People plant cover crops over an urban farm in Washington D.C. Portland will be one of 17 cities in the U.S. with new centers to help support such farms in Oregon and parts of Washington. (Photo provided by Preston Keres/USDA)

Portland will be home to one of 17 new urban agriculture centers nationwide with a $1.5 million investment from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Oregon’s new Urban Service Center will help urban farmers — defined by USDA as those who produce food and agricultural products in areas with a population of at least 50,000 — get the same assistance with disaster prevention, farm loans and other technical support that rural farmers have received from federal agencies for decades. 

There are more than 2,300 USDA Service Centers nationwide, which largely support rural farmers and ranchers. The new urban centers will be staffed by the federal Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service, who will collaborate with local and regional nonprofits and colleges to reach urban growers, according to a news release. 

The nonprofit environmental and social justice group Ecotrust will partner with federal agencies to serve urban areas in Oregon and parts of Washington. 

The specific location and start date of Portland’s Urban Service Center has not been announced yet, according to Natalie Crofts, a spokesperson for Democratic U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici.

Ecotrust’s role will be to grow access and trust in USDA programs among farmers who’ve been historically underserved or discriminated against by the agency, according to Jamese Kwele, Ecotrust’s vice president of organizational and food systems equity.

A recent investigation by NPR found white farmers were twice as likely to get a direct farm loan from the USDA as Black farmers.

“These challenges are decades in the making, and in some cases centuries in the making. It’s going to take time and effort to rebuild those relationships and change outcomes,” Kwele said. 

The group will collaborate with a number of other state and local groups, including Oregon State University’s Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems, the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the Multnomah County Health Department’s Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) program and the Black Food Sovereignty Coalition. 

Ecotrust will also distribute $150,000 in microgrants to urban producers during the next three years to support the purchase of farm equipment, for projects to improve soil health and to adapt to climate change. 

Bonamici said in the news release that food insecurity was a top priority for her work in Congress and that the new Urban Service Centers would help level the playing field between larger rural farms and smaller urban producers.   

“Our entire region will benefit from this investment,which will build resiliency in our food system, increase access to healthy and fresh food, enhance sustainability, and boost local economies,” she said in a news release

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said in the release that food supply issues related to Covid-19 highlighted the need to invest in more local food production. 

“The pandemic demonstrated the immense value and resilience of the local food system,” he said. “While large agribusiness was completely stymied by brittle supply chains, local food economies with shorter supply chains thrived.”

The $1.5 million for the Urban Service Center in Portland is part of a $40 million investment being made in growing local food systems and urban agriculture under the American Rescue Plan, which passed in 2021 to help with pandemic response and recovery.

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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.