Backyard farm movement 
yields rare political hybrid

Who says we’re polarized by politics? Blues can unite with reds, especially over a Rhode Island red.

Stephanie Van Parys, director of the Oakhurst Community Garden

Stephanie Van Parys, director of the Oakhurst Community Garden, likes the Georgia Right to Grow bill.

On the right: a Republican legislator who thinks people should have the right to use their land, by God, any way they want. On the left: the bandana-and-sandals set who embrace urban gardening as green and globally correct.

In the middle: chickens, goats, corn, beans, tomatoes and just about anything else that thrives in Georgia’s red dirt. Rep. Bobby Franklin (R-Marietta) and his newfound political cronies agree, to their mutual surprise, that those plants and animals should be able to grow wherever landowners want.

But local authorities don’t always see things the way locavores do, sometimes frowning on too many crops or certain livestock being raised in city neighborhoods. Thus a state lawmaker like Franklin gets involved, and suddenly finds himself in an alliance he didn’t anticipate.

“I’ll take allies where I can find them,” said Franklin, who admits he cannot grow a weed.

One is Decatur resident Stephanie Van Parys, executive director of the Oakhurst Community Garden. Van Parys, who can grow just about anything (organically, of course) is bemused to find herself in the same patch, legislatively speaking, as a lawmaker who once defended the right of Segway riders to carry firearms. When Franklin filed the Georgia Right to Grow bill, Van Parys supported it.

“I’d really like to get into his head and know what his reasoning was,” she said.

Going green, sort of

Franklin, 52, is happy to explain.

“I’m a city boy, through and through,” said Franklin, a small-business consultant raised outside Birmingham. “Make that a suburban boy, I guess.”

Yet he knew about rural Alabama, and how it had sustained people through the Great Depression. Back then, people didn’t have money, but they had corn and beans growing in the fields. They had chickens scratching in the backyard. They had food.

“These days, we think food comes in Styrofoam trays,” said Franklin.

Chickens at the Oakhurst Community Garden.

Chickens at the Oakhurst Community Garden.

In most places, homeowners can grow food to eat, except where local ordinances prohibit the practice. Franklin’s bill, if it became law, would have superseded those ordinances, allowing homeowners to grow their own — chickpeas as well as chickens.

He dreamed up his bill last year. Why not have a law ensuring that all Georgians could grow their own food, much as Depression-era Americans sustained themselves through those lean years with home-grown edibles? House Bill 842 began germinating in his mind.

Franklin teetered into territory where the blue state-red state dispute is secondary to the state of how green a garden grows. From one coast to the other, more people than ever are embracing the backyard garden and the coop where chickens produce breakfast on a regular basis.

In the metro area, Decatur is probably the friendliest municipality to backyard gardens and animals; neighborhoods in Atlanta also are home to creatures that quack and crow.

Backyard gardens are getting more popular, said Gil Landry, director of the UGA Center for Urban Agriculture. Founded 10 years ago, the center advises growers on everything from ornamental shrubbery to edible produce. It does not keep figures on the number of urban growers in Georgia, but Landry says inquiries from people wanting to grow their own food have increased.

Most people ask about plants, he said. And chickens? “That’s a sensitive issue in some urban areas,” he said.

‘Lightbulb’ moment

This coming Saturday, backyard chicken raising across metro Atlanta will be celebrated during the 2010 Urban Coop Tour, sponsored by the Oakhurst Community Garden Project, Georgia Organics and the Atlanta Backyard Poultry Meetup Group. But home-grown fowl have not been welcomed everywhere.

Dunwoody officials recently banned chickens. Roswell council members revised an ordinance to limit the number of birds a resident can have. A Johns Creek resident settled a lawsuit the city brought against her for having chickens too close to a neighbor’s property.

So what? For Franklin, the decision to file a home farming bill was a “lightbulb-coming-on moment.”

Yet others did not see the light, and criticized the bill as big government overreaching itself. The Georgia Municipal Association’s response was typical.

