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Detroit — Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow on Monday championed reforms to encourage urban agriculture in the 2018 Farm Bill.

Stabenow, a ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, urged President Donald Trump to sign the bipartisan legislation that would widen a safety net for farmers, encourage conservation efforts and protect food assistance programs.

Both chambers of Congress passed the bill by wide margins last week, after the 2014 Farm Bill expired Sept. 30.

"I see through the lens of Michigan, and Michigan really is on every page," Stabenow said during a press conference at Eastern Market. "I'm proud we were able to get this done in the midst of all of what has been happening in Congress...This is something that will be a wonderful Christmas present for many, many, many people."

Of particular importance for places such as Detroit, the bill would create the Office of Urban Agriculture in the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support urban farming and job creation.

Jerry Ann Hebron, executive director of Oakland Avenue Urban Farm in the city, said the legislation would open crop insurance programs and further funding opportunities to help people to start, expand, and continue urban farms like Oakland Avenue's 3.5 acres that employ eight people.

"The question right now is whether urban farming is sustainable," Hebron said. "This helps us work toward that sustainability."

The bill also does not eliminate any benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Stabenow said increased work requirements were one of the largest points of contention between Republicans and Democrats. The compromised bill would seek to provide new job training opportunities and increase oversight of the program. It also permanently funds "Double Up" bucks to encourage SNAP families to purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables from places such as Eastern Market.

"It is an economic engine," Mayor Mike Duggan said of the largest, longest-running, continuously operated farmers market in the United States. "Our unemployment rate has been cut in half over the past five and a half years, and it's still double the rest of the state. We are not going to get where we need to be with one industry... Urban ag is important, as well."

Stabenow said the new Farm Bill extends opportunities for local farmers markets and food hubs.

"This farm bill is about doubling-down on progress we've made," she said, "and being able to do even more."

Among the biggest winners in the bill, Stabenow said, are Michigan's dairy farmers, who contribute to the state's No. 1 commodity. While she said the previous farm bill passed when the dairy prices were high, the market has seen lower-than-production prices for the past four years, causing hundreds of farms in Michigan to close.

This year's bill would decrease dairy coverage rates and refund up to $58 million in premiums paid under the former program. It also would increase the dollar margin level at which dairy farmers become eligible for crop insurance from $8 to $9.50 per hundredweight. 

Ken Nobis, a dairy farmer and president of the Michigan Milk Producers Association, said even with the poor economic conditions dairy farmers have faced over the past few years, the margin rarely fell below $8, and dairy farmers contributed more money toward premiums than they received in return.

"Dairy farmers don't want a handout; they want a level playing field," Nobis said. "If it works the way it’s intended to work, (the bill) is not going to guarantee a profit, but it’s going to prevent the deep gouges that the current bill has allowed to happen."

Nobis added that passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement would be helpful for the dairy market, as well. John Kran, national legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau, said the Farm Bill would create permanent funding for new export markets such as Cuba.

Kran said the Farm Bill comes with good timing as increased costs for seeds and feed, greater overseas competition, and a trade war have cut farm profits across the country by half.

He noted the bill would increase opportunities for farmers, particularly those in specialty crops, to purchase crop insurance and obtain loan funding.

That provides security and flexibility, said Pete Blake, who helped to found Blake's Orchards based in Armada. An earlier Farm Bill had provided the company a loan in 2012 to start Blake's Hard Cider Co., which has grown rapidly. The farm now employs 600 people, attracting young people at a time when the average U.S. farmer's age is increasing.

"Ten years ago, we couldn't get that," said Paul Blake, Pete's twin brother. "We're getting people to come back to the farm."

Kran said nearly all the requests by the farm bureau are being met in the bill, which also would fund agricultural research, legalize the production of hemp, and seek to connect one million people in rural Michigan to broadband Internet.

"It's a few months late, but we're thankful to Sen. Stabenow that she could work with her colleagues and bring it over the finish line," he said. "As a whole, this is good for Michigan agriculture."

bnoble@detroitnews.com

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