Every morning, farm manager Jhamal Huckaby drives to Tabor Farms, a patch of land behind a Family Dollar store on East Berry Street. He walks the perimeter to see what crops may need extra watering, or a weed pulled.
“I kind of just go with the flow,” Huckaby said. He usually has a project of the day. On this particular Monday in March, he’s planting tomatoes.
Farming is not an easy job, but growing produce proves less difficult than meeting the demands of the city’s urban agriculture ordinance.
Grow Southeast, which manages the farm, is trying to become the first nonprofit – or any organization – to establish its 2.5 acres of fertile soil as farmland under Fort Worth’s ordinance
The ordinance is intended to regulate and encourage urban agriculture and community gardens farms in Fort Worth. Grow Southeast has spent five years trying to comply with the city’s requirements for the farm.
Now, its members want to work with the city to make the ordinance easier to navigate for future farmers.
“We’re trying to help create a better environment for growing food in the community,” said Linda Fulmer, executive director of Healthy Tarrant County Collaboration.
Grow Southeast is an initiative started by the office of County Commissioner Roy Charles Brooks, the Healthy Tarrant County Collaboration, and CoAct – with the goal of easing food and economic inequities in southeast Fort Worth. The organization supports four farms, including Tabor Farms, in the area.
Tabor Farms is already outproducing some of the organization’s more established farms, Jesse Herrera, executive director and co-founder of CoAct. The land has the potential to produce about 20,000 pounds of produce annually when it reaches full capacity.
“Our objective with this project is to get each of the farms we’re currently serving to self-sufficiency, document the process and insights learned and then be able to take this back to the city so that hopefully other community members can replicate this,” Herrera said.
Parts of east Fort Worth are considered a food desert by the US Department of Agriculture. Food deserts are defined as areas with limited access to affordable and healthy food by the USDA. Areas with higher poverty rates and higher concentrations of minority populations are more likely to be food deserts, exacerbating health inequality.
The city and Tarrant County have worked to create initiatives to close health gaps among different areas of Fort Worth. It started in 2014 with a commitment to become a certified Blue Zone Community, which is a citizen-led effort to improve the health of a city. That effort led to the creation of a mobile food vending ordinance and urban agriculture ordinance.
The urban agriculture ordinance, passed by Fort Worth City Council in 2016, was created to provide an easier pathway to grow and create access to fresh food in the urban core of Fort Worth, said Mary Wells, a planning manager with the city of Fort Worth’s Development Services Department.
The ordinance requires farmers to comply with 15 general requirements and submit a site plan for approval by the Development Services department. Farmers can bypass the zoning process, if they want to build a farm on land not already zoned for agricultural use. At the end of the process, the farm receives a certificate of occupancy.
Tabor Farms and Grow Southeast first started the process of trying to secure a certificate of occupancy for the farm in 2018. Wells was not working with the city when the ordinance was passed but was involved with urban agriculture when she worked for the city of Omaha, Neb.
“When we’re creating new ordinances for things that don’t exist already, we do the best we can to lay out what we think is going to work… But we don’t really know if it works, until somebody tries to do it,” Wells said.
The ordinance is a work in progress, and the city is invested in making it easier for residents to establish urban farms, Wells said.
‘Pain points’ in development process
Tabor Farms was partly delayed by the urban forestry portion of the ordinance. The land the farm sits on was previously filled with trees and bushes. Tabor Farms was required to submit an Urban Forestry Plan documenting what trees were already on the land, a task that required them to hire an arborist.
In order to meet the requirements of the urban forestry ordinance, the city told Fulmer that Tabor Farms would have to plant several fruit trees to meet the canopy requirements of the ordinance.
The orchards will eventually produce apples and pears, but planting them was not a part of Grow Southeast’s original plan.
They take up valuable production areas and are especially costly to maintain, Co-Act’s Herrera said.
“The truth of this is these will not bear fruit for many years,” Herrera said. “It’s just another thing that we have to take care of in order to satisfy regulatory requirements.”
Tabor Farms planted the trees on the advice of city staff, Fulmer said. She has since discovered the farm didn’t need to plant the orchard trees to comply with the ordinance.
