On a Monday morning in June, four farmers worked in fields framed by a Baptist church, an elementary school, and a community garden. The air was heavy with heat. Earlier, sleeping bees had been snuggled up in Christina Flores’ snapdragon and marigold blooms; now, butterflies flitted between the flowers she tended. Across a grassed waterway filled with clovers and vetches, Isaac Zama, grower of West African crops including bitter leaf and njama njama (a variety of huckleberry), used a broadfork to prepare a bed for planting.
At the top of a gradual slope, Falani Spivey leaned on a shovel as she pointed to several rows of malagueta and Carolina reaper peppers and described the salad greens she planned to plant for fall harvesting. As a former “nomadic gardener” growing food on tiny plots in multiple locations, Spivey was most excited about the five varieties of watermelon plants already in the ground. “Last year, I wasn’t able to grow much because I didn’t have the space,” she said. “And watermelons need so much space!”
Spivey, Zama, and Flores operate three of 10 different farm businesses at the Urban Farm Incubator at Watkins Regional Park in Prince George’s County, Maryland, located just outside of Washington, D.C. and home to nearly 1 million people. Created by Eco City Farms and several partner organizations, the incubator is meant to provide a stepping stone for early career farmers who want to grow more food in densely populated areas but struggle to access land and other resources.
It’s one of dozens of diverse projects funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production (OUAIP). Although the larger agency has historically focused on serving large-scale farmers in rural areas, it has granted more than $50 million since 2020 to build school and community gardens in Hawaii, expand residential composting in Fort Worth, Texas, and add hydroponic production to an urban farm in Dubuque, Iowa, among dozens of other projects. The office also oversees a federal advisory committee and is working to improve technical assistance and resources for urban farmers, with the establishment of 17 urban service centers announced just last week.
However, the USDA’s work has been stymied by a lack of funding, and now the urban agriculture office could disappear entirely. While lawmakers authorized $25 million annually in the 2018 Farm Bill, Congress must reallocate the money each year. Despite high demand for grant funding, the latest appropriations bills in the House and Senate would eliminate the funding entirely. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) just sent policymakers a letter signed by 140 organizations, farms, and businesses, urging them to change their minds. At the same time, they’re pushing Congress to use the upcoming farm bill to raise the office’s annual budget to $50 million in mandatory funding, which would secure the program’s future.
The OUAIP is a rare example of a new set of programs created in the last farm bill in response to advocacy by NSAC and other groups. Those groups pointed to urban farming’s unique potential to improve food security for the increasing number of Americans who reside in cities while also benefiting community health and well-being in multifaceted ways.
And under the leadership of Secretary Tom Vilsack, the agency has leaned into its new role. “Our office is really helping employees at all levels . . . to understand that USDA supports agriculture regardless of the size of the operation, where it’s located, or how the products are produced,” said Brian Guse, who leads the OAIUP and its team of six.
Now, as the office faces an existential threat, advocates are concerned about losing momentum on a wide array of important projects. “The office has done great work in a very short amount of time,” said Hannah Quigley, a policy specialist at NSAC. “And there’s just so much demand.”
The Need for On-the-Ground Infrastructure
In its first round of grants in 2020, OUAIP had funds to support just 4 percent of the projects submitted. In 2021 and 2022, agency officials were able to draw from money provided through the American Rescue Plan. But even with that influx, they still only funded 40 percent of eligible projects.
“This is a program that is heavily oversubscribed,” said Guse, who explained that the applications have also gotten better as his team has conducted outreach with farmers around the country. On July 18, the USDA announced it had awarded $7.4 million to 25 projects out of more than 300 applications for 2023—just over 8 percent.
Projects that do get support can focus on planning or direct implementation. The Urban Farm Incubator is an example of the latter, and the farm bought two new hoop houses, an irrigation system, and four shipping containers with its $300,000 grant.
“A lot of times somebody will offer you their backyard or a church property, but you’re not going to have water, electrical, or a place for a dump truck to back into.”
Land access is consistently cited as the biggest barrier to success faced by young, beginning, and under-resourced farmers, especially in urban and suburban areas where real estate is more expensive. But Jon Berger, the incubator’s farm manager, said the challenge can be more complicated than finding a patch of ground. Eco City Farms partnered with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which owned the land and was eager to support the project, but infrastructure was the key missing piece.
“A lot of times, somebody will offer you their backyard or a church property,” he said. “But you’re not going to have water, electrical, or a place for a dump truck to back into.”
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Author: Lisa Held