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Down on the Farm in DC: Amber Waves of Asphalt

- September 29, 2008


Is this the intersection of Connecticut and Van Ness?

John McCain’s rumblings about pork barrel spending in the presidential debate the other night put me in mind of a piece I read several months ago in the Washington Post, so I dug it out and now I’m going to tell you about it.

It turns out that the University of the District of Columbia — perhaps you didn’t know that there is a University of the District of Columbia, but there is — recently received a $10 million grant from the Department of Agriculture. Does that seem odd to you? It did to me.

Maybe it will help clarify things if I mention, for the benefit of those who don’t know much about the geography of your nation’s capital, that although Washington DC has much else to offer, it contains no farms at all. Nary a one. Having grown up in South Dakota, I noticed this right off.

I should also mention that the University of the District of Columbia is located at the intersection of Connecticut and Van Ness Avenues, surrounded by asphalt, careening taxis, mediocre restaurants, and assorted other city-type stuff. You may see the occasional weed growing in the cracks of the sidewalk out in front of UDC, but as a place for growing crops or tending to livestock the corner of Connecticut and Van Ness is, well, it’s not a place for growing crops or tending to livestock.As Mary Beth Sheridan put it in her story in the Post, “Farmers are about as rare in these parts as square-dancers at the 9:30 Club.”

Things get even odder: UDC, surrounded by asphalt, situated at a Metro stop, and with not a farmer in sight, is an “urban land-grant” institution. It attained this status back in 1967, when Congress bought into the argument that because DC was “the last substantial area in the nation without the services of a land-grant college,” UDC should be so designated. (Does Guam now have a land-grant college? American Samoa?) In lieu of a grant of land, Congress provided UDC with a $7.24 million endowment.

That piece of information reminded me of a couple of other oddities: (1) Texas A&M University, in land-locked Bryan, TX, is a sea-grant institution. Apparently all those clean-cut young men we thought were studying up on animal husbandry and crop rotation are really sailor-boys-in-the-making. (2) Back when Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas were being designated, the powers that be in North Dakota argued that even though their state didn’t have any places populous enough to qualify as metropolitan areas according to the census definition, North Dakota should be given a specialy defined SMSA to keep it on equal footing with other states. Those North Dakotans are just sharp as a tack.

Anyway, I’m not the only one to have been caught off guard by the facts that UDC is a land-grant institution and that it is collecting bucks from the Department of Agriculture. So was Representative Tom Coburn, an McCain ally in railing against the pork barrel. Coburn, who hails from Oklahoma (a place that does have farms), wondered out loud “Why are we doing agricultural research at the University of Washington, D.C., when Washington, D.C., doesn’t have any farmers?”

While Coburn and others were lambasting UDC’s agricultural grant as just another pork-stuffed boondoggle (unlike the earmarks that they secure for their own districts, naturally), various DC officials rose in defense of the grant.

“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 Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who had helped negotiate the legislation. Among other things, the legislation increased benefits for food stamp recipients (of whom DC has 80,000) and provided fruit for poor students — worthy goals, surely, but in a farm bill?

Well, what about real agriculture? The university’s response has been to focus on “urban agriculture,” said Gloria Wyche-Moore, who heads the agricultural research and extension programs. “That,” Mary Beth Sheridan explains, “means backyard gardening, pesticide management and issues far removed from rural America.” Wyche-Moore continued: “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. Combating youth violence, drug use, and preventing cancer: Who could disagree with any of that? But as agricultural benefits to the District of Columbia? Another activity covered by the bill: educating DC residents about cockroach eradication.

In retrospect, none of this should have come as a surprise. Politics, as Harold Lasswell put it, is about “who gets what, when, and how,” and anybody who knows anything about the Department of Agriculture will be all too familiar with Lasswell’s formulation. Whenever and however they can get it, states and localities will try to get it from the federal government. Sometimes this is for questionable or downright silly projects (“The Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, the Lawrence Welk Museum in, ahem, North Dakota) and sometimes it’s for urgently needed ones. But according to a sort of Parkinson’s Law, if federal funds are avaiable, the demand for them will outrun the supply, irrespective of what the funds may originally have been intended for. That’s not a surprise. It’s just politics — the sort of politics we all love to hate, unless, that is, it’s supporting our own pet projects.

As for me, well, I live up in Northwest DC, just a couple of miles from DC’s land grant college, and I’ve got a whole lot of crab grass. I’m hoping Eleanor Holmes Norton can get some additional funding for UDC for crab grass eradication. Maybe then I could bid adieu that that pestiferous stuff and move my yard up a notch or two in my neighbors’ estimation.

For the full Washington Post story, click here