Zoning may prohibit some value-added activities on your property even where a farm operation is allowed. Processing agricultural products can be considered commercial, and therefore a non-agricultural use of the property. Likewise, if you are contemplating inviting the public to your farm for any agritourism ventures, you will be well-advised to consult your zoning before committing to these farming-adjacent ventures.

Oftentimes agritourism ventures will require an event permit, conditional use permit, or even a variance before they are allowed. Securing event or conditional use permits is generally fairly easy, so long as the farmer allows enough time for the process.

It is important to know how to find the zoning ordinances that impact you and your operation, be familiar with the vocabulary of zoning, and what to do if your zoning doesn’t allow a specific use that you want to pursue. This is what this section will cover!

Step One: Finding Your Zoning Ordinances

To determine what your zoning is and the full picture of what is allowed use in your zoning designation, you have a few options. One option is to call the local zoning authority (which may be a city, town, county, or other unit of government), explain the proposed venture, and ask if it is allowed. Other farmers may prefer to research the zoning code themselves without interfacing with their town planning offices. Many local entities do have their zoning codes online. Other options include talking with a local attorney or asking a reference librarian for assistance.

Identify the specific local government authority responsible for zoning and land use regulations where the land is located. This could be a municipality, county, township, or other local government unit. Neighbors and other landowners are great sources of information. Real estate agents, librarians, Extension educators and local clergy or elected officials may all be able to assist.

Once you’ve identified the local zoning authority, you can search their official website. Look for sections or departments related to planning, zoning, or land use. Nowadays, most local governments have made the zoning code either viewable or downloadable on their websites.

Minnesota State Law Library has a collection of statewide ordinances on their website.

If you do not have internet access or would prefer to have a hard copy of the zoning code, you can call the local agency and ask for a copy. You may have to pay for it. Another option would be to go to your local public library and ask the librarian to assist you in finding a physical copy of the zoning code.

Step Two: Orienting Yourself

Zoning codes can be complex and filled with legal jargon, making them challenging to decipher. You’ll need to be aware of the “vocabulary” of zoning in order to fully understand the zoning code you’ve just located. Most jurisdictions will use the same or similar jargon.

Zoning Districts

Zoning codes divide land within a jurisdiction into different zoning districts. Each zoning district typically has its own set of regulations. It is crucial to understand the specific zoning district(s) that apply to the property you are or will be farming and/or using for a non-farming purpose. This information can typically be found in the zoning map or zoning district regulations within the zoning code.

Common zoning districts for farmland include Agricultural, Rural Residential, and Conservancy districts. Generally, different districts will be labeled by acronym on a zoning map (e.g. “RR” for Rural Residential) and you may have to find the acronym for your parcel on a zoning map and then separately cross reference the zoning code to find the acronym’s meaning.

Allowed Uses

Often the uses that are allowed in a particular zoning district are described as “permitted” uses. Look for sections or tables listing allowed or permitted uses. These lists outline the activities and land uses that are allowed without requiring special permissions or approvals.

Rather than describing allowed uses, some codes list the disallowed uses. If the code lists only allowed uses, everything else is disallowed, and vice versa.

Oftentimes, zoning codes will refer to accessory uses. These are uses that are allowed only if they are connected to a principal permitted use. For example, in an agricultural zoning district, a principal permitted use is “agriculture use.” An accessory use may be “processing and packaging agricultural products.”


Tip: When reviewing the allowed and accessory uses, pay attention to any specific restrictions, limitations, or requirements related to agricultural uses, processing activities, or housing. Look for provisions related to the scale of production, types of products or processing activities, equipment usage, and occupancy limits.


Special Note About Urban Agriculture: Urban farmers will need to pay particular attention to their zoning codes. While some jurisdictions allow for agricultural uses in urban residential, industrial, or commercial zoning districts, they often include specific limitations. In addition, zoning codes will often require special use or conditional use permits for agricultural activities conducted in urban areas.


