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UDC Reaps a Bumper Crop From Agriculture Measure

James Allen, a UDC researcher, in one of the fields where he'll plant squash on the university's farm in Beltsville. The school stands to receive at least $10 million for its agricultural programs.
James Allen, a UDC researcher, in one of the fields where he'll plant squash on the university's farm in Beltsville. The school stands to receive at least $10 million for its agricultural programs. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 20, 2008

The giant federal farm bill passed by Congress this week will help Iowa corn growers. It will help Kansas wheat barons. It also will help James Allen, who dreams of bringing pigweed to the back yards of Washington, D.C.

"It's like collard greens," said Allen, lifting a leafy potted plant. "Very high in Vitamin A."

Allen is a researcher at the University of the District of Columbia. It is a thoroughly urban university, its glass-and-concrete campus plunked at the bustling Van Ness-UDC Metro stop on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington.

UDC also is a winner in the farm bill that gained final approval Wednesday. The university is in line to gain $10 million or more for its agriculture and cooperative extension programs.

Some question why farm money should go to a city more associated with half-smokes than harvesters. Fiscal conservatives call the UDC funding an example of how the $307 billion farm legislation has turned into a pork-stuffed boondoggle.

"Why are we doing agricultural research at the university of Washington, D.C., when Washington, D.C., doesn't have any farmers?" Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) asked.

But supporters say the UDC funding simply shows how farm legislation has evolved. The bill, often criticized as a sop to rural farmers, actually steers billions to urban areas. It will increase benefits for many of the 86,000 District food stamp recipients, for example, and provide fruit to thousands of poor students in the Washington area.

"That's the funny thing about the farm bill, how little of it has to do with farming. Most of it has to do with food and nutrition," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who participated in final negotiations on the legislation.

Through the changes sought by Norton, UDC will be able to apply for more grants for agricultural facilities, research and extension programs such as pest management and nutrition. UDC expects additional annual funding of $2 million to $3 million over five years, depending on congressional appropriations, officials say.

UDC offers an example of how elastic the concept of farm support has become. It is one of the country's "land-grant colleges," which were created in the 19th century to teach agriculture and mechanics to the common man. That designation provided the District with a multimillion-dollar endowment for its university.

Like other land-grant colleges, UDC must run an agricultural experiment station and an extension service for local residents. But farmers are about as rare in these parts as square-dancers at the 9:30 Club.

The university's response has been to focus on "urban agriculture," said Gloria Wyche-Moore, who heads the agricultural research and extension programs. That means backyard gardening, pesticide management and issues far removed from rural America.

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