Starting farms, community gardens in Dallas shouldn’t be a headache

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Those of us who have our pick of grocery stores push our shopping carts past mounds of apples, tomatoes and lettuce heads without batting an eye. But in some pockets of Dallas where money and fresh food are scarce, fruits and veggies would be absent from many dinner tables if it weren’t for community gardens and urban farms.

These gardens and farms nourish in other ways. Some of them provide jobs or training for veterans as well as residents who have struggled with addiction and mental illness.

Yet Dallas’ bureaucracy makes it difficult for gardeners and farmers to figure out what’s allowed and how to get an operation off the ground. That is why we welcome an initiative at Dallas City Hall to draft an urban agriculture plan, which is expected to be briefed to the full City Council on March 1.

The document lays out an ambitious blueprint to reduce regulatory barriers, educate communities about farming and make more land available for growing produce.

Cutting red tape at City Hall must be the top priority. Many of the dozens of people interviewed to develop the urban agriculture plan identified a lack of clarity about city processes and related fees as a “substantial obstacle.”

The plan proposes easing the review process for certificates of occupancy and development reviews for urban agriculture projects, as well as lowering or waiving of fees for small-scale operations.

Another proposal involves making vacant city land available for community gardens and farming. For example, Atlanta has a program to adopt city lots for urban gardens or farms through five-year renewable licenses.

City officials should be thoughtful when reviewing development rules, but they should also keep in mind that failing to act quickly can paralyze fledgling businesses and hamper efforts to feed needy families. Last year, we wrote about how a knot of zoning and temporary event rules was keeping the nonprofit For Oak Cliff from recruiting food vendors for its farmers market. The City Council wisely chose to revise its rules.

Cristian Camacho, an urban farmer with Big Tex Urban Farms who has worked on other Dallas agriculture projects, said fellow farmers usually identify the same set of challenges: struggles to find land and funding, delays in getting connected to utilities and too small a pool of workers with the expertise to grow food and run a business.

That is an area where Camacho has stepped in. Big Tex Urban Farms is partnering with Dallas ISD’s CityLab High School to start an internship program this month. The urban farm at Fair Park produced more than 18,000 pounds of produce last year that it donated to South Dallas nonprofits.

Community gardens and urban farms alone can’t solve the problem of food deserts in southern Dallas, which is why the city must remain intent on bringing in grocery stores. Still, it’s fruitful that City Hall recognizes the importance of promoting urban agriculture. More carrot, less stick.

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