What’s a Farm? Who’s a Farmer?

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Abstract

There has been considerable research into the barriers to implementing urban agriculture projects in cities, and recent scholarship has examined the role of local policymakers and city planners in shaping cities’ responses to urban agriculture. In this paper, we use the 2012–2015 debate over rewriting the urban farm code in Austin, TX as a case study for exploring the difficulties in governing urban farms. Drawing from in-depth interviews with twenty-six stakeholders involved in the debate, we use understandings of heuristics—unconscious mental shortcuts that help make fast and efficient decisions—to argue that, during the debates, ambiguity surrounding definitions of what an urban farm is, what it does, and how it operates resulted in important stakeholders relying on their memories and previous experiences when forming opinions about the urban farm policy. The resulting heuristic bias made it difficult for farmers to come together to create effective coalitions, exacerbated tensions within the community, and complicated the rewriting of the farm code. We conclude by suggesting that broader conceptualizations of farming must still be developed in the public’s imagination along with more deliberate policy making that accounts for the diversity of scope of urban agriculture projects and how municipalities govern them.