Farms OK; activities another matter
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.
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.