spec­tor who looked into Polanco’s com­plaint about Barger’s farm found no vi­o­la­tion of the zon­ing code be­cause it al­lows poul­try farm­ing and the sell­ing of farm prod­ucts from the site.

Delisi isn’t so sure. He said last week that his in­spec­tors paid a sec­ond visit to Barger’s farm, and he has re­ferred the case back to the code com­pli­ance de­part­ment for an­other look.

One of those in­spec­tors, en­vi­ron­men­tal com­pli­ance spe­cial­ist Os­car Garza, de­ter­mined that the chicken slaugh­ter­ing on Barger’s farm re­quires a state per­mit for pos­si­ble dis­charge into storm sew­ers, but he said he was im­pressed with how clean the farm was.

“They have a good op­er­a­tion. They are com­post­ing on site and us­ing sus­tain­able prac­tices. They ap­pear to be a good stew­ard of the en­vi­ron­ment,” he said.

Cir­cle of life

The source of Polanco’s orig­i­nal com­plaint is what Barger calls a black sol­dier fly composter, a key link in the farm’s “cir­cle of life.” The composter takes what’s left over from har­vest­ing the chick­ens, in­clud­ing heads, lungs and in­testines, at­tract­ing sol­dier flies. The in­sects are in­volved in the com­post­ing process at other ur­ban farms as well.

“Bio-con­ver­sion oc­curs,” said Barger. “Flies come to the meat sub­stance, lay eggs, and the black sol­dier grub eats the meat. The grubs crawl out of the composter through a tube and fall to the ground where the chick­ens will eat them. We’ve been do­ing this three years with­out any com­plaints.”

How­ever, Barger said on the week­end that Polanco com­plained, “the sys­tem got out of whack. We slaugh­tered more birds on that oc­ca­sion so there was more ma­te­rial in the composter. The process is a lit­tle stinky. We apol­o­gized to Mr. Polanco and other neigh­bors.”

Barger said her farm has vastly im­proved the neigh­bor­hood. The 2 acres dot­ted with pecan trees was once a farm. Then, a de­vel­oper bought it but it was lost to fore­clo­sure.

“When we first saw it, there were two shacks used as crack houses and a love nest for pros­ti­tutes,” Barger said. She has hosted events and par­ties on the prop­erty, in­clud­ing an ap­pear­ance by noted food au­thor Michael Pol­lan.

Hans Di­et­rich, a nextdoor neigh­bor who has lived in the area for nine years, said the trans­for­ma­tion of the prop­erty has been amaz­ing. “I’m grate­ful for the farm that is bring­ing an aware­ness of where food comes from. I have two kids who are mak­ing a con­nec­tion to that ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said.

“If you’re ask­ing me if I’d rather have a farm that in­vites New York Times best-seller Michael Pol­lan to a party or on the other hand have a place that would have pos­si­bly been devel­oped into a bunch of houses, I’ll take the farm, and I can put up with the smell that comes with it,” he said.

No­ta­bles at­tend­ing par­ties on HausBar Farms doesn’t im­press Polanco. “What I get is all the traf­fic on my street,” he said.

Once she com­plies with all city rules, Barger plans to ex­pand. Soon, she will be­gin har­vest­ing the 50 rab­bits she’s raised. She’s build­ing a new home on the back of her lot and will turn an ex­ist­ing house in the front into a bed and break­fast.

She en­vi­sions cook­ing demon­stra­tions and classes by lo­cal chefs us­ing food raised her farm. Rain­wa­ter from a 30,000-gal­lon col­lec­tion tank will feed into a swim­ming pool and then to a small tank where she will raise tilapia, a mild­tast­ing fish.

“It’s a really neat lit­tle dream,” she said. “We need more of th­ese farms, not less.” That idea has the back­ing of the Sus­tain­able Food Pol­icy Board, an ad­vi­sory board formed by the city four years ago to sup­port lo­cal food grow­ing on ur­ban farms and com­mu­nity gar­dens.

Polanco isn’t sold. “It’s just not right to have chick­ens and don­keys in the mid­dle of the city, and the noise, smell and traf­fic that comes along with it,” he said. peo­ple and busi­nesses that there’s a price to pay for abus­ing the trust on which on­line re­view sites are built.”

The dam­age an un­flat­ter­ing re­view — real or bo­gus — can do to a com­pany has prompted an Austin-based firm to launch a new web­site that keeps feed­back be­tween cus­tomers and busi­ness own­ers pri­vate.

At Mifft.com, peo­ple share de­tails about their not-so-great ex­pe­ri­ences, which are then re­layed di­rectly to man­agers of shops and restau­rants. Com­pa­nies, if they choose to par­tic­i­pate, have up to 72 hours to re­spond to feed­back they re­ceive. CEO Richard MacKin­non said Mifft has dealt with Whole Foods Mar­ket, Whataburger and Ra­dio Shack, among oth­ers.

“This way, when you pro­vide feed­back to a busi­ness, it doesn’t get pub­lished or archived,” he said. “It’s just be­tween you and the busi­ness, so it’s more likely to be au­then­tic.”

The idea — Mifft calls it “Help us be­fore you Yelp us” — came when MacKin­non and friends were din­ing at a new Austinarea restau­rant. It was a less-than-ideal out­ing, he said.

“They’d ob­vi­ously in­vested a lot in the de­sign, but the food wasn’t that great,” he said. “That led us to talk about Yelp ... but putting that on Yelp wouldn’t have helped them. It would have hurt them.”

Still, MacKin­non ac­knowl­edges some folks are just out to “ding” a busi­ness. That, he said, will prob­a­bly never change.

Bot­tom line: “You’d bet­ter be right, or you could have se­ri­ous is­sues,” Ber­lik said.

Jay Jan­ner / amer­i­canS­TATES­MAN

Dorsey Barger, owner of HausBar Farms, feeds the an­i­mals on her farm in East Austin. She was un­aware of city rules for ur­ban farms and is work­ing to com­ply, she says.

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