DeMario Vitalis likes to try new things. He also likes to stay busy. With two degrees from Purdue University and an MBA from Wayne State University, he has the confidence of a self-starter tempered by the prudence of a businessperson. So when the idea came to him in 2018 of starting an urban farm on a small patch of underutilized land in his east Indianapolis neighborhood, he didn’t feel especially daunted. Then again, he didn’t expect to be rebuffed by a government agency that’s literally designed to help farmers—including brand-new farmers like himself—get the money they need to start farms or expand existing operations.
The way Vitalis saw it, he was seizing an opportunity to do two worthwhile things at once. “I wanted to be able to own a business that I could retire to after working my day job,” he says. “And I wanted to own a business that could provide a good to the community by giving people access to fresh foods.”
Thanks to his business background, Vitalis knew how to draft a strong business plan—which he did. He also learned everything there was to learn about the specific type of farm he was envisioning: an indoor, vertical farm spread out over a pair of retrofitted, climate-controlled, high-tech shipping containers that offered year-round protection from harsh weather and pests. He lined up the space for the containers, first making sure that he was meeting all the zoning requirements for an urban agriculture project within the Indianapolis city limits. Finally, he went to his local Farm Service Agency (FSA), the branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that is set up to support farmers in obtaining the necessary loans.
He was not embraced. Perhaps because his urban farm was considered untraditional, Vitalis—a descendant of enslaved people and sharecroppers—had trouble being taken seriously at first. The federal agency tasked with helping farmers realize their goals did little more than present him with a handful of confusing forms to fill out, then shooed him out the door without any guidance whatsoever. Undeterred, he did his best to navigate the process. He failed. He tried again. And failed again. “I applied for funding through the USDA multiple times, only to be challenged and denied each time,” he recalls.
Urban farms: the benefits and the barriers
Nearly a quarter of Indianapolis residents live in what has been termed a “food desert,” typically defined as an urban area where at least a third of the local population lives more than a mile from a grocery store. Of the 208,000 residents without easy access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and protein, the vast majority are people of color. Such circumstances are mirrored in cities across the country, in a phenomenon that might more accurately be described as “food apartheid.”
Urban farms represent one solution to the problem. But farmers and would-be farmers face seemingly insurmountable barriers to getting such projects off the ground. Topping that list of barriers are land access and financing, as well as onerous zoning codes that don’t fully take the needs and desires of local communities into account.
“These are the kinds of things that come up for urban farmers all the time,” says Francine Miller, a senior staff attorney and adjunct faculty member at the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law & Graduate School. In 2022, she worked with a trio of law students to craft a set of policy recommendations that municipal governments could adopt to help urban farmers, and especially urban farmers of color, grow and distribute fresh food. Drawing upon interviews with 37 farmers from all across the country—34 of whom were Black—her team outlined the myriad benefits that urban farms offer their communities.
“A lot of urban farming is not about industry,” Miller says. “It’s about feeding our community, educating, cleaning up, giving kids a place to go, mitigating against climate change.” Most obviously and fundamentally, she points out, urban farms can reduce food insecurity and increase local resiliency in the communities they serve. One analysis of 200 studies conducted around the globe, published last year by researchers at the Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, showed that urban farms performed as well as—and often better than—their conventional counterparts when it came to growing many crops. Their findings, the authors wrote, paint “a clearer picture of the extent to which urban food growing could help to meet global food demand, reduce food insecurity (by increasing food availability and access to food), and make cities and towns (and by extension the whole food system) more resilient to shocks.”
Bringing equity to urban farming
A century ago in the United States, a million Black farmers collectively owned and farmed between 16 and 19 million acres of land. Today, only 45,000 of the country’s 3.4 million farmers self-identify as Black, and altogether, 12 million of those Black-owned acres of land have been lost, due largely to biased policies and practices of systemic racism. Local governments—as well as the federal government, through the USDA and its FSA—have been slow to step up and address the problem of inequity.
For the mostly Black group of urban farmers interviewed by Miller and her team, the main thing standing in the way of their projects and the subsequent community benefits was an inability to secure and hold on to parcels of urban land. In addition to calling for municipal governments to work harder at removing red tape and cooperating with aspiring farmers—which cities such as Atlanta; Boston; New Haven, Connecticut; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have already begun to do—Miller and her team identified ways that the federal government, including the USDA and its FSA affiliates, could set about making a positive difference. One idea: create an inventory of federal land that currently sits unused in cities and make it available to urban farmers through sales, long-term leases, or grants to local community land trusts, giving preference to smaller, community-focused projects over high-end, for-profit ventures. Another idea: provide federal tax benefits for private landowners and municipalities that open up urban parcels of land for use by community farmers.
“I am positive that BIPOC urban farmers across the country would say they’re treated differently. There’s no question about that.”
Francine Miller, Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law & Graduate School
The system by which urban farmers apply for and obtain loans and grants from the USDA also merits serious attention. Miller and her coauthors note that “[m]any urban farmers do not apply for USDA grants and loans,” either because they’re unaware that such forms of financing exist or “because the applications often require applicants to complete long, complex documents consisting of dozens of pages requesting detailed information, and the process is incredibly time-consuming and intimidating.” Though Vitalis didn’t give up, many urban farmers in his position lack the resources to wade through this bureaucracy. Miller’s team calls for the USDA to beef up its outreach to BIPOC farmers; provide more grant and loan programs specifically tailored to small-scale urban growers of color; expand its loan and grant criteria to recognize new ownership models (including multiple-partner and cooperative ownership); and streamline the overly burdensome application process.
The Inflation Reduction Act, signed last year by President Biden, has allocated $2.2 billion in financial assistance for farmers who have experienced past discrimination at the hands of the USDA. And many advocates for urban farming are hoping that some of these issues will be addressed in the upcoming Farm Bill, the substance of which is currently being negotiated by lawmakers in both parties. One potential avenue for remediation: the Justice for Black Farmers Act. This so-called marker bill (one of the many component pieces of legislation that together will make up the larger Farm Bill) would authorize the USDA’s Equity Commission, established in 2021, to identify instances of discrimination against farmers of color and recommend ways to redress such inequities. The previous Farm Bill, passed in 2018, created a special Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production that has made an explicit commitment to furthering equity by increasing access to fresh food in underserved communities and, in the agency’s own words, “building a workforce more representative of America.”
For his part, Vitalis saw his perseverance literally pay off. After appealing his rejections and going before a judge, he was finally awarded a $50,000 microloan to help offset the cost of his operations. It was barely enough to make a dent. Vitalis, determined to make a point, went back to the FSA, and, instead of accepting the offer, demanded four times as much money—and got it. By the summer of 2020, despite the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, his urban farm, New Age Provisions, was up and running.
“A farmer isn’t defined by plot size, but by their purpose.” These words, taken from New Age Provisions’ mission statement, could serve as a slogan for small, community-based urban farms everywhere. Urban farmers are adapting to new technologies, new opportunities, and new legal and social frameworks. But in Vitalis’s words: “The one thing that hasn’t changed is our desire and ability to use the land to feed our families and our communities.”