USDA Launches Innovative Ag Office – Announces $3M Grants

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By Thomas Wheet and Brian Filipowich

The 2018 U.S. Farm Bill charged the USDA with creating the Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production (“Urban Ag Office”). The Farm Bill noted that urban agriculture can “contribute to the revitalization of abandoned or underutilized urban land, [bring] social and economic benefits to urban communities, and [create] beneficial impacts on the urban landscape.”

After months of navigating the Congressional appropriations process, the necessary funding for the Urban Ag Office was finally signed into law in December 2019.

The Aquaponics Association reached out to the leadership of the Urban Ag Office and Congressional Offices to get a better understanding of the policies, funding opportunities, and timelines that will affect aquaponic growers.

Here is the Urban Ag Office’s Statement to the Aquaponics Association:

“Thank you for your interest in our efforts to stand up the Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production. The Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service was delegated responsibility to implement the 2018 Farm Bill provisions on behalf of USDA and I have been designated as the Interim Director for the Office. We are working collaboratively with other USDA agencies to ensure they each have an equal voice in establishing the office, consistent with the 2018 Farm Bill provisions, and they are able to contribute in areas that fall within their respective missions and areas of expertise.

“As you are aware, the 2018 Farm Bill authorized $25 million annually for the Office. However, the Fiscal Year 2020 appropriation was capped at $5 million and limits the degree to which we can implement the authorized activities. We are moving forward with standing up the office and the external federal advisory committee that serves to provide recommendations to the Secretary, forging a path to establish the urban/suburban pilot county committees, and developing announcements for grants and agreements provided for in the Farm Bill.

“We are planning a series of webinars that will be announced soon that are designed to provide interested persons and stakeholders information about the establishment of the office and the functions we anticipate implementing. We will ensure we keep your contact information on file so you receive information about these webinars.

Then, yesterday, as we were about to publish this article, the USDA released a new, $3 million in grants for urban agriculture initiatives that will increase food access, agricultural education, and innovative production methods within urban environments. Stay tuned for much more information on these grants in the coming weeks, and mark your calendars for a June 3, 2020 USDA webinar on the grant process.

Click to see the USDA Press Release on the $3 Million Urban Ag Grants for more information and webinar registration.

Aquaponics is already taking the urban agriculture and controlled environmental agriculture industries by storm. While accounting for $19 million in 2020, the market is expected to climb to $46 million by the end of 2026 (that’s a CAGR of over 11.5%).  This potential impact, however, could be greatly increased with federal guidance, funding, and business support that the Urban Ag Office is intended to provide.

The following list highlights several forms of support that the Aquaponics Association will continue to advocate for on behalf of the entire aquaponics industry: 

  • Funding: Due to high startup costs, aquaponics can be unattainable for many individuals and/or communities looking to begin an operation. We will continue to advocate the new Office to support aquaponics initiatives with appropriate levels of funding needed to develop adequate systems that will lead to successful operations (both for non-profit and for-profit organizations).
  • Clarity surrounding policies: Though widely understood as beneficial, aquaponics falls within an agricultural ‘no-mans-land’ surrounding guidelines at the local, state, and federal level. This grey-area is partially because aquaculture, food crops, and other crops all fall under different regulatory regimes. Basically the big bureaucracy gets confused and can’t function, like a deer in the headlights. Whether in regards to food safety, greenhouse sterility, organic certification, etc., the Aquaponics Association will promote policies that match the operational realities faced by aquaponic growers across the country.
  • Defining value: Beyond the monetary value surrounding the produce and protein sustainably grown in aquaponic operations, there are numerous social benefits to localizing food production in urban spaces. From local job creation and educational opportunities about agriculture/nutrition, to decreasing municipal carbon footprints associated with the traditional agricultural system, the Aquaponics Association will work to ensure that Congress and the USDA fully grasp the true value of aquaponic growing.

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