November 15, 2016

The New Office of Urban Ag: Thoughts on the Proposed Act

Raychel Santo

Raychel Santo

Sr. Research Program Coordinator

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

scope-of-urban-agAfter hearing rumors of its existence for months, I eagerly sat down to read the text of the new Urban Agriculture Act proposed by Senator Debbie Stabenow. Stabenow, a member of the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, has introduced legislation that would establish an Office of Urban Agriculture (akin to its Office of the Chief Economist, Office of Advocacy and Outreach, and New and Beginning Farmer Office) at USDA. After reading the text, I’m enthusiastic but I have some concerns, mainly in that too much emphasis has been placed on the (dubious) potential economic and production wins offered by urban ag, while giving short shrift to the sociocultural and ecosystem benefits. Before I get to that, though, here is an overview of the plan.

This office would coordinate policies related to urban agriculture across the Department. The legislation—expected to cost $460 million over 10 years—also specifically stipulates a number of programs and tasks that the Office of Urban Agriculture would undertake to support the country’s growing number of urban farms and gardens. These include:

  • A community garden program (educational and financial, with a $5 million competitive grant program!) to support the development and activities of community gardens and master gardener classes, facilitate connections between gardens and local food banks, and encourage the creation of gardens on federal property.
  • A rooftop agriculture and vertical production program to provide technical assistance and educational opportunities, coordinate and share best practices, measure impacts, and make urban farmers eligible to receive conservation grants.
  • A farm business planning program to identify and improve farm business education programs (including business planning, budget skills, and financial literacy) and technical assistance for urban farmers. It will also develop Good Agricultural Practices, food safety practices, and performance metrics specific to urban farmers.
  • A mentorship program to facilitate assistance and mentorship between urban and rural farmers (especially to support beginning farmers and ranchers)
  • An initiative to support urban agriculture cooperatives: Expand USDA authority to help urban farmers that form an agriculture cooperative get products to market and reduce individual financial risk. It would also permit these cooperatives to administer and manage USDA loans for their members to reduce red tape and paperwork for individual farms.
  • An expansion of USDA farm loan programs to cover urban farm equipment, food production, marketing, and value-added processing.
  • An overhaul of the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program to calculate prices based on the risks, food prices, and contracts unique to urban farms to better support urban farmers in the case of natural disasters
  • A soil assessment initiative to provide technical and financial support to urban food growers (individuals as well as schools, non-profits, and other organizations) to test and clean up contaminated soils.
  • A healthy food environment pilot program incentivizing initiatives in urban, rural, and peri-urban communities—particularly those located in underserved areas and identified food deserts—who supply healthy and sustainable produce to their neighborhoods.
  • An urban composting program to make municipal compost accessible to urban farms.
  • A $10 million research and extension initiative to explore new market opportunities for urban farmers, to increase energy and water efficiency in urban agriculture operations, and develop best practices for soil remediation. It also calls for an urban agriculture census to complement the 2017 census of agriculture.
  • An urban agriculture impact study—to be completed within two years—to provide a more comprehensive assessment of the potential capacities of urban agriculture in the U.S. in relation to: community and social benefits, production volumes, site availability and suitability, new job opportunities and workforce development, economic feasibility, and environmental impacts

These proposed federal programs and efforts are welcome additions to the urban agriculture governance realm. Up to this point, municipalities across the U.S. have already begun assisting urban agriculture efforts through providing land, funding, in-kind supplies, technical assistance, and educational workshops on urban food growing. Many have passed new zoning ordinances and building codes to support urban agriculture. Some have even incorporated urban agriculture into their comprehensive plans. State governments have also incentivized urban growing on unused land. These efforts are often led by the growing number of food policy councils throughout the country.

Urban growers have often expressed frustrations that current federal farm policy precludes the USDA from providing the same services to them as it does to traditional farmers. These include start-up loans and grants, resources for farm equipment and hoop houses, soil quality testing and remediation, risk management and mitigation resources (especially important for urban areas at higher risk for soil contamination and pollution), business planning skills, and technical assistance. Hence this new legislation seeking to address these gaps excites me. With the USDA contemplating the incorporating of urban agriculture into its purview, this legislation signals that this up-to-now niche sector of the alternative food system might be scaling up in a more systemic way.

As I mentioned earlier, my enthusiasm comes with a few caveats. Though Stabenow’s legislation describes the sociocultural value and ecosystem services offered by urban agriculture deeper into the document (e.g., on pp.14-15), its first and primary list of the potential benefits provided by urban agriculture (pg. 2) begins with: “A) create jobs and workforce development and B) increase food production.” I’m sure this was a political decision, given the zeitgeist for such issues over social and ecological ones. However, as described in the literature review that my colleagues Anne Palmer, Brent Kim, and I published earlier this spring, these are the two aspects of urban agriculture that have been least demonstrated. We emphasized the importance of not overselling the benefits of urban agriculture in these areas, because if they are not achieved, it could lose political support for the plethora of benefits that urban agriculture does notably provide—such as increasing social capital, community well-being, and civic engagement with the food system and enhancing urban green spaces, air quality, and pollinator habitats. Further examining these aspirational benefits in the anticipated urban agriculture impact study could go a long way to deepen our understanding of the field.

Another chief benefit the legislation text suggested urban agriculture could provide was to “revitalize abandoned or underused property and buildings” (pg.3). I’d hoped that the legislation would specify the importance of engaging the communities in which these new farms or gardens are located, and perhaps include special support or emphasis for urban ag projects run by people of color or lower-income residents. As numerous activists and scholars have discussed, without taking special care to empower marginalized people in the remediation of ‘their’ land, urban agriculture can become “just another form of urban renewal, displacing underprivileged communities in the process” (Hoover, 2013:112).

It’s fantastic to see this (much needed) potential impetus of government support for urban agriculture efforts of all kinds, from community gardens and non-profit farms to more business-oriented ventures. Care must be taken to ensure that such efforts—which offer the most promise in the social and environmental realm—do not just echo the neoliberal paradigm where economic development and production efficiencies reign superior. Otherwise, the institutionalization of urban agriculture risks both losing its capacities to help facilitate truly systemic and progressive food system change, as well as reproducing injustices already present in urban communities.

Image: Michael Milli, 2016.

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