Urban Agriculture Act of 2016

Yes, an Act, as in law.  On September 26th, U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow introduced the Urban Agriculture Act of 2016 in Congress. The bill “addresses the unique needs of urban farmers by investing new resources and increasing flexibility through existing programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).” Among it’s numerous touted virtues, the Act is promised to create new economic opportunity, provide families with greater access to healthy foods, and establish a healthier environment. Don’t misinterpret ‘urban farmer’ to include residential veggie gardening or backyard chickens and goats. This bill was written for agriculture businesses and community gardens that exist within municipal limits. It will not override local zoning, or city and state ordinances and laws.

Just to be clear, this wonderfulness announced at a Detroit press conference last week is the work of THE Senator Stabenow…

“What does it say that a U.S. senator can show up at a Detroit urban farm for a photo opportunity to introduce “comprehensive urban agriculture legislation” after co-sponsoring a bill Monsanto, the world’s most evil corporation, loves? Insert your rationale here if you like. Sen. Stabenow is doing the best she can given her ruthless opponents. She is at least moving food labeling forward, er … all evidence in Vermont to the contrary. Say what you will. But this isn’t the first time Stabenow, a ranking member of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, has opposed labeling. When she opposed the Sanders amendment to the 2012 farm bill, she said it would “interfere with the FDA’s science-based process to determine what food labeling is necessary for consumers.”

In other words, Stabenow believes that deciding how much information you need on what fruits and vegetables to buy isn’t your job. It’s the FDA’s job. And they feel you have enough information as is, thankyouverymuch.” — Michael Jackman, Detroit Metro Times

Urban Agriculture Act of 2016: Doesn't Stipulate Soilless Growing... It's entirely focused on growing in soil.

The Urban Agriculture Act basically ignores soilless growing. (Courtesy of City Farmer)

The person who made sure Big Food didn’t have to label GMO food by law now seeks to help real food, grown locally, without pesticides or synthetic fertilizer, become part of mainstream farming. And she’s going to create a special department within the USDA just for urban farming through which the nirvana of rural farmers helping suburban and city farmers become successful will take place.

Seriously? The average rural farmer thinks that urban agriculture is a joke. Conventional agtech magazine, The Progressive Farmer, questions whether the bill makes sense, if urban agriculture make sense, and what the government can really do to make it make sense. You can’t make any money in their world unless you’re big. Big Ag and Big Food spares no effort at keeping it that way. But these people will help micro farms be more productive, more profitable, and pay good wages to urban farm workers? Even though farm workers on conventional farms have low hourly wages. Yes, elephants are better mouse hole makers.

But this is just one small tidbit of a much bigger scenario. Before we even consider what’s in this bill, ponder the big picture. Why is a grassroots movement that has been loudly, and largely, belittled by both the food and farming industries suddenly of such value to garner so much attention and assistance. It has nothing to do with increasing access to healthier foods beyond the support it proposes to offer to community gardens and their commitment to sharing produce with neighbors. That’s a talking point supported by an investment of a paltry $5 million to cover tools and assistance to non-profits all over the country. How many cities, suburbs, and small towns will actually get anything after the pie is sliced?

I believe the answer, the fuel behind this surprising Urban Agriculture Act, lies in this fact:

Urban farmers, tiny bakeries and food businesses, and consumers have created a $50 billion dollar a year alternative food industry with locally grown, organic, and artisan food.

Furthermore, the good food movement is the fastest growing segment of the food economy.

Ask not how Goliath will help David be bigger, better, and stronger than he already is. Follow the money and sales growth. That’s what Goliath is really after. The giant seeks to conquer the very monster that threatens. A fast growing alternative food industry that has grown to claim $50 billion from the food system cash flow. And Stabenow is lavishly funded by Goliath… Big Food and Big Ag. Michael Pollan puts it together very nicely in a New York Times Magazine article just the other day. Wednesday, October 5, 2016:

“Surely Big Food was overreacting to the threat posed by a handful of writers and filmmakers, yet the fact that they did suggests that, behind the industry’s wall of political power, there indeed lurks a vulnerability. That vulnerability is the conscience of the American eater, who in the past decade or so has taken a keen interest in the question of where our food comes from, how it is produced, and the impact of our everyday food choices on the land, on the hands that feed us, on the animals we eat and, increasingly, on the climate. Though still a minority, the eaters who care about these questions have come to distrust Big Food, and reject what it is selling. Looking for options better aligned with their values, they have created, purchase by purchase, a $50 billion alternative food economy, comprising organic food, local food and artisanal food. Call it Little Food. And while it is still tiny in comparison with Big Food, it is nevertheless the fastest-growing sector of the food economy.

