In mid-September news broke that a Georgia man in Dekalb County was fighting municipal officials after his attempts to comply with zoning regulations resulted in the County taking the man to court. The issue? His vegetable garden.
Steve Miller is a small-scale organic gardener, although that is not his day job. He's been growing his veggies on two acres of land for the past 15 years. Miller did take a break from his farming activities this summer in order to get his property rezoned by Dekalb County officials reported WSBTV. Miller is fighting $5,200 in fines levied against him by the County. The issue has been dubbed "cabbagegate."
Dekalb, which bills itself as "The Greenest County in America" has taken the matter to court for resolution, even though Miller's property, successfully rezoned, is now compliant.
Miller's fight might be strictly local, but the issues surrounding his legal battle over growing vegetables draw attention to the larger issues that face many small scale food producers in the United States.
Technically, Miller is a landscaper with his own business, says a video clip prepared for WSBTV news, and growing vegetables is a hobby for the man, something Miller describes as being a "passion." Miller sells and gives away his excess produce.
Miller has been getting citations from Dekalb County for the past two years, saying he was in violation of the zoning regulations. However, in 2008, Besha Rodell wrote "... According to the DeKalb County Office of Planning and Development, the law is vague and in place to prevent large commercial operations in residential areas. Sanctioning Miller would be like punishing an eBay-based home business."
A blogger identified only as "M.S." wrote on The Economist's blog, summed up the key issues in Dekalb's insistence in prosecuting Miller saying "... What I can't understand is how vegetable farming ever got zoned out of urban areas in the first place. There are a lot of commercial activities that urban areas might reasonably want to zone out of residential areas. I can see the logic behind, say, considering whether steel mills or psychiatric outpatient facilities are appropriately sited in a given community. Or an intensive hog-farming operation with massive waste ponds. But why would anyone object to a vegetable farm in their neighbourhood? Who wouldn't want a cornfield or a cabbage patch down the road?
... It's sad enough when urban sprawl drives out farming because land values rise, and you lose that rich interspersal of potato farms and beach houses on Long Island or cornfields and neighbourhoods in Maryland. But there seems no reason at all to exacerbate the scarcity of small-scale vegetable farms in near-urban areas by actively outlawing them."AOL reported that Miller had attempted to resolve the matter with Dekalb officials last year, but last October, the County began to give Miller Code violation notices. A spokesperson from Georgia Organics told AOL "There's a fine line between urban agriculture and backyard gardening. Since this is an emerging issue, there are going to be some gray areas. Most of the time, it's the laws that need updating."
Small scale food production issues, as the Economist blogger pointed out, include municipal zoning regulations, the high price of land, the urbanization of agricultural land, water use, all the way to corporate farming versus family farming and small scale farming, and the ultimate issue for both individuals and nations: self-sufficiency.
Small scale production is important, argued journalist Jay Rayner in an article published in The Guardian, because food self-sufficiency has declined rapidly in the past ten years.
After police raided a food store in California this summer (with guns drawn), writer Devinder Sharma warned "This is certainly outrageous. But this is a grim pointer to where the next battles would be fought. It is not water, as many people believe, but food that will be putting nations at war. You can clearly see, if you want to, where it is coming from. Multinational food giants have been slowly but steadily gaining control over food. They know that absolute control over food is the road to absolute power."The Ecologist reported that there is a growing movement in the United States to reclaim farming that advocates a "Ninja approach" -- using small plots of land not suitable for corporate farming.
Miller and the County of Dekalb have not yet had their day in court, and the matter remains unresolved.
Change.org has initiated a petition in Miller's defense, asking Dekalb County to drop the fines. 806 people have signed so far, and Change would like to see at least 1,000 signatures.