If you’ve ever ordered the locavore salad from The Fiction Kitchen, then you’ve probably nibbled on microgreens grown in Tami Purdue’s shipping container. The Raleigh urban agriculturist can grow up to three tons of microgreens a year out of the 325-square-foot container, and, at one point, she sold produce to about 160 local restaurants.
In November 2019, her company, Sweet Pea Urban Gardens, joined forces with The Well Fed Community Gardens, a 1.5-acre operation on Athens Drive in southwest Raleigh owned by Irregardless Cafe founders Arthur and Anya Gordon.
Having just sold the beloved cafe they founded in 1975, the Gordons hoped to spend their retirement ramping up production at the farm with Purdue’s assistance.
The plan was to sell mostly to local businesses. Then came COVID, and overnight, their customer base disappeared as restaurants shuttered their doors and laid off staff.
With nowhere to share their harvest, Purdue and the Gordons conceived a workaround: Why not sell directly to customers from a farm stand? So Purdue applied for a permit from the city that spring and filled out the necessary paperwork.
But city staff told her no. City code, it turned out, prohibited community gardens from selling their bounty in residential neighborhoods. You’d have to take it elsewhere, to a booth at the farmer’s market or a welcoming shop, they said.
“It was very clear the city wasn’t prepared for farming inside of the city,” Purdue says.
Dissatisfied with that answer, Purdue took matters into her own hands. With the help of urban agriculture advocate Jenn Peeler Truman, Purdue crafted a citizen petition requesting a text change that would alter the definition of a community garden to allow farm stands in residential zones, and brought her request before the council last August.
It was the council’s first virtual meeting following a summer of unrest due to COVID-19 and ongoing protests downtown. Most of the speakers were signed up to talk about the city and police department’s mishandling of the protests. But Purdue was there to talk about a farm.
“The sales of our organic produce to neighbors will support the health of the community and earn income for us to train new urban farmers,” Purdue matter-of-factly told the council. “Currently, the Raleigh UDO (Unified Development Ordinance) does not support the needs of our community garden or any community garden to open a produce stand.”
Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin, who was wearing a bright blue Carolina Panthers jersey, nodded her head. She recalled working on the matter of farm stands years ago during her decade-long stint on the council. She asked then-city manager Ruffin Hall to prepare a staff report and draft a plan on how the council could update the city’s code.
Last week, in record time for municipal government, the Raleigh City Council unanimously approved the change, which permits urban gardens throughout the city to sell on-site what they grow.
The text change to the UDO removes the requirement for a special use permit in order to set up a farm stand at a community garden. Depending on the size of the garden, the stand can be up to 1,200 square feet and can’t operate past eight p.m., restrictions that seem reasonable in residential neighborhoods.
“Being able to grow right here and having folks come up and buy right here—it’s like a dream,” Purdue says. “Can you imagine a better life?”
The change won’t just help Sweet Pea and The Well Fed, but will also allow dozens of community gardens throughout the city to make their products available in neighborhoods that currently lack walkable access to fresh food. Have a backyard? You too could build a farm stand.
“Anything we can do to put goods and services closer to people where they are, that’s important,” says City Councilmember Jonathan Melton. “I want to build a city where we can promote small-scale neighborhood retail, so this is a step in that direction and it helps address food deserts—it makes sure there’s healthy food in more neighborhoods.”
For Truman, who has long advocated for the expansion of urban agriculture throughout the city, the change is just the beginning. She plans to bring more requests to the council in the coming weeks.
“We really see this produce stand effort in the UDO as a first step,” Truman says. “There’s a list of other things Raleigh could be doing to be more friendly toward urban agriculture we’d like to see. This isn’t the only thing that needs fixing but it is an exciting first step to be fixed.”
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