By Jenny Quiner
Dogpatch Urban Gardens (DUG) is an urban farm located in Des Moines, Iowa, owned by Jenny & Eric Quiner. The farm slogan is, “Cultivating Community,” and in the two seasons of business the community support towards the farm has been monumental. 95% of the produce is sold within 10 miles of the farm. The main avenue for sales is the on-site DUG FarmStand. The stand sells crops grown on site, and also resells items from other local growers & producers. Think of the stand as a locally sourced grocery store.
Dogpatch Urban Gardens is a unique business to the Des Moines area, as no one else has a for-profit urban farm with an on-site farm stand. Pioneering a new business model is exciting, though it has resulted in regulatory issues with the county. DUG is located in an unincorporated area in Des Moines, so the regulations are set by Polk County rather than the city of Des Moines. The farm’s unique business model has made it difficult for the county to classify it as residential, agricultural, or commercial. This has caused the county’s regulations to evolve inconsistently over time.
In 2018 DUG is beginning its third season of business. The farm property is one acre. On that acre there is one 72 foot x 30 foot high tunnel, two grow plots, the DUG FarmStand, an "Urban FarmStay" (Air BnB), and green space for events. Our family does not live on the farm; we live less than three blocks away. DUG grows annual vegetable crops using biointensive growing practices. The urban farm specializes in greens and salad fixins. During the 2017 season, over 7,500 pounds of organic food was grown for the citizens of Des Moines.
Customers can purchase fruits & veggies, milk, cheese, eggs, meats, salad dressing, spices, oils, vinegars, jerky, honey, tea, maple syrup, jams, mustard, granola, sauerkraut, BBQ sauce, pasta, salsa, bread, baking mixes, soups, fruits, and more all local to Iowa. The stand accounted for 75% of DUG revenue in the 2017 season, and it has great possibilities for growth. It allows DUG to be a sustainable business while also supporting other local growers/producers.
Here is our story as an idea of some potential regulations new farmers may face when starting a business:
Since the inception of DUG, we have made a point to be open and communicative with our intentions and goals, and have asked the county specific questions about requirements for the business. We went through a due diligence process before purchasing the land to make sure we could use it for our intended business needs. After two years of business, the county has made substantial changes in its requirements for the farm. To comply, DUG is faced with approximately $75,000 of imposed improvements due by the end of 2018. DUG is a small business working to enhance the community, yet we feel like local government is essentially trying to shut us down.
The situation that arose with Dogpatch is complicated and complex, but the big picture seems to be that the farm was more successful than the county expected. So the county put new regulations in place. It seems like the county is almost punishing our business for its success. This whole process has been difficult to swallow, because our farm is something that is strengthening the community, providing organic food to residents, promoting the environment, providing jobs, and beautifying the area. Most would think local government would promote this type of business, yet the opposite seems true. Des Moines is “committed” to a project called the, “Healthiest State Initiative” which aims to promote health to all citizens of Iowa, and DUG fits into that model. Yet actions speak louder than words.
The foundation of the policy changes & issues stem from the farm stand. Before beginning the business, we reached out to the country about selling food onsite and the county gave this definition of a farm stand:
(1) Farm stands operating as a temporary use shall not be open for more than six (6) months. Fifty (50) percent or more of the products sold shall be grown on site or within the County.
(2) All temporary signs shall be affixed to the stand and, when added together, shall not exceed thirty-five (35) square feet in area. The sign(s) may contain the name of the stand but shall only contain advertising that pertains to the produce sold at the stand. This type of sign will not require the issuance of a sign permit.
(3) The stand and parking for the stand shall neither block nor be located within any right-of-way and shall be a minimum of ten (10) feet from the paved surface of the road. The stand shall be minimum (100) feet from any intersection and conform to the clear view distance requirements.
According to the county, farm stands can be located on residentially zoned properties, do not need public restrooms, and do not need to adhere to commercial business codes.
We set our farm stand business up based on the above county requirements. We were very specific about who we purchased product from to make sure Polk County was properly represented, signage was placed specifically to adhere to regulations, and so on. Typically a farm stand in Iowa is a person selling sweet corn out of the back of their truck, so the DUG farm stand was different, yet it fit into all the regulations of the county’s definition of a farm stand.
The DUG farm stand is a 40-foot by 25-foot pole building. The front half of the building is the farm stand and the back half of the building is the wash/pack area and has a walk-in cooler. The building was constructed in 2016, and based on the recommendations of the county it was permitted as an “accessory structure.”
Fast-forward one year, and we contacted the county about getting a conditional use permit. The permit would allow us to have permanent signage and also allow for events to be hosted at the farm. The farm has great potential for agri-tourism since it is urban and there is an Air BnB on site. Eventually we would like to host weddings, a mini concert series, yoga, movies, etc. on the farm property.