Conditional Uses

In addition to allowed uses, zoning codes often include provisions for special or conditional uses. These allow certain activities to be conducted on a property with additional review and approval processes, often by securing a permit. The permitting process helps make sure certain obligations are met, such as a minimum amount of off-road parking, adequate restroom facilities or waste management, and attention to noise levels, among other concerns. Some conditional uses may also require a public hearing to be held before the permit is issued. The public hearing is an opportunity for neighbors to voice support or potential concerns for the proposed activity.  It is critical to know in advance which activities will require such permits.


Tip: When reviewing the provisions for special or conditional use permits, note any specific requirements, limitations, or conditions that must be met to obtain a permit. For example, if hosting agritrourism events requires a permit, note any restrictions on the number of events, attendance limits, noise control measures, or parking requirements.


Start by discovering in which code the property falls, and then read up on which activities are allowed or disallowed in that zone.

Definitions Set by your Jurisdiction

Zoning codes often include definitions of key terms and phrases used throughout the document. These definitions can provide clarity when trying to decipher what the document actually means. If there is a term that you’re unsure about, be sure to see if it’s included in the definition section. Terms such as “agricultural activities,” “value-added,” and “agritourism” are sometimes explicitly defined.  Going back to review and understand any definitions that are included in the zoning code helps make sure your overall interpretation of the document is accurate.

Step Three: Navigating Zoning Challenges

Zoning codes are not the easiest documents to understand, to say the least. They can be filled with ambiguities, which can be frustrating to farmers seeking certainty. Many were written long ago and have yet to catch up to innovative and diversified farming practices. Some zoning codes are silent about activities involving value-added processing or agritourism. Others can outright prohibit such activities. This, again, is frustrating. More infuriating is that Black, Indigenous, other farmers of color, and English as a second language speakers all too often face discrimination when interacting with zoning boards or officials.

This guide serves to empower farmers with strategies for navigating zoning code challenges. While zoning challenges can be complex, it’s possible to address ambiguities, prohibitions, and discrimination with knowledge and strategic approaches.

Challenge 1: Ambiguities

Zoning codes may use language that is vague or open to interpretation, leading to uncertainty about whether specific activities are permitted. Alternatively, they may be entirely silent about an activity. What then?


Consult with local officials: Reach out to local planning or zoning officials for clarification when code language is unclear. Local officials might be able to  provide insights into the intent of the code. Be sure you document whatever is said in writing, especially if they give you a favorable interpretation. An easy way to do this is by keeping a journal or following up with your point of contact on the conversation with an email describing the conclusions.

Seek legal advice: Consider consulting with an attorney experienced in zoning issues. Attorneys can help navigate ambiguous language and help you understand and weigh legal or financial risks. An attorney can potentially offer an insider’s take on the preferences and personalities of the decision-makers involved, which can be important in creating a strategy for success.

Request interpretations: Many zoning authorities allow property owners or other interested parties to submit written requests for zoning code interpretations. When submitting a written letter, be strategic in how you explain your situation, especially if you’ve already begun engaging in an activity in question.

Engage in dialogue: Reach out to local planning departments, zoning boards, or other relevant authorities to discuss your plans. Building positive relationships and having open dialogue can help address concerns and find mutually beneficial solutions. This, of course, depends on how open and understanding these officials are. If you can’t afford an attorney with insider knowledge, try asking other community members who have had interactions with the decision-makers for their take on how to position yourself for success.

Go forward despite ambiguity: While it can be risky, it is up to you to decide whether asking for forgiveness is a better route than asking for permission. A significant consideration in going this route is to consider what your neighbors would say or do once they see you engaging in these activities. Neighbors are often the ones who file complaints, so it’s optimal to have them on your side at the outset whenever possible.

Of these options, it is important to note that working with an attorney gives you confidentiality. If you take one of the non-attorney options, there is risk. Decision-makers might get wind of your discussion, and they might take issue with that. This is an area where personalities, local history, and long-held opinions can play a significant role in outcomes.

Challenge 2: Dealing with Prohibitions or Restrictions

If it’s clear that your zoning code either prohibits an activity you want to pursue or requires a conditional use or special use permit, here are some strategies and tips to keep in mind when going forward.


