Detroit will soon get the first United States Department of Agriculture office in the country dedicated to supporting urban agriculture.
Across the country, the USDA has farm service offices, physical hubs that connect farmers to federal resources like emergency assistance, conservation programs and credit and loan programs. But Detroit’s is expected to be the first office with a specific focus on urban agriculture and urban farmers.
The Detroit hub will be the first USDA service center of any kind in the city of Detroit. The closest USDA service centers are located in Ann Arbor and East Lansing.
During a listening session convened with about 50 farmers in Eastern Market in late June, USDA officials were unable to provide a concrete timeline, but said they expect the office will open within a year. Federal officials visited Detroit to gather feedback from farmers on where the office should be located, who should run it and what they would like it to provide. Notices about the new office and the listening session was publicized through the social media accounts of Keep Growing Detroit, a nonprofit that supports Detroit growers.
A USDA spokesperson noted in a Thursday statement to BridgeDetroit that the federal agency provides technical assistance, cost sharing programs and low-interest financing for farms and ranches. Those programs are available to Detroit farmers, but without service centers nearby, they aren’t as accessible as they could be.
“The proposal is to establish a Detroit USDA Service Center focused on improving service for urban farmers there (in Detroit) and helping address the unique challenges they and other southeast Michigan urban farmers face,” the statement reads.
“I would hope that the most immediate impact it has is raising awareness around policies that may be obstructive or prohibitive to practicing urban agriculture and Detroit,” Naim Edwards, who heads a Michigan State University urban agriculture partnership and research center in Detroit, said of the USDA office planned for the city. “And increasing the availability and accessibility to funding for urban agriculture activities.”
In Detroit, Edwards said, zoning stipulations and livestock rules are barriers to farmers without thousands of dollars to start their farm. Edwards said he also hopes the hub will increase access to funding for tools, infrastructure, food storage and processing, and improve the efficiency of getting produce to customers.
“The USDA historically was founded to support rural farms. They have a whole structure and model in place for what a farm is, and what a farm looks like,” Edwards said. When urban farmers in Detroit hear about USDA opportunities they often don’t feel it’s applicable, he said.
“There’s also just like a historical precedent for the USDA being overtly, or covertly, racist, and having a tendency to discriminate against poor people, not-white people, immigrants, et cetera,” he said.
Historically, the USDA has disproportionately given loans and access to governmental assistance programs to white farmers over farmers of color. More than two decades ago, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the agency, claiming it discriminated against Black farmers. The USDA settled, agreeing to pay $50,000 to each farmer, plus debt relief. But many farmers never got the money, causing some to lose their farms. In 2019, an investigation by The Counter found that the USDA distorted data to show a rise in Black farmers after decades of discrimination from the agency.
In more recent years, the discrepancies have continued. In 2020, 37% of Black applicants received a loan from the USDA, compared to 71% of white applicants, according to Politico.
But Edwards hopes that the opening of a Detroit office will be a step in the right direction.
The planned service center in Detroit is part of a string of urban agriculture initiatives from the USDA, starting in 2018 with the farm bill that established the Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production. Until recently, urban farmers had been an afterthought, often not qualifying for financing from the agency, while simultaneously having to navigate municipal policies that limit farming, like ordinances that prohibit livestock.
In 2020, the Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production granted $4.1 million to urban growers, and it selected more recipients for another $6.6 million for 2021. In February, the USDA’s first federal advisory committee on urban agriculture was established. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack selected 12 members for the committee. Among them, Jerry Hebron of Oakland Avenue Urban Farm in Detroit.
Also in recent months, the USDA announced 17 new committees in urban counties across the country to support urban agriculture, including in Metropolitan Grand Rapids and Metro Detroit. Each committee has three elected members who serve for three years to influence how local farm service agency programs are administered.
The Detroit committee represents the cities of Detroit, Adrian, Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Farmington Hills, Flint, Livonia, Monroe, and Warren. The Grand Rapids-area committee will represent the cities of Grand Rapids, Holland, Kentwood, and Muskegon. Michigan is the only state besides California that has two committees.
The new urban county committee locations were selected based on data involving opportunities for economic growth, diversity, proximity to tribal nations, as well as the number of farm-to-table projects, urban farms, community and residential gardens, and green infrastructure projects, the USDA statement notes.
“Detroit is a hub of urban agriculture and innovative food production that can help amplify and support urban agriculture efforts across southeast Michigan,” the statement adds.
For years, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow has pushed for policies to support urban farmers and the Lansing Democrat has praised the formation of the committees.
Stabenow said in a statement to BridgeDetroit that Michigan residents have “led the way in urban agriculture” for decades and that locating one of the USDA’s first local offices focused on urban agriculture in the Metro Detroit area makes perfect sense.