“It [opposition] has nothing to do with farm animals or gardens,” said Amy Henderson, a spokeswoman for the association, whose membership includes more than 500 Georgia cities and towns. “It has to do with communities being told what to do by the state.”

Most municipalities, she noted, have no problem with home gardens; it’s only when residents want to raise chickens or other creatures that some city councils say no.

Others, such as Dunwoody blogger and gardener Pattie Baker, embraced Franklin’s bill. A gardener growing some of her own food since just after 9/11, she watched, dismayed, as her City Council last month shot down a proposal to allow chickens to be raised in backyards. Mayor Ken Wright cast the tie-breaking vote, 4-3.

OK, said Baker, the idea didn’t hatch — not this time, anyway. She thinks the City Council, as well as state lawmakers, may come around. “I guess the fact that it was discussed at all is a big step forward,” she said.

Sandals vs. wing tips

This would seem to be an issue that begs for stereotyping: the in-town crowd, with their Volvo wagons and organic cotton tees, vs. the suburbanites, with their Chevy Suburbans and polo shirts. One group is all for the right to grow food on their property; the other worries more about property values.

Those stereotypes, insist the grow-your-own adherents, aren’t fair.

“This is not an East Coast-West Coast sort of thing, with the rest of the country in the middle,” said Lisa Munniksma, managing editor of Urban Farm magazine. Launched last year, the Lexington, Ky., quarterly celebrates sustainable city living. “This is happening all over the country.”

Some people, said Munniksma, think landowners ought to be allowed to grow whatever they want on their own land, government prohibitions be damned. “That’s pretty conservative,” she said.

Conservative and smart, says Franklin. Forbidding Georgians from using their land to feed themselves, he said, is “Soviet-style, centralized planning.”

An unlikely champion

The afternoon light, captured in half-full wine goblets, glowed like church windows. A handful of friends toasted day’s end while their kids played nearby. Behind them, a guy yanked weeds from a plant bed. A little farther away, three women readied eggplant seedlings for replanting. A Volvo wagon, of course, was parked at the curb.

Time seemed to slow at the Oakhurst Community Garden, a co-op where people have been growing good stuff since 1997.

A bunch of closet socialists, anti-gun and pro-goat? Garden member Kathy Allen laughed. “Well,” she said, “no one’s said that to my face.”

Some garden members applauded when word got around about Franklin’s bill. Then they learned more about their champion, a man who thinks Ronald Reagan set the standard for the American presidency. Yet Franklin, they discovered, wasn’t above turning to another public figure — a woman, and a Democrat, at that — to plug his legislation.

“If Michelle Obama can grow food at the White House, then no Georgia family should be denied the right to grow their own food, “ Franklin said last month, after the bill cleared the House Agriculture Committee. He and others then watched it wither and die in the House Rules Committee.

The grow-your-own crowd sighed and turned back to their seed catalogs. Franklin started planning, too.

To him, the logic behind the bill is as simple as a tomato sandwich. He had something good, served it with hardly any adornment and hoped his peers would gobble it up. They did not.

So Franklin will bide his time. Another legislative season, he knows, will come. Some ideas, like tomatoes, chicken and goats, just need time to mature.


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2 Responses

  1. Barb

    Great idea! No property owner should be prevented from growing food on that property! But I don't want to be wakened every morning at 4am by my neighbor's rooster, and I don't want to smell an uncleaned chicken coop under my bedroom window. I'm all for laying hens in a clean coop or loose in the yard. I'm all for a polite goat or two. There's got to be some humane and sensible rules.
    BUT, all in all, it's not the Fed's business! This is a community subject. Not even the state should be making this rule, but the individual community. This one yes, that one no, it's up to the people who live there, not some nincompoop 1200 miles away who admittedly can't grow a weed.

  2. Survivalspot

    Well stated Barb! I couldn't agree more that these are issues that need to be resolved within the community itself, among the individuals who actually live there. I think that's one of the biggest issues we have in America today. We have given so much of our power over to the government that we don't even know how to make cohesive decisions as a populace anymore!


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