The issues arose once we applied for the conditional use permit. It seemed as if other people in the county started to analyze our business and we were told our farm stand was a commercial business rather than what they county defined as a “farm stand.” This whole situation was quite frustrating for us because we asked many questions at the inception of the business and were given the specific definition of the farm stand, which is how we shaped that aspect of the business. The definition never states anything about the structure a person is selling from. The county told us the permitting of the pole barn as an accessory structure was incorrect and it needed to be changed to commercial. The reason it was initially permitted as an accessory structure was because that was what our point person in Polk County Planning and Zoning advised us to do.
Since the conditional use permit is what started this downward spiral of regulation changes/additions we simply asked if we didn’t host events (and not pursue the conditional use), could we continue to run the business has it had been run for two years. The county said even if we did not get the conditional use permit we would need to change the DUG farm stand building and surrounding areas to be up to commercial code.
Getting the stand up to commercial code is no easy task. First off, it required the creation of a site plan by a local engineering firm. We were quoted at $10,000 for the site plan, yet the bill rose to over $14,000 because the county continually needed revisions and alterations. The new code requires a public restroom (we had originally asked if a public restroom was needed and we were told that farm stands do not need restrooms.)
Adding an ADA compliant restroom also requires altering the current septic system, as the tank is not large enough to carry the load of a new restroom. The farm stand structure needs to be ADA compliant, which means widening existing doors, altering the grade of concrete to enter the stand as well as adding ADA compliant parking. We acknowledge that having a farm property that facilitates everyone is great and we don’t fight the ADA or the idea of ADA compliance; rather the principal that we were told one thing and now have to change our structures is what is frustrating.
One major headache in all of this is that questions were asked and answered in incorrect ways, or in ways that have since changed. If we knew, at the inception of the business, that we would need to have a public restroom, be ADA compliant, etc. we would have planned accordingly. Instead these requirements were placed on us after two years of business, which meant altering a lot of current infrastructure that is only two years old. These regulations have doubled the Dogpatch Urban Gardens start up costs, and that fact is crippling.
The county is also requiring other farm additions in order for the business to be up to commercial code. The property must be fenced and landscaped in a specific way. The landscaping requirements are frustrating as they county is requiring trees to be planted around the high tunnel. This is just one example of how the county does not fully recognize or acknowledge urban farming. Planting trees around the high tunnel will cast shade and impact yields.
We have gone in front of the Polk County Board of Adjustments and received over $15,000 worth of variances (dealing with fence heights, concreting the driveway, landscaping the fence gate zone, and set back regulations).
In order for DUG to stay in business these additions/improvements need to be completed by the end of the 2018 season. The estimated cost of everything is $75,000. We recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, which raised over $27,000 dollars. After fees, taxes, and rewards I expect to pocket around $17,000 from that campaign. We also took out a second mortgage to get a line of credit for the needed cash. My husband, Eric, has an off-farm job and we will use some of his funds to help pay down on the debt load.
These struggles have been incredibly hard and stressful on our family. We have been dealing with these regulations for over a year. Our site plan is finalized, permits pulled, and construction phases have begun at the farm. The septic system is almost complete and the addition of the new restroom should be completed by the stand opening day on May 12th.
In all of these difficult times, we acknowledge good things are to come. Included in the addition of the new bathroom, we will be revamping the wash/pack station to include a commercial kitchen. With this we will be able to create ready-to-eat salads and expand the product line.
We have also been blown away with how the community has rallied in support of the farm. Many local media avenues have told our story and people in Des Moines seem inspired by how the business is persevering. One unintended consequence of this whole thing is the amount of support the community has given to the farm. It is very likely the customer base of Dogpatch Urban Gardens will grow and make the business stronger.
Also, after all the construction is complete the farm will be better and more accommodating to all. There will be public restrooms, paved parking, fencing, landscaping, and the area will look nicer and better suited for agri-tourism and hosting events.
Hindsight typically is 20/20, but we struggle to look back and say what we would have done differently. We asked questions for guidance from our local county which seemed to steer us wrong. We had things in writing, which also didn’t seem to hold any value. One thing we would have done differently is to get everything in writing and have legal counsel present in all conversations and meetings. Did we do everything perfectly? No. As new business owners, yes, we made mistakes. Yet our intentions were always communicated and we tried to ask the right questions.
Our goal of using an urban farm to “Cultivate Community” has been stifled, yet we are working through the issues and the farm will be better because of it. We are excited to get this regulatory/policy disaster behind us and start the 2018 season off strong!
Jenny Quiner started Dogpatch Urban Gardens in the fall of 2015.