Urban agriculture

Austin's HausBar Farms struggles to stay alive while the City of Austin considers urban farming

Austin's HausBar Farms struggles to stay alive

Dorsey Barger and Susan Haufmann of HausBar farms
Dorsey Barger and Susan Haufmann of HausBar Farms Courtesy of HausBar Farms
TXP/ City of Austin report on Food
The TXP/City of Austin report on food. Courtesy of TXP/ City of Austin
Dorsey Barger and Susan Haufmann of HausBar farms
TXP/ City of Austin report on Food

HausBar Farms is a sustainable urban farm that grows produce and raises small livestock, conducts culinary classes and gardening workshops, is available for events and even offers day camps for children.

Or at least, they're trying to be.

HausBar Farms, started in 2009 by Susan Hausmann and Dorsey Barger (of Eastside Café), has recently been shut down by the city. What began with a complaint from a neighbor about odor from the chickens has turned into a battle on behalf of Austin's urban farming community.

On one side are groups like People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources (PODER), that attack urban farming as being a "white movement" and accuse farms of taking up land that could be used for homes.

But Barger counters that when they bought the property it was in horrible shape, covered with garbage and home to three active crack houses. She tells CultureMap, "It's unfortunate that this is being made into a racial issue. I've lived in East Austin for 20 years; it's where I feel at home. I did not ever come here with the intention of displacing anyone. I support and want to live in a diverse neighborhood."

She and Hausmann moved a 780-square foot cottage onto the land and renovated it, while developing the farm. No gas-powered equipment has been used on the land; the entire garden, all 51 beds of it, was hand dug with pitchforks and shovels. They only throw away about a gallon of trash per week — and that’s for the farm and personal household combined.

“We either compost or recycle every other thing that comes on to this property,” Barger says. “That includes staples, the lint that comes out of the dryer, the dirt from the vacuum cleaner; household bills are shredded and used to line our hens' nesting boxes. We make all of our own garden fertilizer by composting our hens' waste mixed with dried leaves.” They recently installed a thirty-thousand gallon rainwater capture system to catch the rain from the roof, and there are plans to add solar energy.

"Buying food shipped to us from all over the world is not sustainable," Barger says. "We were looking forward to having locavore chefs teach cooking classes so that consumers can learn to shop at the local farmers' markets and cook and eat seasonally."

That dream has been put on hold. After PODER's string of complaints, HausBar Farms is out of business while it attempts to resolve the city permit and code issues. Barger says that when PODER representatives went before City Council making false claims such as HausBar Farms was slaughtering 50 chickens a day (the true figure was 20 chickens a week at maximum), not one person from the organization had ever contacted HausBar or asked to visit the farm.

Susana Almanza of PODER says that she supports box gardens and the importance of families being able to grow their own vegetables or raise chickens for personal use; but is concerned about the lack of affordable housing and retaining single family zoning with the wave of gentrification flooding East Austin. "Those so-called decrepit, crime-filled useless lots, could have and should have been redeveloped to house people," she says in an email.

"East Austin, according to the Urban Farm Ordinance, is the only part of town, where people can buy one to five acres of land, regardless of its zoning and create urban farms. We know that with the technology of today we can grow food in just about any environment but this is only being allowed in East Austin, where the majority of low-income and working class people of color live," Almanza writes.

According to the City of Austin, however, this statement is not true. Urban farming is not restricted only to East Austin. "Urban farming is permitted in every zoning area in Austin, including raising chickens and selling agricultural products," says Jerry Rusthoven, current planning manager for the City of Austin Planning and Development Review Department. "The urban farm regulations are applicable city-wide."

Another part of that problem seems to be that Barger and Hausmann received unclear and contradictory information from the city to begin with. They were awarded a license by the Texas Department of Agriculture to produce and wholesale graded eggs, and issued a license from the Texas Department of State Health Services allowing them to raise and slaughter poultry and rabbits for wholesale. The kitchen was also inspected by the TDA. Having moved into the renovated house onsite, Barger and Hausmann began building a second, larger home on the property, which they also received necessary permits for.

