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Danielle Marvit is production manager for Garden Dreams Urban Farm and Nursery in Pittsburgh. She has serious concerns about conventional agriculture. Here, she talks with journalists during the recent annual convention of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Pittsburgh. (Jonathan Knutson/Agweek)

Farm bill discontent: Urban ag supporters want changes

PITTSBURGH — Sonia Finn, Danielle Marvit and Raqueeb Bey are passionate about agriculture. And they believe U.S. farming practices are dangerously off course and need to be corrected, starting with the 2018 farm bill.

"The farm bill isn't right for agriculture. People need to get involved and work to change it," Finn said.

Finn is chef and owner of Dinette restaurant in Pittsburgh. Marvit is production manager of Garden Dreams Urban Farm and Nursery in Pittsburgh. Bey is project director of Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh Co-op, or BUGS-FPC, as the group calls itself.

They spoke with Agweek Oct. 4 at Garden Dreams Urban Farm and Nursery during the annual convention of the Society of Environmental Journalists. The event included a day-long session on the farm bill and urban agriculture; Finn, Marvit and Bey were among the presenters.

Though some in mainstream agriculture are skeptical of urban ag, attention is growing for the concept. U.S. local food sales totaled at least $12 billion in 2014, up from $5 billion in 2008, and experts anticipate the figure to reach $20 billion by 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Urban ag consists of "backyard, rooftop and balcony gardening, community gardening in vacant lots and parks, roadside urban fringe agriculture and livestock grazing in open space," according to USDA.

Urban ag has at least one powerful champion.

Michigan's Debbie Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee and a key player in U.S. ag policy, last year introduced the Urban Agriculture Act of 2016. The proposal — at least some of which she hopes will be included in the 2018 farm bill — would increase research funding for urban ag, provide more access for urban farmers to USDA loans and risk management programs, and boost the development of urban farming cooperatives, among other things.

Get involved

Finn has both professional and personal interest in promoting urban ag; she grows much of the produce used by Dinette on the restaurant's roof and relies on local farms for as many ingredients as possible.

She's also determined to transform the farm bill, the centerpiece of federal food and agricultural policy. She's gone to Washington, D.C., repeatedly to lobby for her beliefs.

She insists that the existing farm bill — and mainstream ag in general — is tailored to the wants and needs of powerful corporate interests, not what's best for the overwhelming majority of Americans.

"Most people just don't understand how important the farm bill is," Finn said.

Marvit, for her part, is critical of much of America's conventionally raised food.

"It's not real food," she said.

The quarter-acre Garden Dreams Urban Garden and Nursery, established about a decade ago, seeks to promote urban ag, giving neighborhood residents more and healthier food options. It also wants to help community residents learn more about gardening and give them a peaceful place to visit.

The organic operation specializes in tomatoes, raising more than 70 varieties of tomato seedlings. It also has peppers, eggplant, flowers and other fruits and vegetables.

Local control

Bey stressed that urban agriculture gives residents of local neighborhoods greater influence over both their food supply and their lives in general.

"Neighborhoods need more control over what happens to them," Bey said.

Her own Pittsburgh neighborhood has been without a grocery store for decades, forcing its residents to travel several miles by bus to buy food, she said.

BUGS-FPC is establishing a 31,000-square-foot urban farm that will use hoop houses, also known as high tunnels, to grow food to sell at its farm stand and its farmers market, at restaurants and at a community cooperative grocery that it wants to open.

Though interest in, and awareness of, healthy food is growing, supporters of urban ag and local foods need to focus on improving the farm bill and making it friendlier to consumers, Finn said.

"It's just so important we do it," she said.

USDA's "urban agriculture toolkit" is a good starting place to learn more about urban ag: