Recent Articles About Urban Agriculture

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.”



Eli Zigas didn’t wait for someone to offer him his dream job. He created it.

It all started in 2009, when Zigas moved to San Francisco to be an urban farmer. A graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa, Zigas had worked on federal policy issues—clean energy and voting rights—but he yearned for a job rooted in the outdoors.

But here was one problem. “I quickly realized that I didn’t know how to farm,” he says with laugh. Read more

On a recent summer afternoon, Patty Burbacher, a small, light-haired woman, gave a tour of the two-acre lot in Hamilton, Ohio, filled with raised beds brimming with hot peppers, herbs, tomatoes, and a variety of other produce. Corn grew in tall rows, and squash vines mounded up. Burbacher showed off some handsome ripening eggplants.

All summer long, Burbacher and her husband, Alfred Hall, weed, water, and harvest vegetables. The lot is sandwiched between two sets of apartment buildings in the Riverview neighborhood. Though Burbacher and Hall started building all-organic community gardens seven years ago, this garden, on Front Street, is only a year old. Read more

Someone shouts “bingo!” and the crowd at Chicago’s the Hideout hoots and hollers. It’s Wednesday night, and this small but legendary bar and music venue has been transformed into a hub for community gardeners and the produce they grow.

For 12 weeks each summer, the Hideout is home to Veggie Bingo and its cult following of community garden supporters. The fees, $4 a card or three for $10, benefit a different community garden each week and have helped gardens purchase tools and supplies including soil, seeds, sheds, compost, benches, and scholarships for young workers. On this July evening, the numbers are being sung for supporters of the Fulton Street Flower and Vegetable Garden located in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood.

Some of the players are regulars while others have come to the Hideout to try Veggie Bingo for the first time. Regular Jenny Hines, who lives in the city’s Logan Square neighborhood, admits to loving the offbeat event, calling it “the best day of the week!”

“I love the spirit in here and the idea that it’s a gathering to support food and community gardens,” Hines says. Read more

Half public art project, half tourist destination, a floating food forest called Swale is set to launch along the New York City waterfront in June.

Unlike the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle, Clifton Park Food Forest in Baltimore, and other similar efforts located in public parks or public land, Swale is built on a barge. Occupying the equivalent of one tenth of an acre, the barge will be planted with mature persimmon and paw-paw trees, gooseberries, autumn olives, chives, artichokes, Swiss chard, tomatoes, and dozens of other varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and nuts that visitors are invited to harvest and eat, free of charge. Swale will dock at six ports along the Hudson River, including Governors Island, Yankee Pier, and Brooklyn Bridge Park, spending at least one month in each. Read more

Carl Schurz High School isn’t technically located in a “food desert,” but it might as well be. Nine out of 10 students attending this Chicago high school come from low-income households, where highly processed foods and fast food are the norm.

Yet, a surprising development is unfolding within these very walls. On a particularly cold February day, with snow still on the ground, many Carl Schurz students were served fresh micro-greens as part of their Chicago Public School-provided lunch. Read more

When the black cherry trees start budding in New York City, I know it’s time to get back into the garden. Like any good green thumb, I organize my seeds and start my transplants. I look back on last season’s mistakes, and map my growing space with the sophomoric optimism of an annual agriculturalist. I topdress my garden beds with compost to reinvigorate the tired soil. And this is where my story diverges from that of most vegetable growers.

For me, topdressing involves schlepping soil up several flights of stairs. Read more