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Photo: Amber Breitenberg
Photo: Amber Breitenberg

Farming in the City: DC’s Urban Agriculture Movement

Amidst the District’s hustle and bustle, green paradises breathe fresh air and deliciously colorful life into the otherwise grey and concrete landscape. For some, passion for urban farming comes from a deep love of an old hobby. For others, the desire to provide jobs and fresh produce to their community is the true driving force. Either way, DC’s urban farming scene is growing – its tendrils reaching into notable bars and restaurants all over the city.

Urban farming, otherwise known as urban agriculture, is exactly what it sounds like: the process of growing food in a city or heavily populated area. Despite difficulties such as finding enough space and the right equipment to grow and harvest plants, several urban farming organizations in DC have found unexpected spots to thrive in the city.

While on a run one day in 2014, former Peace Corps volunteer Mary Ackley was contemplating the best locations to host her new project, Little Wild Things Farm. She drew inspiration from bin-farming techniques, which use small plots of land as efficiently as possible. But after searching high and low in the heart of the District, she couldn’t find adequate green space anywhere. That’s when she jogged past the Carmelite Friars Monastery in Northeast DC and realized that institutions often had large plots of land, so she sent them an email.

“At first, they were hesitant but we worked out an agreement, and years later, we still have a wonderful partnership with them,” Ackley says. “We maintain the land, they get produce from us every week, and we donate to a local homeless shelter on their behalf. Everybody wins.”

Later, Ackley found another home for Little Wild Things in the basement of The Pub & The People, an award-winning neighborhood bar. Because The Pub already had plans to build a second bar in their basement in the future, they thought it would be great to have a farm downstairs in the meantime. Little did they know that this unexpected partnership would immensely help both businesses.

When she was getting started, Ackley grew traditional vegetables but decided to switch to edible flowers and microgreens because they mature faster, allowing her to experiment more with varieties and growing techniques. Microgreens are sprouts of vegetables, herbs and leafy greens that pack an even bigger punch of nutrients and vitamins compared to their full-grown selves.

Many gourmet dishes are incomplete without fresh microgreens, so some of the best chefs in the city flock to Little Wild Things to get their fix. To Nick Bernel, one of The Pub’s four co-owners, this was one of the coolest parts of having a “zen garden” in their basement.

“[Little Wild Things] sells to the best restaurants in the whole city, so there were constantly chefs and sous chefs in our bar,” says Bernel, who adds this was great exposure for their business, which opened in 2015.

Eric Milton, sous chef at popular Mediterranean eatery Zaytinya, is one of many high-profile customers who goes to Little Wild Things for all of their microgreen needs.

“They are passionate about their product and that translates into their excellent farmer-to-chef relationship,” says Milton, who has been working with Little Wild Things for a year and a half. “They have a great micro fennel that goes well with white fish dishes, and their micro parsley and celery give fresh vegetable dishes a nice pop. The quality of their product is superb, their product is consistent and they are just super easy to work with.”

While The Pub grew in popularity, Little Wild Things grew in size as its proximity to its clients led to higher demand. In October 2017, Little Wild Things grew too large for the space and Ackley decided her time at The Pub was over.

“It was a bittersweet move because we loved The Pub and our partnership, but we just needed more space,” Ackley says. “It was a great way for us to learn about urban farming and how to be space intensive because we really perfected how to be efficient with our time.”

Little Wild Things is moving to a custom-built space in Ivy City this fall, where it will have all the space it needs to grow over 40 varieties of microgreens and over 20 kinds of edible flowers.

“We are really excited to have more events and pop-ups, and give tours of our new space,” Ackley says. “It’s great to be able to set our roots down in a neighborhood and build our community even further.”

Ackley’s right-hand woman, “work wife” and director of operations Chelsea Barker says that she finds urban farming to be a fulfilling and challenging line of work and hopes others will follow suit.

“The challenge that we are most interested in solving is the idea that farming is an exciting and desirable profession for people who like problem-solving, hard work, relationship building and working with your hands,” says Barker, who joined Ackley in 2016. “It really can be a win-win when urban farming is a texture of urban life.”

