Urban Agriculture Act of 2016 and The Need for Local Policy

Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) embraces Malik Yakini, Executive Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, at an event to announce the introduction of the Urban Agriculture Act of 2016.

Given the turmoil presented by the presidential election in November, you are forgiven if you glossed over Senator Debbie Stabenow introducing the Urban Agriculture Act of 2016 on September 28, 2016 and the accompanying announcement of the bill’s introduction with Mayor Mike Duggan at press conference at D-Town Farm in Detroit. According to Senator Stabenow, the bill, which is the first comprehensive urban agriculture bill to be introduced in Congress, will help create new economic opportunities by promoting urban agriculture and in turn will give families greater access to healthy food and create healthier environments in cities. However, while the introduction of the first urban agriculture bill in Congress is exciting, it is worth examining whether it will contribute to achieving its stated purposes and if there are other unmet policy needs to promote urban agriculture. To engage in this analysis, we must analyze the bill as well as whether it will address the variety of policy barriers facing urban growers.

At the outset, it is important to note that the proposed Urban Agriculture Act of 2016 is not a do-nothing bill. It is 43 pages and provides the development of a governmental infrastructure to develop urban agriculture policy and guidance, grant funding for the development and enhancement of community gardens, a program to assist for-profit urban farms, a program to assist growers in assessing urban soils for potential contamination, and a program to conduct more research on urban agriculture across the country. Below is a full list of the offices, committees, programs, and initiatives to be implemented pursuant to the Urban Agriculture Bill of 2016 as it is currently drafted:

  • Establish Office of Urban Agriculture in the Department of Agriculture to coordinate federal resources to promote urban agriculture and to identify policy recommendations for State and local governments and establish an Urban Agriculture Advisory Committee made up of 15 members to advise the Office of Urban Agriculture. In general, the Office of Urban Agriculture is responsible for developing and implementing all of the programs described below.
  • Develop a Community Garden Program to develop technical assistance and educational materials and to coordinate resources for community gardens.
  • Develop a Rooftop Agriculture Program to provide technical assistance and further research to test strategies for rooftop farming
  • Develop a Farm Management and Professional Development Program to provide beginning for-profit urban farmers with assistance in farm business management practices
  • Develop a Soil Assessment Program that provides for soil testing protocols, metrics to measure soil health, quality, and safety, and educational materials to assist agricultural producers in utilizing the soil testing protocol and adopting best practices to mitigate risks regarding soil contamination
  • Conduct an Urban Agriculture Census
  • Develop a Healthy Food and Healthy Environment Pilot Program to provide up to $5 million in grants to entities to conduct a pilot program to strengthen the marketplace link between urban farms and local consumers
  • Develop Urban Agriculture Research, Education, and Extension Initiative to provide up to $10 million in grants to support research on urban agriculture marketing, strategies to remediate contaminated sites, best practices regarding pest management, and methods to identify new urban agriculture sites
  • Provide $5 million a year in grants through 2021 to community organizations, nonprofit corporations, municipalities, schools, and any other entity to support the development of community gardens.
  • Provide grants to entities to conduct pilot projects to strengthen

As currently drafted, the bill would promote urban agriculture through a number of ways. First, the creation of an Office of Urban Agriculture and the Urban Agriculture Advisory Committee would be the first federal agency dedicated towards furthering urban agriculture, which would be necessary to coordinate the many programs and initiatives described in the bill. Second, the bill includes programs for different iterations of urban agriculture, specifically community agriculture, for-profit agriculture, and rooftop agriculture. Many of these programs would provide “soft support,” such as technical assistance and educational materials. However, “firm support” in the form of grant dollars would be made available to community gardens. Lastly, the bill would provide needed federal direction regarding soil assessments in relation to urban agriculture, which is an issue that has received inadequate attention.

Now let’s go back to the original question: does this bill accomplish the purpose of promoting urban agriculture? The answer is best phrased as a “yes, but…” Specifically, yes, the bill obviously provides valuable resources that will undoubtedly promote urban agriculture, but improvements to local policy are necessary for this federal bill to achieve its stated purposes.

