UDC Reaps a Bumper Crop From Agriculture Measure
School's Farming, Extension Programs May Get $10 Million

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.

"They're urban issues, such as youth violence, environmental education . . . it could be water quality, drug use, cancer, things that are germane to the urban environment," she said.

Allen is an example of such urban farm activity. For years, he has been doing research on raising nutritious plants in D.C. back yards, such as pigweed, also known as amaranth.

Many people don't get the concept of the urban aggie, Allen acknowledges. He winces when recalling a lunch he attended years ago, during which a congressman "said he didn't see why agriculture . . . should get public funding in the District of Columbia.

"Everyone turned around and looked at me," Allen said. "I'll never forget it."

David Jefferson, UDC's pesticide expert, is another unlikely beneficiary of the bill. At other land-grant universities, pesticide specialists focus on bugs in the corn or peach crops. But on a recent day, Jefferson was after cockroaches in the community room kitchen at Potomac Gardens, a housing complex in Southeast Washington.

"Let's see if there's anybody home under this one," he muttered, hoisting an ancient microwave off the counter. A few bugs scattered.

He peeked under the stove top.

"Yeah, there's some egg cases," he declared.

Jefferson, who teaches city residents how to get rid of cockroaches and rats, will be able to apply for funds that previously were off-limits to UDC.

UDC is not the only land-grant university that has adapted the traditional farm-aid concept to help urban populations. Virginia's cooperative-extension service, for example, still provides advice on how to irrigate peanut crops. But it also teaches youths how to cope with teenage bullies.

"We've changed with our communities," said Mark McCann, director of Virginia's cooperative extension services. Fairfax, for example, once was the top dairy-producing county in Virginia.

"In those days, we talked about dairy husbandry and food sanitation," McCann said. "Today we talk about youth at risk, nutrition programs and robotics for children."

Even before the 2008 farm bill, UDC received about $2 million a year from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its land-grant programs. But it didn't have the same access to funds as other universities, since it was authorized under a separate 1974 law.

"We are asking for access to grants that every other land-grant institution has," Norton said. "And we have the programs that they have, even though we are a city."

Indeed, UDC even has a farm. The 143-acre spread, which was donated years ago by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is in Beltsville, a 17-mile drive from the campus.

Muirkirk Farm offers a glimpse of how difficult it is for a cash-strapped urban university to do agriculture. Only nine acres are in use, for a tree nursery and research projects such as Allen's pigweed plants; the rest are covered with forest. No classes are taught at the facility.

Wyche-Moore said she hopes to use some of the new funds to build an environmental-education center or nature trails that could be used by city students. Currently there are only three small buildings on the farm, including a greenhouse whose ceiling has partially collapsed.

"No funding," Wyche-Moore explains.

Now, though, life is looking up for the farm folk of the District of Columbia.

"We didn't have the ability to build capacity," Wyche-Moore said. "That's why this [farm bill] is so important to us."

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