Advancing Urban Ag
June 28, 2022
Equity is a priority this administration is passionate about. I am proud of the work we are doing to reach out to communities that have historically lacked access to opportunities, resources, and training.
We have seen a rise in urban agriculture over the last decade. Many of the education projects we are currently funding deliver training to producers in this sector of agriculture. It’s important that we not only try to support these producers, which strengthens our program and the farm safety net, but we should learn about their unique needs and challenges.
I recently had a great opportunity to speak with Leslie Glover, Program Manager of USDA’s Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production. He has been working at USDA for 30 years, splitting time between the Forest Service and NRCS, before assuming his current duties. His previous position was as a soil scientist with the Plant Sciences Division. He is passionate about urban agriculture, and coordinates much of USDA’s outreach efforts to urban producers.
Marcia: How did you come to work at USDA and be involved in Urban Ag efforts?
Leslie: Our family has lived in Arkansas since 1979, where my mother and father were professors at the local university. That is where I developed an interest in nature and farming on the demonstration farm at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. I started working with USDA the summer before my freshman year at the Alabama Agriculture and Mechanical University in Normal, Alabama. I was a part of the inaugural cohort for the USDA 1890 Scholars Program. I became involved with urban agriculture efforts as a member of the initial Urban and Community Agriculture Working Group in February 2020.
Marcia: What is your sense on how much interest there is in urban communities to engage in agriculture?
Leslie: We have seen a tremendous interest in urban agriculture internal to USDA and with external stakeholders. As examples we received 302 nominations for 12 positions on the Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production Federal Advisory Committee (FAC). The first meeting of the FAC received 1,232 registered participants and 132 requesting to speak. In the first two years of our notice of funding cycles we have only been able to award four percent of the applicants that applied. Internally, our office recently advertised two positions to USDA employees only, which closed within 24 hours due to overwhelming interest.
Leslie Glover, Program Manager of USDA’s Office of Urban Agriculture
and Innovative Production, poses with NRCS mascot Sammy Soil
Marcia: Our agency promotes and develops farm risk management products. We want to better understand the unique challenges urban growers face with their operations. Can you touch on those challenges? And how is USDA helping to mitigate these barriers?
Leslie: The barriers that we hear most frequently from urban producers are the need to understand which USDA programs are relevant for this type of work and how to navigate eligibility and evaluation criteria. Other challenges we often hear are knowing when it’s safe to grow, the difficulty with accessing, acquiring, and preserving land, and the uncertainly of navigating local policies such as zoning, water access, building codes, marketing, and waste. To overcome some of these challenges, our office has revamped available resources. The toolkit is no longer a static document, but a series of tools to help stakeholders understand the scope of the work going on at the USDA. It includes an At-A-Glance brochure, a new site for urban producers on farmers.gov/urban and a topical page on the USDA website for Urban Agriculture. We also have a Blog for Urban Farming and a special page for the newly formed Federal Advisory Committee. Finally, readers can sign up for e-mail updates at Urban and Innovative Email Updates. On the issue of navigating local policies our office is creating a repository for best practices we have identified across the country including our pilot projects. NRCS has created a pilot project to test portable X-ray fluorescence technology to screen heavy metals in soils and are exploring the potential of an enhanced grant program which can help with costs related to agricultural production.
Marcia: What are your hopes for USDA’s urban agriculture programs and outreach in the coming years?
Leslie: I always think success is measured by accomplishing the purpose for which a program was created. Our office was created by Congress to be responsible for policy and program development, interagency coordination, intergovernmental collaboration, to assist with costs related to agricultural production including but not limited to land acquisition, equipment, utilities, seeds and plants, supplies, basic transportation, and to provide customer service to external stakeholders on issues pertaining to urban agriculture and innovative production. I anticipate our office continuing to make progress on each of these fronts and focusing on creating a foundation to enable urban and innovative agriculture to be a permanent part of the agriculture economy.
I’m grateful to Leslie for taking time to talk with me and share some valuable information and resources. He recently invited RMA to present to a group of urban growers about our programs. We look forward to working even closer with his team in the future!
Marcia Bunger is the Administrator of USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA). Prior to her appointment, she served as a County Executive Director for USDA’s Farm Service Agency. A native South Dakotan, Bunger is also the owner and operator of a 2000-acre farm, a cum laude graduate of Augustana College, and the first member of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community and first woman to serve as RMA Administrator.