Recent Articles About Farm Bill

Urban farming received a legitimizing nod last month when Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) introduced the Urban Agriculture Act of 2016 in hopes of getting it included in the next Farm Bill.

In a call with reporters, Stabenow described the act as an important document, “To start the conversation and create the broad support I think we will have in including urban farming as part of the next Farm Bill.”

The bill aims to create economic opportunities for urban farmers, expand U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) farm loan programs to urban farmers, support the creation of urban farm co-ops to help bring products to market (and allow those co-ops to manage loans for urban farmers), invest in urban ag research, and improve access to fresh, local foods.

The bill is long overdue, according to Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, the nonprofit that operates D-Town Farm, the Detroit farm where Stabenow announced the legislation.

“Overall, I think the bill is progressive and it’s a significant step forward that Senator Stabenow is recognizing the importance of urban agriculture,” Yakini says.

Whether the legislation will make it into the final 2018 Farm Bill is yet to be seen. But if it does, it would be the first time urban farmers have been included in the federal legislation. And it could provide important protections for urban farm businesses in the case of bad weather, disasters, and market shifts.

Wes King, policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), points to the provision that would provide the USDA the ability to allow urban farmers to use contract and local pricing to recover losses as part of the non-insured disaster assistance program.

“Currently, the coverage uses national commodity prices to reimburse farmers,” King explains. “This works for farmers who get commodity prices for their crops, but in urban agriculture, farmers sell direct-to-consumer or high-end restaurants and are getting premium prices, not commodity prices.”

As part of the bill, Stabenow has also advocated for the creation of an office of urban agriculture under the USDA. The office would coordinate urban agriculture policies and offer technical assistance.

“The legislation is all anchored in the creation of this office, which will act as a force to coordinate urban farming activities and research and ensure that whatever is included in the Farm Bill will be properly implemented,” says King.

But Yakini worries that the advisory committee overseeing the new office might not be representative of all urban farmers. “There has been a historic marginalization of Black farmers,” he explains. “I hope that the committee that appoints the advisory board recognizes that, but we won’t know until we get there.”

The bill authorizes up to a total of $860 million over 10 years in new investments for urban agriculture, a potentially sizable chunk of the overall farm bill pie.

Tyson Gersh, president of Detroit-based Michigan Urban Farming Initiative says, “It’s been difficult for urban farmers to take advantage of funding opportunities to support their work because [funding] is designed around traditional agriculture.”

To get by, many urban farmers have either taken advantage of “borrowed” land and built infrastructure from free and found materials or engaged in public-private partnerships. The struggle for farms that fall somewhere in the middle could be eased through more federal funding. “A new resource platform could enable the spectrum to be more fully populated,” says Gersh.

Indeed, the bill recognizes the diversity of urban farming operations and includes a specific provision to improve access to USDA farm programs like technical assistance, loans and insurance, and uses conservation grants to support access to land and production sites for farmers operating rooftop or vertical farms.

The nod to urban food production ought to be welcome news for operations like Bright Farms, Detroit’s Hantz Farm, and Square Roots, a Kimbal Musk-backed urban farming accelerator to help millennials launch vertical farming operations.

During the press call, Stabenow acknowledged that the funding for these initiatives would come from expanding existing loan programs, which could cause urban farmers to compete with other farmers for the same pot of funding.

“We don’t want to take funding away from traditional rural farmers,” Yakini says. “This is not urban ag versus rural ag.”

Stabenow explained the need to expand funding opportunities, noting, “If we can make [loans and risk management tools] available then other bankers will be more willing to participate with our urban farmers.”

But Gersh fears that the wrong type of funding could have a deleterious effect.

“I’d rather see resources allocated toward self sufficiency,” he says. “I’d hate to see our entire industry disappear overnight when the bills that provided the funding to create all of this growth are overturned and the funding disappears.”

Karen Washington also has concerns about the dollars and cents of the proposed legislation. The urban farming activist and farmer/founder of Rise & Root Farm in New York is concerned that the bill emphasizes profit-driven farming rather than urban food access.

“Urban agriculture should be in the Farm Bill … and the fact that [this bill] is even part of the conversation is huge,” she says. “But the heart of this bill cannot be profit-driven. A lot of the emphasis is on the commercialization of urban agriculture. This is not just about profit. Race economics have to be brought into the conversation.”

Yakini also expresses concern about the potential negative impacts of the bill on people of color. He’s particularly concerned by the prospect of funding for this bill coming out of the nutrition portion—which accounts for the large majority—of the farm bill “We do not want to see this bill funded by reducing SNAP benefits,” he says

There are, indeed, kinks to be worked out.

