Members of the Michigan Small Farm Council attended the Opportunities for Urban Agriculture meeting on Monday, April 13th at Detroit’s Eastern Market. This meeting was hosted by Senator Stabenow’s staff and lasted nearly two hours. The presenters included:
- Katie Naessens, Policy Analyst-U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee
- Alan Shannon, Public Affairs Director, U.S.D.A. Food & Nutrition Service, Midwest Region
- Liz Gensler, Outreach Specialist, Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems
Senator Stabenow’s Staff in attendance:
- Terry Campbell, Office of Senator Stabenow, Greater Detroit
- Mary Judnich, Office of Senator Stabenow, West Michigan
The first portion of the meeting explained details of many opportunities for financial and educational assistance for urban farmers, small-scale producers and farmers markets. The second half of the meeting gave local citizens an opportunity to share their personal stories of challenges starting or expanding their small-scale farms, production, and marketing operations in Michigan. The audience members at this meeting included a wide range of participants; representatives from the FDA office, Michigan State University Extension Programs, City and school officials, Farmers Market managers, Food advocacy/healthy eating groups, and small scale/Urban farmers. Overall, the meeting was an eye-opener to the MSFC about the opportunities that our Federal government offers through the Farm Bill. One clear message that the staff wanted to convey was that urban farming is not a fad and the Federal government is investing in this endeavor as a valuable option in our food system.
While the MSFC has been working and advocating at the local and state levels, we learned yesterday that understanding how farming fits at the Federal Level is important to our members as well. Significant changes occurred in the 2014 Farm Bill that allows for unprecedented opportunities for small-scale or urban farmers. From Senator Stabenow’s website:
“The 2014 Farm Bill is a big win not only for Michigan farmers, but for our families and communities as well. Senator Debbie Stabenow, the first Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee from Michigan in over 120 years, wrote the 2014 Farm Bill that cuts spending by $23 billion while strengthening efforts to help Michigan farmers and businesses create jobs. This bill represents the most significant reform of agricultural policy in decades by eliminating direct payment subsidies that farmers can receive for crops they are not even growing, streamlining and consolidating programs, and cracking down on waste and abuse in food assistance programs.”
Please click the link if you are interested in reading about the specifics of each section of the Farm Bill.
The presenters highlighted many programs that beginning and existing small-scale operations have access to. Since many of these programs are new, the focus of the meeting was to bridge the gap in communication between the government programs and the farmer. Funding programs and grants are now available to small-scale urban farmers. One audience member quickly looked up an available grant, but expressed his concern that several pages of documents were possibly too much work. However, since our own MSFC President Wendy Banka is currently in the process of applying for a grant, she was able to speak up and share that while the grant paperwork documentation looks daunting, it is in fact quite reasonable to fill out. The MSFC has been given permission to post links to the current programs. One piece of advice that we can give you is to ask Senator Stabenow for a letter of recommendation to send along with your application. If you are concerned about meeting a deadline, it was advised to submit the application and then forward a recommendation letter once it is received. Major topics included:
- New and Beginning Farmer Programs
- Credit Opportunities
- Local Foods
- Risk management –new opportunities for small-scale farms for crop-type of insurance for non-commodity eligible crops
- Specialty crops and organics
- Other USDA programs that support urban agriculture-many grants available
- Other Federal programs that support urban agriculture
The meeting focus then switched gears to include the audience members’ feedback. We were asked to share our personal stories about challenges we are facing in small-scale urban agriculture. The presenters asked us to define “Urban Agriculture” and although no one person had a single definition, we were able to collaborate on several aspects of what it is:
- Farming in urban areas
- Farming on re-purposed vacant land
- Non-traditional crops
- Small crop size
- Information about defining Urban Agriculture according to the USDA.
The MSFC took this opportunity to present an open letter to Senator Stabenow. In this letter we shared our mission and a brief history of our efforts over the last several years to support small-scale agriculture in Michigan. Most importantly though was our message to Senator Stabenow about the severe roadblocks that the MSFC has encountered with attempting to engage with MDARD through the Agricultural Commission. We expressed our gratitude to the presenters for the volume of information and resources for small-scale farmers, but emphasized that many of these programs will not be utilized in the current and on-going anti-urban agriculture environment within MDARD. Our concerns were met with some understanding from Senator Stabenow’s staff of the on-going battles with site selection surrounding RTF/GAAMPS. We were reminded that the issues we are contending with are at the State level and today’s meeting is about resources at the Federal level and the Senator cannot control what occurs in the State government.
My final thoughts:
I am glad that I took the time to attend this meeting. I was honestly blown away by the number of programs available and funding opportunities from the Federal government. We have been so focused at the state level, that we missed these resources offered at the Federal level. I hope that we have rectified that –or at the very least shared some important information. The presenters were genuine in their message and very well informed. This type of meeting was a great idea—how would an average Joe know about these programs and what they mean? The take-away message from this meeting was that Urban Agriculture is not a fad—it is an important option for the sustainability of our food system. The Michigan Small Farm Council shares this philosophy and will continue to protect this option by advocating for the small-scale farmer in Michigan.