While access to federal grant funding, technical assistance, educational resources, and all of the other programs to be implemented by the Office of Urban Agriculture are great, the reality is that the great majority of cities still have a lot of local policy development to do in regards to urban agriculture. Urban agriculture is a unique land use due to its extralegal origins and it’s difference from more traditional urban development. Most of Detroit’s most successful urban farms and gardens were started before urban farms and gardens were technically a legal land use in Detroit pursuant to the City’s zoning ordinance. As a result, many urban farms and gardens that were started on City-owned property were started pursuant to license or lease agreements as the city had a policy to not sell land for a project that was not allowed under the zoning ordinance. However, the amendments to the Detroit zoning ordinance that legalized urban agriculture as a land use in Detroit has not been a full-fledged panacea for urban agriculture. While urban agriculture is a legal land use in most zoning districts in Detroit, now the problem is figuring out how urban agriculture fits with other, more traditional forms of development in the City of Detroit.

As everyone knows, Detroit has a massive amount of publicly owned vacant land. While it may seem that there is enough land for agricultural enterprises, the reality has proved to be more complicated. A great majority of Detroit’s urban farms and gardens are operated on property that is not owned by the farmer or gardener. Most farmers and gardeners operate on land pursuant to a license from the Detroit Land Bank Authority or pursuant to no agreement at all. Obviously, this is less than ideal for farms and gardens that want to make financial investments in their enterprise in the form of irrigation systems, greenhouses, hoophouses, storage sheds, or other permanent improvements to their farm or garden. However, when those farmers and gardeners have approached the City to purchase their land, they have often been frustrated in their attempts. The most common cause of frustration has been the lack of a well-developed local land use policy that promotes urban agriculture in its different iterations. This frustration has two components.

First, urban growers don’t know where to locate their urban farms and the city has provided little guidance as to where it thinks small scale (below 1 acre) urban gardens, medium scale (1-5 acres) farms, and large scale (5 acres and above) farms should be located. Growers know not to expect to be able to start a medium or large scale urban farm in dense neighborhoods such as Midtown and Downtown. However, growers don’t know if their are other neighborhoods that may be good locations for such projects. The Detroit Future City plan identified potential areas of the city where such projects may make sense, but to date the Planning and  Development Department has not developed a macro-level vision similar to the Detroit Future City plan and instead has focused its efforts on micro-level planning work in certain neighborhoods that have more limited amounts of vacant land. In short, identifying a potential location for an urban agriculture project can be difficult, particularly as the size of the project increases. This is especially hard on for-profit urban farmers, who generally need a medium or large scale farm to generate enough produce to have a profitable business.

Second, even if growers are able to identify a site where the City may be willing to sell property for an agricultural project, the price of the land is often prohibitive.  Currently, the City’s base price for urban agriculture developments is 20 cents per square foot. For comparison, a Michigan State University survey of agricultural land values in southeast Michigan found the average value of farmland in the region to be 8 cents per square foot. This means urban farmers are paying a premium for their farmland. To make matters more difficult, the land urban farmers are getting often needs significant improvement to make it optimal for farming. Many urban parcels have debris from demolished structures buried beneath the soil which must be removed by the grower. There are also concerns about soil contamination and potential remediation costs. Lastly, even if soil is not contaminated it still may be nutrient poor. In short, urban growers are paying more than their rural counterparts for less.

At the press conference depicted above, Mayor Duggan stated a hope that the Urban Agriculture Act of 2016 would help existing urban farms to expand and help start new urban farms. The irony in that statement is that he is in a better position than Senator Stabenow to make that hope a reality. There are several existing urban farms in Detroit that would settle for buying the land they are currently operating on, much less purchasing more land and expanding their operations. There are also several prospective new urban agriculture enterprises that have experienced the frustrations described above in attempting to simply get their farm off the ground. Those are problems that only the City of Detroit can solve by working with non-governmental partners like Keep Growing Detroit and others to develop local land use policy that promotes urban agriculture. What happens with the Urban Agriculture Act of 2016 given the unexpected results of the presidential election in anybody’s guess. However, there is plenty of local policy work that must be done first.