Laura Hayes
Laura Hayes

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Advocates for urban agriculture are nervous these days. President Donald Trump has said little about his agriculture policy plans, his Agriculture Secretary nominee Sonny Perdue is a longtime ally to traditional rural agribusiness interests, and Trump’s proposed budget slashes funding for many of the agencies upon which urban residents depend.

At a recent daylong summit on “The Future of Food Policy” hosted by Washington D.C.-based Food Tank, urban agriculture advocates expressed dismay over the current political climate, describing it as both chaotic and frightening. In the midst of this chaos, negotiations for the 2018 Farm Bill are already underway and supporters of urban agriculture are scrambling.

Kathleen Merrigan is a former U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary and longtime advocate for both organic and urban farming. Many observers say she’d be the Agriculture Secretary right now had Hillary Clinton won the election. Less than 100 days into Trump’s presidency, she sounds worried.

Executive Director of Sustainability at George Washington University, Merrigan, told the food policy summit audience she’d heard “the forces of darkness want to eliminate organic” from the Farm Bill entirely. Both organic and urban agriculture programs may be at risk for federal funding cuts, but Merrigan stands ready to defend the space urban agriculture has carved out for itself.

“Urban agriculture can’t feed the world—heck, it may not even be able to feed the block,” she quipped, but Merrigan insists the movement has more than earned its seat at the policy table. Urban farms matter, according to Merrigan, because they offer city dwellers a way to find a connection to the land and even their rural-dwelling, fellow Americans.

Historically, the Farm Bill has always brought together unlikely allies, so Merrigan is urging urban agriculture advocates to work with traditional rural agriculture groups. Considering the many cuts torural programs that Trump is proposing, Merrigan’s suggestion makes a lot of sense. She made that plea while sharing the stage with Kip Tom, a rural farmer from Indiana and a Trump supporter, signaling, perhaps, that negotiations can happen anywhere.

While Merrigan opined about federal funding, Chris Bradshaw, Executive Director of the D.C.-based non-profit Dreaming Out Loud, honed in on urban agriculture programs in the District. Bradshaw also sits on theD.C. Food Policy Council. For Bradshaw, D.C.’s city farms grow food, yes, but they’re also a conduit for social justice, or at least that’s what Bradshaw feels they should be.

Bradshaw was one of the few to explicitly mention racial justice at the Food Tank summit and, as quoted in arecent piece over at Civil Eats about urban farms and gentrification, Bradshaw says that for urban farms to truly feed food insecure residents, and not just those who already have a wide array of fresh and local produce options, urban farmers have to take the time to build relationships within the communities they want to serve.

Dreaming Out Loud’s urban agriculture project Kelly Farms will cover an ambitious two acres in Ward 7, and that requires funding. Right now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture providessupport for urban farming projects like Kelly Farms in a variety of ways, including grants, loans, and training programs, so if Congress were to follow Trump’s recommendations and cut many of these programs, how would that impact D.C.?

If federal grants and other funding support were cut, urban agriculture advocates may become increasingly reliant on city funding. Speaking later that day at the Food Tank summit, Councilwoman Mary Cheh explained that when past presidential administrations cut federal funding, city governments were the ones to step in and fill the gaps.

For now, Trump’s budget proposal is just a proposal, of course, but if these cuts are eventually enacted by Congress, Cheh says D.C. is indeed ready to make up the difference. Councilperson Cheh was the legislative driving force behind funding for school vegetable gardens, tax incentives for urban farms, and the D.C. Food Policy Council, so her track record for funding urban agriculture programs is well-established.

Of course, D.C.’s financial and political independence feel just a bit precarious these days, thanks to Trump and some recent maneuvering by politicians like Congressman Jason Chaffetz, but many of D.C.’s urban agriculture supporters say all they can do is use the funding they have today and make sure their local political support is lined up for tomorrow.