But Rusthoven says that the urban farm permit was mistakenly issued to HausBar Farms. "They had the second dwelling, which isn't allowed," Rusthoven explains. "Urban farms must meet certain requirements, including land size of one to five acres and a restriction on only one dwelling unit." He admits that there was confusion coming from the city regarding the permits and requirements. "We were guilty of…when you put five departments in a room, you sometimes contradict each other." He says that HausBar Farms is "good to go" with the health department, and the city has met with Barger and Hausmann and are working together to resolve the issues.

"The codes exist as they exist today, and that's what we have to work with," Rusthoven says. "Some people feel it's too liberal, and others feel it's too restrictive." He adds that the city is dealing with actual complaints it has received, but is not actively going out looking for violations.

Meanwhile, the situation has created a much bigger question about the future of urban farming in Austin, and the very definition of an urban farm. A Facebook group has sprung up called Austin Citizens in Support of Urban Farms, which had 3,000 Likes by the end of its first day up. The Sustainable Food Policy Board, a citizens advisory group established by the city and Travis County to promote local food production, passed a resolution asking the city to clarify and update the urban farm land use definition and regulations.

Ronda Rutledge, executive director of the Sustainable Food Center and the vice-chair of the policy board, says that they are in a holding pattern while the city looks at this. "We’ve been told that the overall city code and zoning review could be a three to five year process. Obviously, a place like HausBar Farms can’t wait that long. The demand for local food is higher than ever before. We’d love to see 20-plus urban farms, rather than restricting the five or so we currently have in Austin."

Katherine Avalos Nicely, chair of the Urban Farms-Process and Code Coordination working group that the Sustainable Food Policy Board put together to look into the codes, says that the board evaluates and monitors resident's access to an affordable, diversified local-food supply and recommends measures to improve food security and nutrition.

"We recommend policies that facilitate equitable access to healthy food as well as culture of good food as a right. This is regardless of color. Historically every culture has embraced food as part of their community development and history. As a planner I see urban farms and community gardens as community institutions and urban places that define neighborhoods and districts in a City. Studies show that these become that third gathering place where communities interact."

Rutledge adds that the city's permit and zoning laws are outdated, and the problems experienced by HausBar have created a disheartening situation for other farms. "The current discourse has many of the urban farms rattled about what the city is or isn’t going to do in support of urban agriculture."

Paula Foore, co-owner of Springdale Farm with husband Glenn, tells CultureMap that while she believes the city unofficially appreciates the impact that urban farms have, they need their official support. "They need to be involved in making sure that zoning issues don't limit urban agriculture; that the Urban Farm definition does not overly limit us by size, or number of employees, or number of buildings that are utilized on site. The internal departments within the city need to be able to agree upon code enforcement and policies."

In fact, the City Council recently commissioned a report by TXP on the economic impact of urban agriculture and local food systems. The report found that urban farming is a big boon economically. "A substantial part of the appeal for visitors is a sense that the food and drink they consume is grown, processed, or provided by a local source. Conversations with chefs, retailers, and institutional buyers all reinforce the notion that consumer desire for local products, per the value of the 'Austin food' brand in its many forms, is very strong. Further expanding demand and growing supply will yield much greater overall economic activity in this space. Local production and processing/manufacturing means that more money stays in the region than would otherwise be the case, yielding a larger overall local economic impact."

Mason Arnold, co-founder of the organic food delivery company Greenling, says that urban farms are crucial to the local food system and economy. "Dorsey and other urban farmers in town work tirelessly so that Austinites can enjoy food that's grown close to home. We've visited HausBar farm and were impressed by their commitment to sustainability and cleanliness in their practices. I hope that the city will allow Dorsey and the employees who rely on her business can get back to work growing fresh, healthy food."

As far as the specific complaints about urban farms made by groups like PODER, Foore is adamant that they are not only unfounded but erroneous. "The fact that they spoke before the City Council with completely wrong information is slanderous, at best. Urban farms work every day to provide safe, true food to our community. PODER needs to re-visit their mission statement."

Barger met with PODER representatives when they finally visited the farm on April 11, in what she says was a cordial meeting. Almanza says, "I am sure that we can work together to keep urban farms without losing our single family homes and/or single family zoned lands."

Barger has also met with City Council members, who she says are all very supportive.

"All we wanted to do was have a farm that was an example of how food can be grown, respecting the earth and the animals who provide food for us."