Novel Legislation in the U.S. Urban Agriculture Movement
The United States government is poised to officially back urban farming efforts with the proposed Urban Agriculture Act. The term “urban agriculture” has traditionally been used to describe small-scale, grassroots gardening operations that supply niche groups such as local charities and farm-to-table restaurants. Also, urban farming is known for utilizing indoor gardening / hydroponics technologies in the production of fresh foods within city environments. Urban agriculture also utilizes a number of horticulture methods, including aquaponics, vertical farming, greenhouse production, as well as other technologized methods of controlled environment agriculture (CEA).
It’s important to note, both urban gardening and indoor cultivation have existed on the fringes of society, with a majority of the energy of these horticultural schools being directed towards special interest crops and unique demographics. As the landscape of modern agriculture continues to evolve, urban farming is beginning to garner more mainstream attention.
Traditional Farming in the U.S.
The farming industry in the United States is a very proud tradition. For many, the ideals of hard-work and self-sufficiency that come hand-in-hand with farming define what it is to be an American. While the underlying principles of the American farmer may remain relatively unaltered throughout generations, agribusiness, like any other business, is largely shaped by the influences of governments, technologies, and economies.
In the last century, technological advancements in agriculture, coupled with globalized trade, have drastically changed the landscape of the farming industry in the United States. To this end, the USDA has set in place a variety of welfare programs to ensure the financial success of farmers as well as the affordability of food for the U.S. population. As a result, under the “Farm Bill,” these government programs support U.S. farmers in a variety of methods, including: free education, financial assistance, conservation incentives, insurance programs, and economic development.
For the time being, urban farmers don’t receive the same sort of government protections seen with traditional agriculture. For reasons such as this, MI Senator Debbie Stabenow has proposed an “Urban Agriculture Act” as well as an “Office of Urban Agriculture” to help regulate, as well as sustain, this largely artisanal movement in modern crop production. The Urban Agriculture Act sets forth to provide government subsidized services and programs for the now largely grassroots urban farming sector.
The Rise of Urban Agriculture
In the modern era, there are drastic disparities in food production models between rural geographies and heavily populated urban centers. With this system, cityscapes contain the bulk of the U.S. population and consume a clear majority of the nation’s produce—while growing almost none of it. The vast disproportions in food production occurring in the United States are evident in geographies such as the Midwestern “grain belt” as well as California’s Sacramento Valley. In these regions, a majority of the country’s produce is grown by a tiny fraction of its population.
During the mid-1800’s, mechanized production—in both factories and farms—largely eliminated human skill-sets involved with artisanal trades and cottage industries, such as home-based food production. With the rise of assembly lines in factories, as well as machine-based agriculture, most human populaces drifted towards city centers to for employment purposes. As such, the global population largely sacrificed is multi-faceted aptitudes in self-sufficiency for singularly focused jobs in both assembly lines and farm fields.
In order for people to procure food in today’s world, it must be shipped from agricultural centers. Many of these regions lie outside of the U.S. border. The current industrial agriculture model makes it difficult to eat quality produce and to know where that produce comes from.
The growth of the urban agriculture movement has come about due to a rising interest—on the part of young and old people alike—in the production of fresh produce in urban centers. Looking at urban farming from both historical and contemporary perspectives, the rise in popularity in locally produced food represents a paradigm shift from the entrenched industrial agriculture system. With urban agriculture, city dwelling people are again learning how to cultivate their own foods while simultaneously providing fresh, sustainably managed produce for local populaces.
According to the website “Urban Ag News,” Urban agriculture is gaining mainstream popularity for the following reasons: “Year-round controlled-environment jobs and local economic growth; More fresh food to improve our diets and lower healthcare costs; Less waste from food spoilage and transport; and better food security [sic].”
Thus far, urban agriculturists have supported themselves and one another via grassroots efforts and coalitions such as: The Aquaponics Association, The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, The American Association of Urban Farmers, and The Association for Vertical Farming. While these forward-thinking groups have made great strides in spreading awareness about the societal benefits of urban agriculture, they don’t have the financial backing and political power seen with the USDA. Before Senator Stabenow introduced the Urban Agriculture Act, this patchwork of coalitions has been on its own in developing technology, regulation, process, and procedure concerning urban farming.
The Office of Urban Agriculture & the Urban Agriculture Act
Perhaps the most noteworthy element of the Urban Agriculture Act is the idea that the United States Government is willing to both study and fund an agricultural movement that has long existed on the fringes of society. From its origins in both indoor gardening and community programs that raise crops in impoverished neighborhoods, Urban Agriculture has always existed directly “in the hands of the people.” Many of these individuals have had little-to -no-voice concerning government affairs.
The introduction of Senator Stabenow’s Urban Agriculture Act comes with the creation of an Office of Urban Agriculture within the USDA. The intentions of this legislation is to give urban farmers similar protections and benefits as seen with traditional agriculture. Upon introducing this legislation, Stabenow stated: “Urban agriculture is steadily growing in cities and towns across Michigan and across our country, creating new economic opportunities and safer, healthier environments.” Stabenow continues: “The Urban Agriculture Act will continue this momentum by helping urban farmers get started and expand their business, so they can sell more products and supply more healthy food for their neighbors.”
According to Bill S. 3420 (the actual document as seen with the 114th congress) there are four key “Titles” to the Urban Agriculture Act:
Title I: Outreach, Coordination, and New Policy
Title I of the Urban Agriculture Act sets the stage and structure for the functionality of the Office of Urban Agriculture. As such, the Office of Urban Agriculture will advise the United States Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, about the ins-and-outs of urban farming. The hope is that the Office of Urban Agriculture will be able to demonstrate the societal benefits—both environmental and financial—to Perdue and his decision-making peers on Capitol Hill, eventually solidifying the importance of this movement within the currents of the mainstream.
