Farmers and gardeners in Cleveland are getting more representation through a new Farm Service Agency county committee for urban agriculture, one of the first of its kind. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the committee in August 2020, along with four other new urban committees across the country.
The new county committee just wrapped up its first election. Three Cleveland farmers and gardeners were chosen to be on the committee.
“Cleveland has been at the forefront of urban agriculture for decades,” said Jamel Rahkeera, one of the new committee members and president and co-founder of Village Family Farms. “We just look forward to being a leader … being one of the five initial cities, we’re definitely going to set the bar high.”
Rahkeera helped found Village Family Farms as a community garden in 2010. The farm has since expanded to add three high tunnels, a farm stand and bees, and work with the North Union Farmers Market, one of the largest markets in northeast Ohio.
“I just felt like I would be a good voice and a good advocate, having over 10 years of experience growing food in an urban environment,” Rahkeera said.
Tanya Holmes, a new committee member and owner and founder of Ka-La Healing Garden Center, is also excited to be on the committee.
“I’m just finding out everything I can,” she said. “It’s something we need … when it comes to urban farming, it’s completely different than rural farming.”
Many conferences and programs are geared more towards rural farmers, especially those with large farms, she said. It can be hard for urban farms to get funding.
“I’m just thankful that they finally created something,” she said about the committee. “It’s like now having a seat at the table.”
Cleveland is one of the first five cities to get a committee like this. The USDA announced another six new committees for urban agriculture in late 2020.
Holmes has seen Cleveland develop in many ways, including in urban agriculture through programs like the Cleveland High Tunnel Initiative, over the years. She has had people from all over the country and world tour her farm.
“People from all around the world have been to Cleveland, just to see how we’re doing it … we’ve made some beautiful changes here,” she said.
Annabel Khouri, of Bay Branch Farm, is the third member of the committee. The committee members will serve three year terms, beginning this year. They will have their first meeting in February, said a representative from the Medina-Cuyahoga Farm Service Agency, which is the servicing office for the new committee.
Traditional county committees are meant to help inform decisions that Farm Service Agency service centers across the country make. The county committees for urban agriculture will do the same thing. They are an addition to, not a replacement of, existing committees, a USDA press release said.
The new committees will encourage and promote urban, indoor and other emerging agricultural practices, and may also focus on areas like food access, community engagement, community compose and reducing food waste, according to the 2020 press release announcing the Cleveland committee.
They will also influence how federal farm programs are administered locally, including disaster, conservation, commodity and price support programs.
Rahkeera’s main concern right now is access — to equipment, land, funding and grants and other resources.
“Being in an urban environment presents a different set of challenges than it would being in a rural area,” he explained.
Many of the people he knows of in Cleveland are first generation farmers. Having more access to knowledge and other resources would help other first generation farmers like him, he said.
There are a few challenges that Holmes experiences first hand on her farm — access to water is a big one right now — but her first priority is to talk to some of the people that have reached out to her about what their needs and wants are. She has been farming for 11 years and also has many connections as a community organizer in the area. She has already has 21 people reach out to her to talk.
The new committees are just a part of a broader effort at the USDA to provide more support to urban agriculture, directed by the 2018 farm bill. That bill also established the Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production, which is led by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and supported by other USDA agencies.
That office is managing a competitive grants program and establishing a federal advisory committee, in addition to the county committees. The department is currently seeking nominations for that committee, which will identify barriers for urban agriculture, and advise the secretary of agriculture on policies and outreach, a Jan. 6 USDA press release said.
Holmes said while urban agriculture tends to work in smaller spaces than rural agriculture, it can be great for communities. Urban farms and gardens make neighborhoods more beautiful and give people more access to local, healthy food, and events and programs like the ones she hosts at her farm encourage community members to come out and meet their neighbors.
Rahkeera also said urban agriculture is important for food access and sustainability. A hundred years ago, he said, more of the population lived in rural areas. Now, most of the population lives in urban areas. The pandemic has exposed weak points in the supply chain. Urban farms may not always supply as much as some larger, rural farms, but they are still an important part of the food system.
“I think people will feel more secure knowing that they have a space where they can actually grow their own food,” he said.
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