On the press call, Stabenow acknowledged the bill has little chance of passing in its current form. But, it could make waves regardless.

For starters, it could sway city and state-level lawmakers who are on the fence about updating dated legal language that puts urban farmers at odds with municipalities.

“[The bill] provides good opportunities for the federal government to step in and tell cities, ‘We’ve done the research and you’re obliged to give it a chance,’” Gersh says.

For Karen Washington, the message the proposed bill sends is a step in the right direction.

“Until now, no one has taken growing food in cities seriously,” she says. “We’ve had to fight to make our way, making something out of nothing while people treated [urban farming] like it was a hobby. This bill validates that urban farming is not going away and needs to be an important part of the conversation.”



Over the last few months, most of the presidential candidates have found their way to Bill Couser’s farm in Nevada, Iowa, where he raises more than 5,000 head of cattle, and grows corn and soybeans. Couser says he’s played host to all the Republicans vying for the Oval Office this cycle in the conference room he built at his feedlot specifically for the parade of presidential candidates.

“Carly Fiorina—I was with her yesterday,” Couser told Civil Eats. “I sat with Trump for a couple hours last week.”

But unlike in the lead-up to past Iowa Caususes, when Ben Carson or Ted Cruz arrive at the Couser farm, the candidates’ ears aren’t being bent on food production, land access, or even a specific wishlist for the next Farm Bill. When he’s with the candidates, Couser grills them on ethanol, or fuel made from corn byproduct. Read more

A version of this post previously appeared on Modern Farmer.

Earlier this week the USDA reached out to Modern Farmer asking if Secretary Tom Vilsack, the only member of President Obama’s cabinet that has lasted through both terms in office, could give us a call. He wanted to plug the $17.6 million in grant money that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently made available for organic farming research, as well as a few other things he’s been working on to support the local food movement, or what the USDA often refers to as the “farm-identity preserved” market. But we got to chat about a few other things, too, like Vilsack’s recent trip to Cuba and his views on the GMO labeling debate. Read more

When it comes to the disparities within the food system, the numbers are pretty stark. The 10 largest mega-corporations generate $450 million annually in food sales. These companies’ CEOs earn, on average, 12 times what their workers make. Of those food workers, women of color make less than half of the salaries of their male counterparts and are far more likely to need nutrition assistance than workers in other industries. Black farmers have lost 80 percent of their land since 1920, while large-scale and corporate farms make nearly half the agricultural sales—despite accounting for less than five percent of all farms. Read more

If you’ve ever driven through the middle of the country, where single crops dominate the landscape for miles, you may think that the bulk of our farms grow just a few foods: corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice. Now, it turns out, you were right.

A new study published last month in the journal PLOS ONE, shows that U.S. crop diversity is significantly lower today than it was 30 years ago. So while it’s been a commonly held belief that U.S. farms are moving toward monoculture, and away from crop diversity, now there’s solid evidence to support that claim. Read more

At New Orleans’ Recirculating Farms Coalition (RFC), vegetables grow in an intricate system of recirculating aquaculture systems and raised garden beds. Founded in 2009, the nonprofit organization trains urban farmers in both soil-based farming and fish farming—a combination that provides food for the local community.

Now, thanks to a federal grant, RFC has received $500,000 to create a more robust free training program for budding urban farmers, specifically targeting its outreach and support to new farmers in some of the most low-income and underserved communities in New Orleans: Central City, Algiers, New Orleans East, the Seventh Ward, and the Ninth Ward. Read more

After a recent national gathering, delegates discussed their emphatic opposition to federal firearm registration, argued against attempts to address climate change through cap and trade, and decried the so-called “war against Christmas.” Attendees went home with a “lobbyist bible” that defined marriage between a man and woman, called for national voter identification, and demanded the repeal of “Obamacare.” Read more

Update: On May 12, 2015, the Organic Trade Association moved forward to “begin steps to conduct a vote on and implement a research and promotion check-off program for the organic industry.” 


Imagine an ad campaign for organic food as ubiquitous as “Got Milk?,” “Pork. The Other White Meat,” and “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner.” That’s the idea behind a proposed federal program that would collect money from organic producers and put it in a single pot for promotion and industry research for the whole organics sector. Read more

As comedian John Oliver said last week in his much-watched primer on net neutrality, “If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.” Big Ag has known this strategy for years and perhaps no one does it better than the meatpackers and poultry companies—companies like Tyson, Smithfield, and trade organizations like the American Meat Institute and the National Chicken Council. Read more