Opinion: Urban farming? Who knew?

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This photograph is provided by the Office of U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow.

Senator Stabenow visited the Lafayette Greens Community Urban Garden in Detroit to discuss the importance of local agriculture with Garden Manager Gwen Meyer.

Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Thanks to Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member and Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, a relatively new type of producer will become part of the congressional debate. I am talking about urban farming.

What? Farming in our nation’s metropolitan monstrosities? Exactly.

Stabenow has introduced a bill she calls the Urban Farming Act of 2016.

Clearly, what already is going on in Detroit has caught Stabenow’s eye.

Ensia recently reported that 400,000 pounds of vegetables and fruits were grown in 2014 by Detroit’s commercial farming community. Some 1,300 family, market and school gardens currently participate, making Detroit the epicenter of the urban farming movement.

Now, Stabenow wants to take the urban farming movement national. It’s an idea the rest of the world has embraced for years. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization says 800 million people (yes, with an “M”) grow food and raise animals in urban settings.

Even more astonishing is that World Watch in a 2011 report said as much as 20 percent of the world’s food is grown in urban areas. That number has very likely inched up in the last five years.

Stabenow’s bill would provide USDA loans to urban farming operations to pay for production, processing and marketing of their food. The bill also would provide federal crop insurance to urban farmers, something until now that has primarily been given to large scale commercial farm operations.  And it would create a new office of urban agriculture at USDA tasked with coordination of policy as well as providing technical assistance.

Of course the bill has a snowball’s chance in “You Know Where” to pass in the lame duck session before Congress reconvenes in a new term next year.  But Stabenow is playing the long game, hoping by starting now that it works its way into the 2018 Farm Bill debate that has already begun in earnest.

Still not sold on the idea? Well, here are a few reasons to get aboard the urban farming train.

Urban farms may be small, but they are mighty when it comes to yield. They’re planted more densely than their commercial brethren and micromanaging water and fertilizer application can be cost effective. Urban farms often avoid natural problems like insects and weather and, due to their size, producers can walk their plots far quicker to find and address problems. When factoring in transportation costs, urban farmers can deliver food to groceries at competitive prices. Plus, we all know locally grown food very often tastes better than the stuff coming from far away. Urban farmers can tailor crops to the desires and tastes of the communities they serve.

Let’s be clear. City farms won’t ever and can’t ever replace their rural counterparts. There’s not enough land, farmers, expertise or profit incentive to feed all of America. But is there a place for urban farming to be part of the U.S. food security puzzle — if lawmakers in farm states don’t dig in their heels from complaints by their big ag constituents.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For the past 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch

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