According to the Act, the Office of Urban Agriculture will be comprised of 15 members that are sourced from unique backgrounds, including: urban agriculture farmers, farm-to-school authorities, college professors, urban planners, environmentalists, business people, public health experts, and traditional farmers. This diverse conglomeration of office members will devise urban agriculture policies on a national scale and will coordinate communications between urban farmers and the USDA.
Agendas included in this portion of the Urban Agriculture Act are: Community Garden Programs, Rooftop Agriculture and Outdoor Vertical Production Programs, Urban Agriculture Review Programs, and Urban Agriculture Impact Studies. Generally speaking, the motivation behind these programs is to structure the urban farming industry in a fashion that is easily recordable for both environmental and financial efficiencies—and develop new policies in the future according to these findings.
Title II: Farm Enterprise Development
The second section of the Urban Agriculture Act sets the stage for streamlining and growing the urban farming movement into a full-scaled production industry by way of business planning and development. While the notion of industrial expansion within a grassroots movement does seem somewhat alarming in its own right, the verbiage of the section emphasizes the business education of small-scale urban farmers. That being said, the bill should set forth to give artisanal crop producers the knowledge and confidence to make sound business decisions—eventually establishing a self-sustaining economy within the society of urban horticulturists.
The “Farm Management and Professional Development Program” of Title II creates a mentorship program between established agribusiness professionals and small, upstart urban farmers. With this hands-on approach to tutelage, legislators hope that more people will be attracted to the urban farming sector, in time turning into an established community of well-informed business professionals. Topics covered in the program include: business acumen, marketing, record keeping, risk mitigation, and credit management.
Lastly, Title II expands the current Farm Bill to include urban farming operations for the allowance of government subsidies relating to Urban Agriculture Cooperatives, Risk Management, and Expanded Loans for Farm Equipment. Generally speaking, these welfare programs will give urban farmers many of the same financial breaks and benefits seen with the Farm Bill and traditional agriculture.
Title III: A Healthier Environment
In perhaps the most forward-looking section of the Urban Agriculture Act, the proposed legislation of Title III sets to entwine environmental conservation efforts with various elements of urban farming. For most urban agriculturists, this section’s emphases on subsidized soil conservation programs, healthy eating, and communal farming efforts aligns closely with the ideals from which the urban farming movement originally manifested.
The soil conservation segment of the bill creates an infrastructure for soil quality education and testing programs within the parameters of individual State’s resources. Simply put, federal funding will help fund soil conservation efforts for urban farmers, but they will have to look to locally run laboratories at Universities for procedural implementations.
The final sections of Title IV push the boundaries of the traditional Farm Bill in decidedly progressive fashions by including urban environmental conservation plans, community based composting programs, and dietary education programs. These elements of the bill probably present the most notable government recognition of conservation and education efforts that have traditionally been denoted as “grass roots.”
Title IV: Research, Innovation, and Technology
The final section of the Urban Agriculture Act sets to embrace the technology surrounding urban farming through government studies, funding, and implementation. Interestingly enough, the USDA will actually test various forms of cultivation technology—from hydroponics to horticultural lighting—and decipher which are the most efficient on both environmental and financial levels. Along this line of thought, it is not unreasonable to assume that those hydroponics companies whose equipment outperforms that of competitors could actually be contracted by the United States government for large-scale production. This notion presents a business opportunity never dreamed of by indoor gardening companies in decades past.
Critical Appraisals: Big Business Take Over?
Due to the grassroots, community based history of urban farming, the intervention of government programs on the movement is not without its critics. This skepticism arises largely due to the fact that industrial farms reap massive financial benefits from the legislation contained in the USDA’s original Farm Bill. While the Farm Bill was originally conceived as a welfare program for family farms in the United States, the true financial beneficiaries of the program seem to be large-scale “megafarms.” The more conspiratorially minded critics of the Urban Agriculture Act fear that government subsidies will create economic rifts between the new wave of industrial urban farms and the traditional, small scale operations that the movement originally started with. Their paranoia is not unfounded.
Government funding under the traditional Farm Bill has already proved an absolute boon for megafarms. Because, highly lucrative industrial agriculture operations can easily fund their own operations while converting all government subsidies directly into higher profit margins. As an example, the USDA amended the Farm Bill in the mid 1990’s to create subsidies for farmers purchasing livestock feed. Due to these changes, the industrial poultry farming giant Tyson Chicken saved $300 million in 1996 alone. Critics of the Urban Agriculture Bill feel that this sort of government funding in the urban farming sector will empower industrial farms to the point that they can easily put family and community farms out of business.
Summary of Urban Agriculture Legislation
Transitions and evolutions in crop production are a reflection of technological, cultural, and economic systems and structures of certain eras. That being said, the Urban Agriculture Act has the potential to stimulate a new era of farming in the United States—one that empowers people in urban centers with long lost agrarian knowledge and capabilities. This process will occur successfully with a harmonious balance of government intervention, indoor gardening technology, and grassroots sensibilities. The sort of diverse collaboration—on both economic and cultural levels—proposed in the Urban Agriculture Act could serve as a signpost of progress concerning diversification in government project management. Interestingly enough, this progress will only be possible if both government and big business operations honor the standards of environmentalism, sustainability, and equality set forth by the urban farming movements forward thinking originators.
This article originally appeared in the March 2018 edition of Maximum Yield Magazine.