While Big Food can continue to forestall change in Washington, that strategy simply will not succeed in the marketplace. There, Big Food is struggling to adapt to a rapidly shifting landscape it cannot control. That’s why it’s gobbling up organic and artisanal brands, hoping to learn the secret of their success — which, of course, is simply that they understand and respect the values of the new food consumer better than Big Food does.”

An excellent read, Pollan’s piece is full of lots of lesser known facts about the mainstream food industry maintaining their status quo. Yet, with every strategic move, and dollar spent on protecting the cash flow from their novel food-like substance product lines, more American eaters turn to Little Food for sustenance. Which brings us back to the abrupt appearance of this Urban Agriculture Act of 2016. Officially identified as S3420, out of the box, the bill has unanimous support from: the American Farm Bureau Federation, GreenStone Farm Credit Services, and the National Farmer’s Union. Big Ag organizations are excited about opening their arms to urban farmers. Surface sparkles.

The talking points regurgitated by the press include:

  • Urban soil testing and funding or research for remediation. (Shouldn’t the government have seen to this already? But now taxpayers will eat the cost instead of the businesses that polluted the soil.)
  • Create an incentive program for using sustainable growing practices. (Hmm… hasn’t sustainable food production ALWAYS been at the core of both urban agriculture and urban gardening?)
  • “The act expands USDA authority…” (Prepare to be regulated in the same manner that has put small farms in a tail spin.)
  • Form ag cooperatives to help urban farmers get the harvest to market. (One member of the advisory committee in the USDA urban ag office will be a food aggregator, as in a business that ships food. So much for local.)
  • $10 million spend on cutting-edge research to explore:
    • locally grown market opportunities (The very thing that urban ag businesses have already built. $50 billion is definitely a market.),
    • and develop new technologies for lowering energy and water needs. (Recreating the already existing?)
  • Make it easier for urban agriculture businesses to borrow money from GreenStone “to finance food production, marketing, and value-added processing.” (And when you can’t pay off the debt, someone will be waiting in the wings to take it all away from you.)
  • Sell urban producers crop insurance. Pricing will take into account the risks, food prices, and contracts. (This works like any other insurance. File a claim and your rates raise.)
  • “Coordinate urban agriculture policies…” There’s those regulations.
  • Give urban farmers access to compost while reducing food waste bound for landfills. (So, the act will connect you with the waste businesses already in your area.)
Urban Agriculture Act of 2016: City Farmer's Friend or Foe?

Urban Agriculture Act of 2016: City Farmer’s Friend or Foe? (Courtesy of RUSUSTAIN)

Many will cheer and proclaim it’s about time they started paying attention to what the consumer wants. Silly sheeple, all that glitters is not gold. Overly busy non-rural farmers, beware of letting foxes romp through your hen house. The alternative food economy has diverted $50 billion dollars from Big Ag and Big Food. They want in. They want to mold urban farming to a model that works in their system. There will be loopholes. Stabenow mastered them long ago. Monsanto, their biotech and ag chemical cronies, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association love her so much – they send huge sums of money her way. Investigate it. Then check out just how she has ‘helped’ small rural farms in her home state of Michigan. This won’t be any different.

By the way, the word “organic” is nowhere to be found in the talking points. It does appear one time in all the pages of the lengthy bill. It’s in a stipulation under Sect. 287 that deals with Soil Assessment.  Look for ‘pesticide-free’ – you’ll find it’s absent, as is any mention of high tech growing methods. Vertical farming does get a mention, but no inclusion of growing methods.  Soilless growing seems to be ignored.

Warm fuzzies in an election year? Perhaps it is a persuasion tool to gather more Democrat votes, but it will probably not become an actual law until 2017 or 2018. The wording and legislature in S3420 could change by then. And the Urban Agricultural Act of 2016 is earmarked for inclusion in the 2018 Farm Bill.

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On a mission to get to the bottom of things, Agent Green digs far and wide in the pursuit of truth.