On anybody's list of senators likely to introduce an urban agriculture bill, Michigan's Debbie Stabenow would rank high. She's the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee and her constituency includes Detroit. In recent years, the "Motor City" has morphed into "Urban Agtown," with 1,500 community gardens already growing fruits and vegetables and 200,000 vacant lots on which to expand (http://tiny.cc/…).
So Stabenow as the proposer of S3420, "a bill to promote urban agricultural production and for other purposes," (http://tiny.cc/…) makes sense. It certainly makes sense for a blog titled "An Urban's Rural View" to have an interest in the bill. The question is: Does the bill make sense?
As of this writing, the text of the measure has yet to be posted on Congress.gov. Stabenow's announcement of the bill (http://tiny.cc/…) said its main provisions include enabling urban farmers to apply for a variety of farm-loan programs and creating an urban agriculture office in USDA. Stabenow reportedly doesn't expect her bill to pass in its current form. She introduced it to "start the conversation" for including urban agriculture in the next farm bill (http://tiny.cc/…).
Deciding whether urban-agriculture legislation makes sense requires pondering two questions. The first and most fundamental: Does urban agriculture make sense?
It's tempting to say the jury is still out. Urban agriculture is an infant industry -- industries, really, for there are many urban-agricultural models. There are restaurants growing their own fruits and vegetables on their rooftops and community groups growing them on vacant lots. There's Ed Horton's vertical farm on an eighth of an acre inside an Irvine, California, office building (http://tiny.cc/…). There's A.G. and Matt Kawamura's 40 parcels, 1,000 acres total, dotting the southern Los Angeles suburbs (http://tiny.cc/…).
For urban agriculture to make sense does not require that cities grow enough food to feed themselves. That will never happen. But they need to grow enough to make a difference -- and provide jobs and environmental benefits, as well (http://tiny.cc/…). That will require some of the models to demonstrate sustainable business success.
Time will tell, but enough of the models look promising that there's reason to hope this will happen. The odds will improve if government provides some strategic support for urban farming is in its infancy.
Which raises the second question: What, if anything, can the government sensibly do to promote urban agricultural success? What kind of support will prove "strategic?"
One approach would be for Congress to simply clarify that existing farm programs not discriminate against urban farmers: If a rural farmer growing the same crop qualifies, an urban farmer should, too.
In theory, that's not a bad idea. The government has farm programs to support the growth of food. Why should it matter where the food is grown? Depending on how "a farm" is defined, some of the beginning-farmer and other small-farmer loan programs may already be open to urban farmers. If they aren't, they should be.
Urban farmers might benefit even more from programs tailored to their particular needs. USDA could fund more research on maximizing the output of tiny plots. It could do more to encourage the establishment of food hubs or other mechanisms providing markets for what urban farmers grow.
None of this is likely to cost the taxpayer much. That's a good thing, because the taxpayer isn't in the mood to spend much on farm programs, urban or rural. It will be up to Debbie Stabenow and her colleagues in Congress to design smart programs, so a small amount of seed money yields a large crop of urban-ag successes.
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