Urban Farms: Where "Vegetable" Is a Murky Term

Sitting on the grounds of Silver Lake Farms, one could almost be in the countryside — convince yourself that the thrum of traffic on Rowena is a river, and you’re transported. The gardens are green above, below and around, punctuated by the bright blooms on most productive plants, whether the flowers are the goal or just a step in the process.

This is a true urban farm, and it’s center stage in a drama currently unfolding: While L.A. is ready to embrace the local movement, some neighbors and city cogs seem determined, through force or folly, to stop it.

The farm was started by Tara Kolla in 2003 as a flower-growing operation, with the specific goal of selling at the Silver Lake Farmers Market. The striking British woman studied hard at Pierce College to gain the knowledge for the endeavor and looks totally at ease among the thriving plants, shabby-chic sitting areas and workbenches.

In 2002, Kolla attempted to ensure that her business met all codes. But even as she asked the various city agencies if her plan was a go, she says, “I wasn’t convinced they understood what my question was.” Frustrated but not discouraged, Kolla eventually got a Building and Safety inspector to come look at the property. “He said, ‘It falls into a gray area,’ but as long as I didn’t sell the flowers here but sold them off-site, it shouldn’t be a problem. ... Off I went!”

Indeed, Kolla happily conducted business without a problem for six or so years, until somehow she again came to the attention of Building and Safety. Kolla is uncomfortable discussing the details, but, in the age of Google, all signs point to a cranky neighbor unhappy about a home-based business in the neighborhood — one who decided to research all available angles for shutting down the farm. Apparently the “gray area” was now a red light.

Little-known fact: In 1946 a code known as the Truck Gardening Ordinance was passed, making it legal in residential areas to grow vegetables for off-site sale. It hasn’t received much attention since then, but with more people interested in eating locally grown food, it’s a player. Unfortunately for today’s aspiring urban farmers, the ordinance only mentions vegetables: Narrowly defined, that could outlaw growing fruits, flowers, nuts, herbs and seedlings.

Officials seemed as baffled as Kolla to discover the old statute. Some suggested she obtain a conditional-use permit (which costs up to $15,000 just to pursue, with no promise of a positive result), which Kolla objected to, considering that the department had previously given her the go-ahead. “Logically, why would I pay for something you guys said was okay?”

Kolla has also continued to ask officials if she can still sell flowers, just to see what they’ll say. This year, “I’ve asked the same question five times. I’ve gotten two different answers. Three times yes, and twice it’s been no.”

The political seesawing has prompted Kolla to work with other community activists, such as Dave Keitel of the Silver Lake Reservoirs Conservancy, to form a group they call the Urban Farming Advocates. Through L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti, they have introduced a motion, the Food and Flowers Freedom Act, which would allow “the cultivation of flowers, fruits, nuts or vegetables defined as the product of any tree, vine or plant, and that these products be allowed for use on-site or sale off-site.”

The all-encompassing vocabulary is necessary not just as a reaction to the Truck Gardening Ordinance’s limiting wording but also as an acknowledgment that even non-scientists should understand that vegetable is a murky term. As Kolla puts it, “A tomato is a fruit, and a cauliflower is a flower, and my flowers are edible.” In other words, it can be argued that there is no difference between growing lettuce and growing daisies.

The Urban Farming Advocates and their champion Garcetti see this motion as a shoo-in. According to Garcetti, “There’s definitely a growing interest in locally grown food, and I’d like to see increased accessibility to these products. This legislation will help clarify city policy on urban farming.”

The optimism is great but perhaps not enough to convince urban farmers to hold their breath. Even Kolla has switched the focus of her farm. She has teamed up with another local farmer to create a CSA. Flowers are out, and vegetables are in.

Will she ever switch back to her first love, flowers?

“I’ll wait and see what’s going to happen.”

—Katherine Spiers