The farm bill, which is updated every five years, is the nation’s biggest piece of agricultural legislation. The bill covers everything ag: commodities pricing, crop insurance, nutrition, conservation, and trade are just a few of the twelve titles in the most recent farm bill—the Agricultural Act, which finally passed in 2014. The farm bill isn’t due for an update until 2018, but legislators already have begun planning ahead.

Sen. Stabenow (D-MI), the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, recently introduced the Urban Agriculture Act of 2016, which contains ideas and provisions she hopes will be incorporated into the next farm bill. While her proposal is presented as a solo bill, she said, “This is a bill to start the conversation and create the broad support [that] I think we will have in including urban farming as part of the next farm bill.”

Benefits of Urban Farming

While cities aren’t generally thought of for their food production, urban agriculture is a growing movement in many areas. Growing food in urban areas can provide health and environmental benefits, as well as community enrichment. Rebecca Salminen Witt, President of The Greening of Detroit, an urban ag group, said the program, “…provides a broad menu of training and employment opportunities for Detroit residents interested in planting trees, growing food, and transforming the vacant land in our city. Every summer we employ more than 180 Detroit Public School students. They water trees, plant and harvest crops, clean up neighborhoods and parks, and learn about careers in agriculture, forestry, and environmental science.”

There is a strong push for urban agriculture in cities like Detroit, in Stabenow’s home state of Michigan. Cities that have vacant lots can convert this available land into a productive use. This can help alleviate food deserts, which are common in many urban areas. “Food desert” describes an area where residents have little or no access to fresh, healthy foods—in many urban areas, residents may have only convenience stores nearby, which sell much more processed food than fresh, whole foods.

“As we rethink how we provide food in an environmentally sustainable way for an increasingly urban population, urban agriculture is an important component,” said Malik Yakini, Executive Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. “Growing food closer to centers of population-density not only provides people with fresher, more nutrient-rich foods but also reduces the carbon released into the atmosphere by transporting food long distances. Finally, urban agriculture, and the associated businesses needed to support it, helps local economies to thrive.”

Goals of the Urban Agriculture Act

Stabenow’s act would provide more federal resources for urban agriculture. Proposals include creating a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) office dedicated to urban farming, providing USDA loans to urban farmers, and risk management and insurance that is unique to the needs of urban areas. The bill also would increase research funding for urban ag and allow for urban-based farm cooperatives.

Healthy foods and environment are another focus. The bill promotes community gardens that provide fresh produce to local residents, as well as incentivizing urban farmers to grow and provide healthy food in a sustainable way. It also includes money for soil remediation, as the soil in some urban areas is contaminated and unfit for growing food.

While some argue that USDA funding is already stretched too thin, Stabenow argues that excluding urban farmers is not the way to relieve funding concerns. Stabenow said, “If we are stretched on loans… we need to look at that in total and be making sure that enough resources are there in total.”

The proposed legislation has received support from national farming groups, as well as many groups based in Detroit. The National Farmers Union (NFU) and the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) are two major national groups that have voiced support. AFBF President Zippy Duvall said his organization, “believes this legislation will build a stronger bond among all farmers—rural, suburban, and urban.”

Author: Rebecca Chillrud

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