Some of the tasks the city required, such as identifying what trees were already on the land, is a key requirement of the city’s urban forestry ordinance, Wells said. It is important to preserve trees in the city’s forested areas regardless of what is being developed, she said.
Confusion about building permits for small accessory structures – work sheds – also led to delays. A small structure around the farm’s well was one of the biggest “pain points” in the process, Herrera said.
The urban agriculture ordinance states that farmers do not have to secure permitting for structures on the farm that are non-habitable and less than 400 square feet; however, other city codes contradict the ordinance, leading to confusion among staff, Herrera said.
Ultimately, Herrera was able to build the structure without being required to secure a permit, he said.
“The thing is, we still don’t have a clear interpretation, if we went back to do this again we could run into a whole different experience,” Herrera said.
Said Wells: “What I have learned is that (the ordinance) might have actually been implemented correctly, it just wasn’t a great ordinance initially.”
Changes within Development Services
The Development Services Department, and the city as a whole, has experienced a high amount of staff turnover, said DJ Harrell, the department’s director. In a tight job market, the private sector has pulled public sector workers away from the city, he said.
In response, the city is working to make the city a more attractive place to work through increasing pay and offering flexibility to employees who want to work from home.
Roles shifting within departments can mean a loss of expertise among staff working with residents on specific projects and permits.
That was the case with Tabor Farms, Herrera said. City staff was helpful, but occasionally seemed unsure of the requirements of the urban agriculture ordinance.
“I actually spent a whole day at the city of Fort Worth and got four completely different interpretations,” Herrera said.
Since Tabor Farms started the process of establishing the farm, other changes have been made within development services to streamline the process. Now, representatives from the urban forestry program work in the same department as other staff members focused on permitting and development, Harrell said. These changes improve communication between staff, he said..
The Urban Agriculture ordinance was revised in 2020, Wells said. The city is willing to consider revising the ordinance again too, based on feedback from Fulmer and Tabor Farms, after the organization finally receives its certificate of occupancy in the next couple of months. By the end of the process, the organization will have spent $200,000 on the property.
Implementing the urban agriculture ordinance is especially challenging, Fulmer said. This ordinance, unlike other development-related ordinances, is more likely to be utilized by members of the public who are not developers by trade and therefore likely have no prior experience with the process.
“When the ordinance was developed, the aim was to make it such that an average person from the community could easily go in and apply and receive the permit,” Fulmer said. “It wasn’t until somebody like us, or our farmers rather, actually went down to City Hall to apply that all these complexities started to emerge.”
Developing a ‘more customer friendly’ ordinance
Work started last week to install a fence around Tabor Farms, the last step before the organization can ask for an inspection and receive final approval from the city. Fulmer hopes the fence will put a stop to another one of the farm’s chief nemeses: east Fort Worth’s rabbit population.
“When they’re high on pea shoots, they don’t care if you’re human,” Fulmer said. “I’ve never seen such evil bunnies.”
Once the process wraps up, Fulmer said she is looking forward to meeting with the city and suggesting improvements to the ordinance.
The key to successful urban agriculture programs is developing partnerships between nonprofits and public entities such as the city, Wells said.
In Omaha, urban agriculture was used to improve access to food, hold community events and integrate the city’s refugee population into community programs, Wells said. Grow Southeast shares a similar vision.
“Where we’re hoping the city will be partners and pioneers in this by providing residual consistent support, not only in the permitting aspect, but in those other indirect ways to help us be successful,” Herrera said. “One of those can be offering us an agricultural exemption for water usage.”
Wells said the city is looking forward to discussing the ordinance with Grow Southeast as the city works simultaneously in developing its forthcoming urban forestry master plan.
“It is the perfect time to go in and make our urban agriculture ordinance stronger and more customer friendly,” Wells said. “We want to be able to duplicate this and replicate this, and other people to be able to do this.”
Despite the challenges presented by the ordinance, Fulmer is grateful it allowed the farmers to start work growing food at Tabor Farms – without getting the land rezoned.
“We look forward to working to continue refining and improving the process so that the next set of farmers that want to set up a farm on a piece of vacant property can do it a little faster,” Fulmer said.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.