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Local foodies to Senator Brown: Subsidize urban agriculture

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/12/11 @ 2:42pm

Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) is spending his summer break barnstorming the state for ideas that will recast the Farm Bill as "a Nutrition Bill," Brown said. "It's an Environmental Bill. There are a lot of conservation measures."

Brown's comments reflect the vision of what the Farm Bill could become-and what urban agriculture and local food advocates who attended his roundtable last week at a vacant church in Hough that a handful of Clevelanders are trying to convert into a local food center-are banking on that he and his colleagues will deliver.

The Farm Bill has long been blamed as the biggest impediment for changing the way America grows food and, by extension, for its nutrition and obesity problem. Critics charge that it subsidizes farmers to grow two crops above all others-corn and soy-which find their way into our food in the form of fattening additives, and are at the center of an industrial farming practice that encourages heavy pesticide and fertilizer use. Industrial farms and poor land use around Northern Ohio are flushing phosphorous and pollution into rivers which has metastasized into a dead zone in Lake Erie, Brown said.

Brown, from the Toledo area where the highest concentration of pollution is washing into the lake, asked the roundtable how urban agriculture, including freeing up more of Cleveland's 20,000 parcels of vacant land, can tip the balance back toward sustainable farming?

Mary Donnell, director of Green City Growers, the $24 million, five-acre greenhouse project for vacant land around E. 55th Street funded by Cleveland Foundation as anothe of their employee-owned Evergreen Cooperative, asked Senator Brown to inform the Senate Agriculture and Nutrition Committee that agriculture grants aren't reaching urban areas because of rules excluding growers in population centers.

"We should have access to the same resources as rural areas," Donnell said.

If subsidies are indeed a fact of life in the Farm Bill, then urban growers should share in them. "There are no subsidies (for urban farms)," stated Cleveland Botanical Garden Education Director Geri Unger. "We need to heavily discount produce grown on small urban farms, not unlike what goes to the big green growers."

The traditional subsidy, the Food Stamp, isn't sufficient? Brown asked.

Unger, whose employer runs educational market gardens for inner city Cleveland youth, responded that a grower subsidy is needed for small scale growers who cannot compete with big agri-business.

Brown's reply, just before the subject shifted, was telling: "I think more attention will be paid to the safety net and not to grower subsidy."

That seemed to imply the current Congress is in a mood to slash social safety net provisions like Food Stamps, and less inclined to make dramatic changes to the corn and soy subsidy.

Distribution also impacts on small growers' ability to complete, said Jim Converse of Northside Farmer's Market in Youngstown. "Food distributors dump cheap food into our schools. We're working on rebuilding a food co-operative."

The dirty little secret of the current distribution system is the cost of transporting food, which is absorbed as the cost of doing business. "It costs $2,000 to bring a (semi) truck full of food here from California," said Tony Sfiligoj who procures 2,000 meals a day for MetroHealth Hospital. "We pay for that freight. If we could get (food) from the area, the freight would be $50."

Cleveland Clinic Sustainability Director Christina Vernon agreed: "Fill in the gaps on distribution. We're willing to divert our dollars locally. Also, align the subsidies in the Farm Bill with nutrition. Make sure what you're subsidizing is healthy."

The Farm Bill could help catalyze local food if it paid city kids to learn to farm, said Anna Locci at OSU Extension. "We have (at least one) high school student who got a full time job learning how to farm." Her colleague, Jackie Kreiger wonders what the Farm Bill can offer in brownfield remediation funds specifically aimed at cleaning up vacant land for farming.

Cleveland, when it used HUD funds for 56 pilot "ReImagine" urban ag projects last year, raised red flags with EPA which requires a higher testing and remediation standard than non-federal funded projects. Be aware of the added time and cost for the EPA soil test procedure (and that it stopped some ReImagine projects), said Cleveland Community Development Director Daryl Rush. Also make sure federal land grants don't preclude urban agriculture. For example, HUD's second round of NSP funds couldn't help "ReImagine" any more vacant lots for gardens because the agency more narrowly defined how improving vacant land rebuilds a housing market (leading vacant property reuse advocates to wonder how that helps cities like Cleveland in the short term).

The Farm Bill needs more urban ag grants like the $100,000 Department of Agriculture grant won by Cleveland to consolidate six acres of vacant land at Kinsman and E. 81st Street for programs run by OSU Extension and Will Allen's Cleveland Growing Power (run by locals).

Like the Cleveland Green Corps, Toledo Grows is an urban agriculture program of the Toledo Botanical Garden. It will add sustainable agriculture course offerings to inner city youth in Toledo.

To sum up (and add a few of my own) ideas laid at the roundtable before Senator Brown and the Senate committee that will try valiantly to make the Farm Bill into what Michael Pollan calls an "eater's bill" (meaning, if it doesn't support real food that is nutritious first for people and second for farm animals and foreign grain markets, then the bill shouldn't subsidize it).

  • Urban farmers cannot match the price at market of a (subsidized) Nebraska corn farmer, so they should receive a subsidy from the Farm Bill (remove obstacles to subsidizing food production in urban areas; it's a hold over from a by-gone era).
  • Fill in the gap on distributing local food to supermarkets; make sure the Farm Bill includes grants for innovation in distribution (such as the Local Crop model with Sysco), production (such as food prep kitchens) and farmer education programs in urban areas
  • Create a grant program for all farmer's markets to accept EBT or 'Food Stamps'
  • Clear up the backlog of foreclosed property and pass legislation that allows states to allow county land banks.
  • Push government owned land in cities, such as HUD owned land, to be prioritized for farm-to-work programs
  • Get conservation off-sets as part of the Farm Bill. As Senator Brown said: "The conservation titles in this bill need special focus. Agricultural and development leading to run off need to be addressed with (riparian buffer) zones. There is a program to help pay for that."
  • Increase the number of urban agriculture grants like the $100,000 grant won by Cleveland from the Department of Agriculture (see above) to tap the 9,000 parcels Cleveland has in its land bank for farming
  • Lastly, as Erich Hooper of Hooper Farm in Tremont said, "You have to hire people from the city to keep the system going."

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