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State grant program offers money, and legitimacy, for urban agriculture

It’s the first time Minnesota has allocated money specifically for urban agriculture.

Michael Chaney
Michael Chaney, a long-time advocate from north Minneapolis who founded Project Sweetie Pie, a grant recipient, said he approached lawmakers with the idea about four years ago.
MinnPost file photo by Ibrahim Hirsi

Urban farming in Minnesota reached a milestone this summer, when the state announced the first round of grants for agriculture education and development projects in cities.

It’s the first time the state has allocated money specifically for urban agriculture, and it took several tries to get the legislation passed. Michael Chaney, a long-time advocate from north Minneapolis who founded Project Sweetie Pie, a grant recipient, said he approached lawmakers with the idea about four years ago. At the time, he saw plenty of interest in urban agriculture — but not the kind of financial support that exists for rural farmers. “I was disenchanted and discouraged,” Chaney said.

Advocates said state investment is crucial because it lends credibility to what Chaney calls the “changing face of agriculture.” Such state funding, even a small amount, can usher in a shift toward seeing urban areas as potential farms and their residents as fellow food producers.

That shift can also bring education and economic opportunities that are often more associated with rural areas. “Agriculture has been deemed corporate ag with rural roots and conventional farming techniques,” Chaney said. “What we’re proposing with urban farming is a whole reconfiguring. … What’s the role of urban communities in growing food?”

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Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, authored the bill, which called for $10 million annually to fund urban ag projects in cities throughout the state. The legislation prioritizes poor communities of color and Native American communities. Clark kept the idea alive at the state level for years, and finally made headway when legislators commissioned a study of urban agriculture that defined its scope and the purpose and identified policy recommendations.

The study cost $250,000, the same amount the Legislature eventually earmarked for urban ag grants for each year in the current budget. It’s far less than program advocates wanted, but it maintained the original intent, said Erin Connell, who administers the grants for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Eligible groups include for-profit businesses, local governments, tribal communities, nonprofits, or schools in cities of more than 10,000 people. Cities with between 5,000 and 10,000 people are also eligible if 10 percent of residents live at or below 200 percent of the poverty line, or where 10 percent of residents are people of color or Native American.

“It’s exciting for me so see the acceptance of urban ag as a new standard for ag production,” said Connell, who grew up in the Twin Cities metro area and didn’t discover her interest in ag until she started studying food systems at the University of Minnesota.

Urban agriculture’s impact

Growing food in the city is partly about improving residents’ diets and food security, but it also extends to building wealth, culture, and independence. “Community members were very vocal about wanting to bring the benefits of ag into various urban areas,” Connell said.

Jolene Jones, president and interim CEO of the Little Earth Residents Association, said the community received a grant for nearly $45,000, which they’ll use to teach more children to help in their gardens by creating a storybook that shows them how indigenous people farm in the city.

This fall, they’re learning to construct a hoop house that will extend their growing season, and learn how to grow the four medicines – sage, cedar, sweetgrass, and tobacco. “To actually be able to grow them, it will be awesome for them,” Jones said. “Culture is very sustainable. … the way to put culture in agriculture is to teach children the traditional value of their plants.”

A local food system – which includes everything from growing food to processing it to buying and consuming it – also creates jobs, income, and infrastructure. That’s the mindset used to justify public spending on agriculture development in Greater Minnesota, like one that helps farmers modernize their livestock operations by, say, expanding their facilities to hold more animals. That has visible impact, Peterson said, by providing more work for veterinarians and feed companies.

That’s exactly the kind of ripple effect local food advocates imagine in places like north Minneapolis. Project Sweetie Pie, for example, will put its grant toward establishing a greenhouse that will belong to a broad coalition of groups, who will use it to operate year-round, Chaney said. It’s another step forward in their vision to grow their local food economy.

The fight for funding

Urban agriculture joins a suite of initiatives funded through the Agricultural Growth, Research, and Innovation program (known as AGRI), which supports the state’s agricultural and renewable energy industries through various grants and loans.

AGRI was an important win for Minnesota agriculture when it was established in 2009. At the time, the state subsidized ethanol production. “When those payments were going to end, we got concerned we were going to lose investment into agriculture,” said Thom Peterson, who lobbies the state government with the Minnesota Farmers Union.

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Advocates convinced the state to establish AGRI, and the program will allocate a little more than $13 million a year for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, according to the most recent report.

The Farmers Union backed the bill to add grants for urban ag to the AGRI program, Peterson said. And he sees its addition as a chance to expand public support for state ag funding as a whole. “There’s agriculture all over the state, including in the metro areas,” he said.

He credits Clark, who is leaving the Legislature at the end of her term, with pushing the matter forward for years, until Rep. Rod Hamilton, a Republican from Southwest Minnesota who heads the House Agriculture Finance Committee, got on board.  “Urban ag is going to need a new champion at the legislature now that Karen Clark is gone,” Peterson said.

Connell repeated the concern, saying the top question facing the urban ag grant program is whether funding will continue past 2019. She said communities that benefit from urban farming, especially from the grants handed out these two years, will need to show up when 2020-2021 budget talks begin.

“Getting the funding this first time is very difficult,” Connell said. “I also feel like after you get that first round of funding, some people who may have been very passionate may get less interested. They might get comfortable in a sense. Every two years, we’re going to get a new budget. Every two years you’re going to have to fight to continue that funding until it’s been there long enough that it’s assumed it goes in the budget.”