Urban Ag and the Farm Bill

Small, Young and Urban Farmers Don't Know Where to Turn at USDA

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Kyle Anderberg sells a table full of greens at a farmers' market in Richmond, Virginia. Similar to surveys from groups such as the National Young Farmer's Coalition, Anderberg isn't aware of any programs at USDA that can help a small, young urban farmer such as himself. He said he would like a loan that could help him buy a couple of acres of land. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

RICHMOND, Va. (DTN) -- On a chilly morning in late February, Kyle Anderberg was selling a small table full of fresh greens at Lakesides Farmers' Market on the northern edge of Richmond just behind his home. He essentially grows greens -- baby mustard greens, kale, parsley, scallions, cilantro and Jerusalem artichokes, also called sunchokes.

Surprisingly, Anderberg, 36, makes his living full-time as an urban farmer essentially in his backyard. Asked about the farm bill and whether he has looked at any USDA programs that could help a small, urban farmer such as himself, Anderberg said he wasn't aware of any programs that would work for him, or where to begin looking.

"When I think about the farm bill, I think about all the corn subsidies that are being pushed into our diet," Anderberg said. "This is a one-man show so even if there are programs that can help, I rarely go through the trouble of seeking those out."

Anderberg added he'd like to see more funding go into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for state "Double Up" programs that give recipients $1 back for every dollar they spend on fruits and vegetables. More than half the states nationally have some form of Double Up program.

"That's probably not a whole lot of revenue for me, but it would help more people buy local," he said.


While Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is looking to expand aid and outreach to smaller farmers, a lot of work is needed. At a Senate hearing this past week Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., pointed out Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., has been hearing from urban farmers in Pennsylvania who leave county FSA and NRCS offices "and believe that they are unequipped to assist with resources for urban farmers." Booker asked Vilsack to talk about what USDA is doing to help get information out to urban farmers, FSA staff and others.

Vilsack said USDA is working in 17 cities "where we are trying to develop the program for urban farming" and setting up offices in those cities "so that we can learn a bit more about what's going on."

Vilsack also mentioned a series of innovation grants and composting grants in those programs. Vilsack said there were millions of dollars being invested in those programs to encourage more urban farming as well. USDA also has established a team at NRCS "focused solely on urban farming," he said.

"We want to expand this program. We understand and appreciate that the definition of farming is different today than it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago. It's about urban farming, it's about rooftop farming, it's about community gardens, it's about vertical farming, it's about indoor farming, it's about horticulture -- hydroponics, agroponics -- it's all of that. And it's important for us to be supportive of all of that."

Booker and Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., each said they wanted to see more work to expand those programs in the next farm bill.


Vanessa Garcia Polanco, policy campaign co-director for the National Young Farmers Coalition, pointed to her organization's survey of more than 10,000 farmers under age 40. Of those surveyed by the group, Garcia Polanco said 93% responded they had never used a USDA program.

"That's extremely concerning," she said. "I want to say it's USDA's fault, but mostly this entire new generation feels USDA has forgotten them."

Especially for minority farmers, Garcia Polanco pointed to the past with USDA and litigation, but she said the disconnect now has widened to most young, first-generation farmers. "When most of my farmers go into an office, most likely they have a horrible experience," she said. "So a lot of young farmers tell their friends not to waste their time with USDA."

Most of these producers, as many as 86%, sell directly to consumers and farmers markets, Garcia Polanco said. To improve service, the National Young Farmers Coalition now is providing technical assistance to help younger farmers walk into an FSA and apply for programs.

"USDA should be working for you. You are entitled to their service as a taxpayer, and as a farmer, a lot of what we see is a cultural mismatch. It's not like they get flat-out rejected when they go into USDA, but the FSA and others, they don't know how to work with small, diversified farmers."

Last month, USDA released an Equity Commission report, which was one of the last initiatives led by former Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh. The report includes 32 recommendations meant to deal with historical discrimination, but also trying to expand USDA's access. A big chunk of that ties into the new generation of young, urban farmers.

"There are some things that are going to take congressional action, or farm-bill changes," Bronaugh said. "So once we can see where everything lies and what levers we can pull, we can immediately make the change to all of these historical inequities that have been identified for years, that have come up in those recommendations, that are going to help farmers, underserved farmers, farmers of color, and multiple types of farmers we have failed to serve in the past."


Justin Upshaw, 40, manages a community garden for a local church in Richmond and watches for opportunities in the area for other community gardens to expand or start. On the weekends, he's selling micro-greens at the farmers market in and around the St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Richmond. Upshaw told DTN his family always had a garden growing up. Now he grows micro-greens with some LED lights in his house. The community garden and farmer's market sales are his full-time jobs.

"It's definitely difficult to do, don't get me wrong," Upshaw said. "There is a high attention to detail to grow some of these greens properly."

Asked about some goals, Upshaw said, "I want to have a small family farm. My focus is on food access and food security and farmers markets in underserved areas."

Asked about the farm bill, he said, "I have heard there are these programs that can help, but I wouldn't know where to start."


Like Upshaw, Anderberg added one of his goals right now would be to buy a piece of ground, about two acres or so, "and that's enough land for what I want to do," he said.

"What I would be interested in going forward is a loan program," Anderberg said. "I don't own this land and I don't have the cash flow to buy it."

The Young Farmers survey pointed out 59% of participants in last year's survey said finding affordable land is "very or extremely challenging." Another 41% cited the same challenges for access to capital as well.

When it comes to USDA loans, the Young Farmers survey cited just 7.3% of producers who responded to the survey have received an FSA microloan. Only 5.2% of young farmers in the survey had received an FSA operating loan.


Among the other vendors at St. Stephen's were a mushroom farmer, a farmer selling canned vegetables and fresh eggs, and another vegetable producer -- all of whom said raising produce is their full-time occupation. Just one of those farmers had utilized a USDA program.

"Honestly, when I think of those programs, I think they are for larger-scale farmers," said Brandon Bundy, 34, who owns Bundy Heirloom Farm in Drakes Branch, Virginia.

Bundy said he had gone into a local Farm Service Agency (FSA) looking at what type of programs might be available for a local vegetable producer.

"They didn't know what to do with us," he said. "They used the example of growing corn. They are more comfortable dealing with stuff like that."

Bundy, though, like Anderberg also pointed out, "There are a lot of little guys out there who are farming now."

Bundy though, uses high tunnels, or hoop houses, on his farm to grow year-round and mentioned he would like to find a way to expand his operation.

Selling inside the church, Jonathan Bremer, owner of Liberty Tree Farm, offers kale, winter collards, rainbow chard, sunchokes and some early-blooming flowers.

Bremer told DTN the first high tunnel on his farm was built by another farmer using a grant from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). After that farmer sold to Bremer, he took it over. Bremer then enrolled in EQIP to build another tunnel. He noted that it took another five years of reapplying every year before his farm received another EQIP grant to add a second high tunnel on the farm.

"There aren't many things I can take advantage of compared to the big farmers, but even little farms like me can benefit," Bremer said. "A high tunnel really makes the difference between being able to make money or not."

Asked about other programs that could help smaller producers such as himself, Bremer mentioned grants to help grow cover crops, or programs that would help with infrastructure such as freezer and refrigerated storage. Bremer added that USDA needs to make the paperwork easier for smaller producers.

"There are only so many hours in the day and these programs can be confusing and take a lot of time," Bremer said. "At the end of the day, I don't have the time it takes to take advantage of a lot of these programs."

USDA on Urban Agriculture: https://www.usda.gov/…

Microloan programs: https://www.fsa.usda.gov/…

National Young Farmers Coalition https://www.youngfarmers.org/…

Also see, "Farm Size is No Small Argument in Farm Bill Debate," https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

Chris Clayton