  1. Apply for a Conditional Use Permit (CUPS): Conditional use permits allow for specific uses that are not automatically permitted by the zoning code. They often require additional review and approval from the local planning commission or zoning board. Be sure you follow all the procedures for filing an application for the permit, which should be set forth in the zoning code. If you have questions, contact the zoning authority. Demonstrating that your proposed activities align with the goals and objectives of the zoning district can increase your chances of obtaining a CUP. It’s best to familiarize yourself the best you can with these goals, which may include reviewing any comprehensive plan or land use plan in that jurisdiction.
  2. Apply for a Variance: In certain circumstances, you may be able to seek a variance from specific zoning requirements. Typically, the law would require you to demonstrate that strict compliance with the zoning code would cause undue hardship or deprive you of the reasonable use of your property. In reality, many variances are issued because local authorities like the idea and want to see the plan go forward. Variances are typically granted on a case-by-case basis and may involve public hearings and applications. They can be expensive and lengthy. You must realize that you will be in the spotlight, and some neighbors or community members may oppose your plans and even direct negative comments or actions toward you. Your relationships with your neighbors and others in your community may change. Consider how this might impact you.
  3. Engage in the planning process: Participate in public hearings or meetings related to zoning changes or amendments. This provides an opportunity to express your interests, gather community support, and advocate for favorable zoning changes that align with your desired activities. Be on the lookout for meetings and opportunities to participate in any comprehensive planning process in your local jurisdiction. By actively participating, you can help shape the future of zoning regulations to better support farming activities in your community.
  4. Form alliances: Seek out and collaborate with other farmers, agricultural organizations, or community groups who share similar goals– both in your community as well as nationwide. By forming alliances, you can amplify your voice and advocate for zoning changes that better support the needs of the greater farming community. Who knows, there may be farmers out there who’ve successfully changed their zoning code in favorable ways and are willing to share their stories and support your efforts.
  5. Consult with an attorney: As you navigate your strategy, it can be helpful to consult with an attorney with expertise in agricultural and land-use law. They can help provide insight into the intricacies of the zoning process, including CUP  and/or variance applications.

Remember, each jurisdiction has its own unique zoning processes and requirements, so it’s crucial to familiarize yourself with the intricacies of your zoning code and seek local expertise to develop an effective strategy for going forward.

Challenge 3: Recognizing and addressing discrimination

For BIPOC farmers, facing discrimination when interacting with zoning boards and officials adds an extra layer of complexity to the zoning process. Questioning zoning decisions or interpretations can be particularly challenging, given the potential for community backlash, ridicule, and threats. Discrimination should never be tolerated, but it is pervasive. Here are some strategies to keep in mind.


  1. Document incidents: While it can be emotionally taxing, it’s crucial to keep detailed records of incidents of discrimination, no matter how minor. This documentation will be vital if you decide to pursue legal action. Include dates, names, descriptions of discriminatory behaviors or comments, and any witnesses.
  2. Engage community support: Identify and build alliances with individuals and organizations in your community that support equity and inclusion. A strong community presence can deter discrimination and provide witnesses if needed.
  3. Seek advocacy: Connect with advocacy organizations or legal groups that specialize in civil rights and discrimination issues. They can provide guidance and support.
  4. Know your rights: Familiarize yourself with civil rights laws that protect against discrimination. Be aware of your rights when interacting with zoning authorities.
  5. Consult with an attorney:  If discrimination persists, you may consider legal action.

Remember that you are not alone in this journey. Leverage local resources, community support, and legal assistance when needed.


Moving Forward

Bottom-line, when it comes to zoning, knowledge is power, and if you don’t like what you know, you might have the power to change it.  Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that zoning codes and regulations are fair, transparent, and supportive of diverse farming activities and communities. Through collaborative efforts, we can contribute to a more inclusive and equitable agricultural system where all farmers, regardless of their background, can thrive and contribute to their communities.

If you are working on a concrete issue with a regulator and are planning a strategy to address it, the Farmers’ Guide to Working with Regulators” (available on our website to members) will be helpful.

Action Step for the Botanical Producer

There may be zoning rules that impact a botanical business once value-added processing is added to a farming operation. The Action Step for this chapter is to investigate zoning laws in my municipality to determine if value-added processing will be allowed where I want to be processing.