A similar philosophy and approach to urban farming is found at Cultivate the City, another for-profit commercial farm working to promote urban agriculture by creating more jobs and keeping profit within the neighborhood. Cultivate the City founder and CEO Niraj Ray found his love of gardening while living in Florida, then brought his hobby back to DC at his job with the EPA where he created a rooftop garden. He eventually decided to quit his day job to pursue his true passion, and so far, it’s been working out great.

In 2016, Cultivate the City installed an expansive rooftop garden at Nationals Park, where they grow produce and leafy greens for food services and dining in the Delta Club. Along with produce the chefs specifically ask for like squash, tomatoes and herbs, Ray likes to mix it up and surprise them with unique produce every season.

Cultivate the City also has a rooftop garden location on H Street where they grow a variety of unique crops indigenous to other regions for both restaurants and members of the public. For Pansaari, an Indian restaurant in Dupont Circle, Ray grows curry leaf and bitter melon. For his CSA (community-supported agriculture program), he sends a variety of fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs every week for 30 weeks to subscribers. And for fun, Ray likes to push the limit of what he can grow in the northeastern United States. This season, he’s excited to announce a healthy crop of passion fruit, which is native to southern Brazil.

“I try to grow unique things that you can’t buy at the grocery store, so we’re able to provide a commodity through what we’re growing,” he says. “It’s unique produce that you can’t find anywhere else, and it has a good story behind it.”

Along with tending to their own rooftop gardens, Cultivate the City offers plant management and garden build contracts for restaurants. At Calabash Tea & Tonic in Shaw, Cultivate the City maintains a garden full of basil, lemon grass, lavender, rosemary and a variety of mints used in tea blends.

When Calabash opens its new storefront in Brookland this summer, it will have an exterior designed by Cultivate the City, featuring 20 planters built by students at IDEA Public Charter School, where Ray teaches a senior seminar and manages a garden club. He notes that one of Cultivate the City’s greatest missions is to work with students and other nonprofit organizations to foster a passion for urban agriculture in the next generation of farmers.

“We’re trying to promote urban agriculture and create more jobs and sustainability around it,” he says. “It’s great to teach people how to grow their own food, but we’re focusing on how they can create careers out of that by maintaining all of the green spaces that we’re creating.”

At Community Connections DC, the capital’s largest not-for-profit mental health agency, Cultivate the City provides horticulture therapy training to help youths with traumatic histories gain necessary career skills like team building and punctuality. Many of these students graduate from the program and find their first jobs with Cultivate the City at the urban farms located in the backyards of their group homes. Nearby restaurants buy produce from these group home farms, closing the loop and keeping money within the neighborhood.

“Not only is urban farming creating positive psychological and societal benefit and quantifiable economic return, but it’s had such unquantifiable environmental benefits as well,” he says. “You’re helping create wildlife quarters for the bees and monarch butterflies, you’re helping to promote more wildlife, and you’re mitigating storm water onsite.”

At Rooftop Roots, a nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming the way people engage with their urban surroundings, environmental awareness and sustainability is a top priority. Founder Thomas Schneider says that based on its three-pillar model of sustainability including economical, societal and environmental considerations, Rooftop Roots works to create jobs, build sustainable gardens and increase the availability to fresh produce to those who might not have access.

“We try to create these spaces as an experience where people feel like they’re not only having a great garden, but they’re also giving back to the community,” Schneider says. “People are certainly taking a greater interest in their health and nutrition. I think growing food is a really powerful experience in terms of how people understand the connection between the life that they’re living and how small actions can play a big part in helping not only the environment but also the society that we live in.”

As organizations like Little Wild Things Farm, Cultivate the City and Rooftop Roots work to spread awareness on how people can use their urban and suburban landscapes to help the environment and their local communities, the urban agriculture movement is becoming more than just a trend – it’s transforming into a sustainable lifestyle.

Find microgreens from Little Wild Things Farm at the Dupont Circle Farmer’s Market once a month, and sign up for any of these organization’s CSA programs at their websites below.

Cultivate the City: www.cultivatethecity.com
Little Wild Things: www.littlewildthingsfarm.com
Rooftop Roots: www.rooftoproots.org