“I’m pleased that USDA’s Farm Service Agency is working closely with urban farmers and the urban agriculture community in the Metro Detroit area to finalize their plans,” Stabenow said. “Having dedicated local offices and the urban county committees for the metropolitan Detroit and metropolitan Grand Rapids areas will connect urban farmers with resources and opportunities, and take urban agriculture to the next level. With every new community farm, rooftop garden, and indoor crop, urban farmers in Michigan create jobs, increase green space, and put healthy food on the table.”
Attendees at the USDA’s June listening session overwhelmingly said the office should be run by someone who represents Detroiters and located in a central area of the city accessible by all modes of transportation, and it should offer services in multiple languages.
Dan Austin, a city spokesman, told BridgeDetroit that the city was unaware that the USDA was opening an office in Detroit. Unless the USDA wanted to buy a building or do something in an area that isn’t zoned for it, the federal agency wouldn’t have to coordinate with the city, he said.
The North End on Grand River and the former Michigan State Fairgrounds were suggested by farmers at the June meeting as possible locations for the office. Suggestions for the physical design of the hub included classroom and kitchen spaces and a farm. Detroit farmers said they would want help with things like soil health management, irrigation, energy efficiency, cover cropping and marketing.
Diane Hoye, co-founder of Ohana Gardens in Highland Park, said a lot of times USDA officials don’t connect with Detroit farmers or make them aware of programs that are available.
“There should be some accountability,” said Hoye, adding that while attending the meeting she learned for the first time about a USDA energy efficiency program that would help her install an energy efficient motor in her tractor.
Another issue top of mind for Hoye and other farmers at the meeting were water fees. Ohana Gardens pays $400 a month for water and drainage fees for the farm that’s just under an acre, she told BridgeDetroit.
She and other attendees said they want the USDA to coordinate with Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department to create a better water use system for farmers.
The sewage and drainage fees on Detroit water bills is based on how much water a customer uses. Those bills are higher for farmers because they use more water, but the water on farms doesn’t typically drain into the city’s sewer system, because it’s absorbed by plants and crops, they said.
Attendees argued that the setup is a disadvantage to small urban farming operations in Detroit because it affects their revenue, and said they would like to see the USDA work with the water department on a different rate structure.
Hoye said she appreciated hearing from the USDA about what it offers, and hopes officials will reach out to the community again to keep people informed. She would also like to see support within the new agency for educating others and youth about urban farming.
Hebron, the federal advisory committee member who also runs Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, echoed the desire for transparency around communication from the agency. Hebron said she would prefer a real-time customer service representative to walk farmers through applications instead of having to navigate forms online or call a number.
Hebron also wants help with marketing, and creating pathways to distribute food and reduce food waste. At the onset of COVID-19, she said, her farm had plenty of food, but the normal ways for distributing it were disrupted.
Others, including Detra Iverson, founding farmer at Love N Labor Botanicals, a half-acre operation spread across multiple lots in Hamtramck and Detroit, said funding support is desired, too.
“I definitely think it’s important for them (USDA) to understand that there needs to be subsidies for urban farming,” said Iverson, a Detroit Food Policy Council member, advocate for the National Coalition of Young Farmers, and a recipient of the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund.
“Urban farming isn’t just small-scale farming, so taking that into consideration and being able to gear a lot of the existing programs for urban farming is important,” she said. In urban settings, land prices and taxes are often higher, irrigation can be more difficult, and labor is different.
“Most of these programs were made for someone with hundreds of acres,” she added. “Most of the people in the City of Detroit don’t have that much land, but we are still growing a lot of food.”
The feedback collected from farmers at the listening session – the only one planned for Detroit – will be taken to federal officials in D.C. In the coming weeks, USDA officials plan to start making recommendations for where the office will be located and start the leasing process.
As for why the office is being located in Detroit, the robust farming scene of more than 2,000 urban farmers and growers and ample vacant land provide a lot of opportunity for urban agriculture in the city.
“If the USDA didn’t want to deviate too far from what it traditionally supports as agriculture, Detroit makes really good sense for that first step into the urban agriculture sphere,” Edwards said.
Detroit’s urban farming scene is closer to traditional farming, he said, compared to other cities that emphasize more on technological solutions, like aquaponics and indoor vertical farming.
But, Edwards said, “it’s really difficult to get community input at a broad scale,” noting that the number of attendees was no more than 60.
“Keep Growing Detroit alone, as one organization, has over 1,500 people who consider themselves farmers and gardeners, so it wasn’t the most representative group of people to get feedback from,” he told BridgeDetroit. “Just making the step of establishing an urban agriculture office is commendable. But if they really do want to be community oriented about it, then a much bigger effort will be required to get the input and insight from people actually practicing urban agriculture in the city.”