Urban Ag May Get a Chunk of Farm Bill Cash

Sen. Debbie Stabenow wants to extend federal grants and other programs to city-based farmers.
A farmer puts straw mulch around raspberry bushes on her one-acre urban farm in Detroit. (Photo: Rebecca Cook/Reuters)
Sep 28, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

While the Senate won’t consider the next version of the farm bill until 2018, there are signs the omnibus legislation that sets the budget for all agricultural and nutrition-assistance spending is on track to becoming more progressive.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D–Mich., ranking member of the Senate agriculture committee, announced new legislation on Monday that she characterizes as “the most comprehensive urban agriculture bill” ever to be introduced in Congress. It includes provisions aimed at throwing federal dollars behind the burgeoning movement to transform more of the blighted, vacant land pockmarking our cities into thriving farms.

Stabenow is keen for the bill’s provisions to be incorporated into the larger U.S. farm bill, which is renewed every four years (at least in theory). The Hydra of a bill—the passage of which was delayed for more than two years last time around, in large part because of partisan bickering over cutting food stamps—has generally been a boon to big agriculture and those industrial farms that churn out acre after acre of genetically modified corn and soy. But the 2014 bill, which Stabenow (with what would seem like the patience of Job) helped shepherd through Congress, contained a number of provisions and reforms that could lead to a more progressive, sustainable, healthy food supply in the U.S.

To be sure, the 2014 bill contained plenty of subsidies for commodity growers, but it significantly expanded federal support for organic as well as fruit and vegetable farmers (in a sign of how messed up ag policy has been, theirs are known as “specialty crops”). Money earmarked to assist farmers transitioning from conventional to organic was more than doubled, for example, and fruit and vegetable growers were given expanded access to the decades-old crop insurance programs that have benefited commodity crop growers.

Now, in championing a movement on the cutting edge of transforming our relationship to what we eat and how it’s grown, Stabenow appears determined to continue to nudge the behemoth farm bill in a more enlightened direction—and perhaps atone for pushing through this year’s anything-but-clear federal GMO labeling law. Stabenow’s Urban Agriculture Act is the product of a yearlong collaboration with urban farmers; the bill “came from what they told us that they need to take urban agriculture to the next step,” Stabenow told the Detroit Free Press. It would do things such as make federal agriculture loans and conservation grants available to urban farmers, create an urban ag office in the Department of Agriculture, and provide $10 million in research funds for urban ag technologies.

Beyond the happy, utopian visions of green garden rooftops and gleaming, lush vertical farms, urban agriculture has captivated progressive thinkers for its potential to address any number of social concerns, from creating economic opportunity in impoverished urban areas to providing greater access to nutritious food. That’s not to mention the purported environmental benefits of supplying city dwellers with produce that’s locally grown instead of shipped.

A report on urban farming published by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future this year cautioned policy makers against overselling the promises of transforming inner cities into urban farms—in part because more research is needed to determine the benefits and drawbacks of this relatively young movement. But the prospect is tantalizing. According to one study, if less than half of the publicly owned vacant land in Detroit were converted to farms, it could supply residents with almost 40 percent of (nontropical) fruit now consumed on average and 65 percent of fresh vegetables.