The Maryland State Department of Agriculture will provide US$500,000 in annual grants from 2024 through 2027. The grants will help nonprofits and urban agriculture producers purchase and install irrigation equipment and increase electric power access.
Through the Urban Agriculture Water and Power Infrastructure Grant Program and Fund nonprofits and urban farmers can purchase and install water meters, water pipes, irrigation hoses, electric meters, and any other equipment associated with water supply and irrigation or electric power access.
“There is a desire to engage urban farmers and help meet the food and resource needs of the community,” Maryland State Senator Melony Griffith, a co-sponsor of the Grant Program and Fund. She believes it’s important to equip small-scale farmers with the infrastructure of larger scale farms. Griffith also says the grants will help involve “different residents of our state that hadn’t previously been engaged in agriculture.”
In Baltimore, the largest city in Maryland with a population of more than 600,000, almost one quarter of the population struggles with food insecurity, according to Baltimore County data. Urban farming has expanded in the past decade and the city is now home to 20 urban farms and more than 100 community and school gardens, reports Baltimore City’s Department of Planning. But the high costs and, or lack of access to affordable, safe water in vacant lots have presented barriers to entry for many interested in farming.
Over the last five years, Maryland has taken steps to increase urban agriculture on vacant lots by implementing a 90 percent property tax credit to urban farmers and land leasing initiatives for urban agriculture. The passing of the Urban Agriculture Water and Power Infrastructure Grant Program and Fund represents a step towards achieving Baltimore’s sustainability goals to strengthen and amplify the local food economy.
“For growing operations, we have very hot summers,” Abby Cocke, Environmental Planner for the Baltimore Office of Sustainability tells Food Tank. Cocke says urban farmers are susceptible to “lose whole crop[s] if they are not able to irrigate.” Electrical lines can help supply urban farmers with water, but running a new line “can be expensive,” Cocke says.
Cocke notes that Baltimore has a lot of gardens and farms that are on lots that were previously homes. “Often there is a water service available through the water meter pit in the sidewalk,” she says. But farmers located on lots without water service, or on lots where houses were demolished, are cut off from water service at the main line under the street. “That’s where people run into problems.”
A 2021 study from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Center for a Livable Future tested the soil and water safety of 74 percent of Baltimore urban gardens. It finds that 89 percent of sites surveyed reported using municipal water as their primary source of irrigation while 14 percent used rainwater. Rainwater harvesting systems can be an effective way to conserve water for agricultural use, but their cost and utility barriers pose limitations to widespread incorporation, according to a report from Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability.
Cocke explains that some urban farmers currently collect rainwater, but urban farm operations require “a lot of water for irrigation.” She adds that some farmers worry about contamination from water collected off building or car roofs. “In terms of supporting existing operations, and helping people have the confidence to start up new operations, knowing that there’s infrastructure support out there will be a big, big help,” Cocke tells Food Tank.
In 2024, the state will have a “sense of how many people or how many entities are able to take advantage of the funds,” Griffith tells Food Tank, “and whether or not more funding is needed, or [if] a tweaking of the legislation might be helpful in order to get people the equipment that’s associated with the water supply, and irrigation and electric power access needs.”
While the grants offer support to urban farmers in Maryland, “land tenure and land security are the biggest issue,” to sustain urban farming operations, according to Cocke. “Funding is definitely a barrier,” but land security can increase long-term access to urban farmland for farmers with “insecure or short-term arrangements.” Cocke hopes the grants “may help spur some of these important conversations about long term land tenure.”
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Photo courtesy of Tim Umphreys, Unsplash