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Boom Time for Urban Farming

As more urban farms move towards commercial production, the U.S Department of Agriculture looks for ways to help them grow.

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Workers at Brooklyn Grange farm some 12 stories above the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Photograph by Bess Adler for National Geographic

The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t have a reputation for thinking outside the “Big-Ag” box. So it might come as a surprise that it’s taking one of farming’s most upstart efforts pretty seriously: Urban agriculture.

Last month, the USDA published an urban agriculture tool kit, which is a guide to programs at the department that can be useful to urban farmers. It’s things like funding for hoop houses (low-tech greenhouses) and micro-loans with streamlined applications. “People think of USDA—and they don’t think of urban agriculture,” says Elanor Starmer, administrator of the department’s Agricultural Marketing Service division. The guide was prompted by conversations with the U.S. Conference of Mayors and other groups asking the USDA for help in addressing requests from urban farmers. “As urban agriculture has grown, we’ve come to understand that [we have] tools that are relevant and we want people to know what they are,” Starmer says.

The guide highlights a growing trend within the department to support and develop local and regional food systems, says Starmer, who helps oversee the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program.

The effort makes sense, said Starmer, because urban farmers are increasingly shifting towards commercial production, rather than simply growing, say, summer tomatoes for themselves. “The grants that have gone to urban entities have suggested that it’s turning into a marketable program,” she said.

That marks a shift in the practice. Urban agriculture’s earliest iterations in the U.S. were for self-sufficiency, not sales. The practice dates back to Detroit’s Mayor Hazen Pingree’s potato patches in the late 1890s, and since then has had its ebbs and flows.

It came to the forefront again during World War II in the form of Victory Gardens, and resurged again the 1970s with the advent of the USDA-backed Urban Gardening Program, which sent agents offering agricultural advice to 16 cities, including New York.

The current wave roughly parallels the timing of the local agriculture movement, which began in the late 1990s. By the early 2000s, USDA began hearing from mayors and activists who wanted to know how the agency could help urban farms.

And as urban agriculture has become more prominent, the USDA’s programming has shifted, too. Most of the agency’s work has traditionally been based in rural areas, where large-scale agriculture—and therefore, the largest volume of production—is based. Agency extension offices typically focus on technical help for big farmers. In cities, meanwhile, USDA offices have tended to sideline agriculture and instead focus on efforts related to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), to address concentrated poverty and hunger in cities.

That reflects a historic divide, where most people lived in rural areas, ate what they grew—and sent the rest to cities. Meanwhile, urban food production has traditionally been considered a hobbyist pursuit. But today, those lines are blurring, as more people call cities home—and demand fresher food—while poverty is rising in rural areas.

Today, the agency doesn’t or track whether grantees are urban or rural, said Starmer, but city farmers are prominent in several programs. The agency’s hoop house program, for example, has backed more than 15,000 projects across the country. About 6,000 of those, or 40 percent, are in cities, according to agency statistics. And the Farm Services Agency, the traditional funding source for farms, has made loans to more than 18,000 farms nationwide since launching a micro-loan program in 2013. Seventy percent of those loans have gone to beginning farmers, many of them in cities, says Starmer.

Developing resources for urban farmers is USDA’s bid at “broadening the tent,” says Starmer. And while its unclear whether urban farms will ever become a primary food source—a recent Johns Hopkins study suggests it’s unlikely— if urban farms don’t become a primary food supply, she added, they often serve the agency’s mission of nutrition education: educating people about how food is grown, teaching kids about nutrition, creating community.  “Our job as a federal department,” she said, “is to serve all of agriculture.”