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Urban agriculture on the rise in Northwest Arkansas

story by Jamie Smith
jsmith@thecitywire.com

When Melissa Terry and her husband Flint Richter were children, they grew up on a farm, him near Springfield, Mo. and her in central Arkansas. Their background in farming is one reason they chose to purchase a nine-acre farm in August 2012 that sits in southeast Fayetteville.

Their land is zoned for residential but they are hoping to have it rezoned to agriculture to expand their ability to use the land for agricultural purposes.

“Our goal for our girls (age 6 and 8) is that they grow up knowing how to cultivate, preserve, and prepare fresh, healthy food; how to care for animals; and to find joy in their own powers of observation (such as noticing) sunrises and cool clouds; learning the names of birds, identifying different types of native grasses, plants, trees;  knowing what an heirloom seed is and why that's important, etc.” she said.

Melissa Terry’s family is not alone. Across the United States, including in Northwest Arkansas, the idea of urban agriculture is increasingly popular.

URBAN AGRI LEGALITIES
Laws vary in each Northwest Arkansas town for farm animals on land zoned for residential uses but the two extremes are Springdale and Fayetteville. Springdale does not allow any kind of farm animal (such as chickens) and Fayetteville recently changed its ordinances to allow an increasing number of chickens/ducks and bees, and now goats.

The number of animals from each species that is allowed is based on the plot size. The City of Fayetteville offers a detailed PDF that explains what is allowed under the ordinance, which passed in March 2014.

Bentonville and Rogers allow for bees and four hens. The city requires a permit and an inspection of the property, which must have the necessary housing for the animals and an appropriate sized lot. None of the major towns in Northwest Arkansas allow for roosters (male chickens) because of noise ordinances.

Increased interest has driven the evolving city ordinances, officials from Bentonville and Fayetteville agree.

“I anticipate that (the ordinances) will be under constant review based on what the citizens are telling us they need,” said Troy Galloway, city of Bentonville community and economic development director.

Peter Nierengarten, Fayetteville’s sustainability and resilience department director, said Fayetteville’s recent change in ordinances stems from the desire to help solve the local food distribution issues and allow people to supplement their income and have better access to healthier food. The ordinance changes also include more allowances for people to sell fresh produce they grow themselves from their home.

A grass-roots group in Springdale is working to get ordinances changed to allow chickens in the city limits (on land zoned for residential). They’ve met with resistance from the City Council, which as of this writing had not placed the issue on its agenda.

Tiffany Selvey lives in Springdale and works a 4,000-square-foot garden in her backyard. She’s part of the efforts to get chickens allowed in residential areas.

“In the last several years different people have approached the city council to ask for the ordinance to be changed to allow backyard hens in areas zoned residential. We are the hometown of Tyson and George’s, so it seems given that we could have backyard hens for eggs and pest control. Sadly, that's not the case. In the last few years, when all of our surrounding towns have made ordinances to allow backyard hens, Springdale will not change,” she said. “There are many reasons chickens could be beneficial in residential areas. Food security is an issue in our town, with some of our elementary schools at 90% or more free and reduced lunch rates.”

Continuing, Selvey said: “Those 2-4 eggs a day could make a real difference in the health of our children. Food insecurity aside, chickens provide excellent pest control, feasting on disease-carrying pests such as ticks. They also provide nutrient-rich free fertilizer, which appeals to me for obvious reasons. For those of us buying free-range, organic fed eggs at farmer's markets, we can save a lot of money. The average cost of organic, non-GMO fed chicken eggs, when you raise them at home is around $2 a dozen. And you get free fertilizer.”

Selvey added that there are efforts in town to ask for chickens to be allowed in educational gardens.

In regards to her own garden, Selvey gives credit for that interest to her grandfather.

“He is 80 years old and still maintains a huge garden in my town,” she said. “When I have questions, he's better than the Internet for information. As a child, I remember walking through the garden with him. The magic of growing food started way back then. ... After becoming a mom, I decided that I wanted to make a significant improvement in the health of my family, as well as a dent in the grocery budget.”

The desire to have healthy food is what led Dr. Malcolm Hayworth, an oncologist from Fayetteville, to start raising sheep in the 1980s. His father did the same when Hayworth was growing up in the northeastern United States. Hayworth is technically not in an urban area as his property is just outside city lines. However, he’s one of the area’s original “hobby” farmers and he has wisdom that would help others interested in starting their own urban agriculture program.

For one, make sure to provide veterinarian care for the animals (yes, chickens need to be vaccinated) and also make sure to purchase animals for the purpose they are intended. For example, some sheep are used mostly for meat, which is Hayworth’s purpose, and others are more for wool growth. The same is true for chickens. Some are better for laying eggs while others are better for harvesting.

LOCAL BUSINESS IMPACT
As the interest in urban agriculture grows, so does business for companies that offers supplies and expertise in the field. Farmers Co-op has 14 locations from Mena to Bentonville including Fort Smith, Bentonville and Fayetteville.

CEO Jay Carter said they are seeing a lot of urban agriculture business.

“It’s not just in Arkansas,” he said. “We’re seeing growth (in urban agriculture) across the nation.”

Farmers Co-op offers everything from high quality animal food to plants and raised garden beds. Customers can order chicks through the co-op but goats are not available, Carter said.

Two main reasons are contributing to the rise in urban agriculture, he said. One, more people want non-contaminated food that they know where it comes from. There’s also an increased interest in organic/natural food.

FARMING ORGANIZATIONS
Besides individuals showing more interest in urban agriculture, there’s also a growing number of organizations in Northwest Arkansas dedicated to local, community grown food. Terry is Program Coordinator for Feed Communities in Fayetteville.

“Our two program priorities are increasing healthy food access and improving healthy food choices,” she said.

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Terry emphasizes that the programs are designed to support sustainable food security because if the focus is on the insecurity, the needs will never end.

“In Northwest Arkansas we don’t have a food shortage, we have a distribution shortage,” she said.

Feed Communities works to create networks of service providers to make sure that healthy food is readily available throughout the community.

Tri Cycle Farms is located roughly at Sycamore and Garland in Fayetteville and has operated since 2011. The organization works with volunteers to raise chickens, food and bees. They hope to soon have goats, said Don Bennett, founder/director. They also offer education classes about growing food and how to prepare it.

“We need to address the food insecurity issues with awareness, education and empowerment,” he said. “We’re able to impact the neighborhood and community from the middle of town.”

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