Could Washington, D.C., Become the American Capital of Urban Farming?

New policies could inspire even more interest in a D.C. land-grant university that teaches Washingtonians how to grow food.

Kitchen garden by Common Good City Farm, Washington, D.C. (Photo: Flickr)

Jan 26, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

From the White House to the Washington Memorial, it's the famed symbols of American governments past and present that define Washington, D.C.

Forget bureaucratic institutions and monuments to the paper pushers that have walked their halls—Mchezaji "Che" Axum hopes to usurp these dominant images of the nation's capital: He wants urban farms to come to mind when people think of the District of Columbia. The third-generation Washingtonian envisions the district’s fast-growing urban core dotted with small plots that, together, would be capable of feeding its roughly 700,000 residents fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables.

Mchezaji "Che" Axum. (Photo: Facebook)

“We’re still in the beginning stages of this food revolution,” says Axum, who leads the Center for Urban Agriculture and Gardening Education at the University of the District of Columbia, one of the country’s only urban land-grant universities. "A thousand people a month are moving into Washington, D.C. Many of these people are young professionals who are moving in and want healthy, sustainable, local food. The people who are already here need that also."

His revolution could get a boost in the coming days, when Mayor Muriel Bowser is expected to sign into law the Urban Agriculture and Food Security Act of 2014, which aims to recruit an army of urban growers to farm dozens of vacant, district-owned parcels of land. Initially, the city will identify 25 vacant lots of at least 2,500 square feet that “could potentially be used for successful urban farming ventures.” Privately owned land is eligible too, but the incentives for property owners could come at a steep cost to other public programs—the bill offers as much as a 50 percent reduction in property taxes if undeveloped land is leased to a farm.

Following the lead of similar policies in cities such as Chicago, San Francisco, and Cleveland, the district will accept applications from experienced farmers interested in cultivating the land. It just so happens that empty lots and food-access issues have a tendency to call the same neighborhoods home—both in D.C. and in cities across the country.

“If we could create more food in the city, we could decrease the cost and increase the quality,” at-large council member and bill sponsor David Grosso told The Washington Post. “If you pick a tomato in Ecuador and ship it to the States... if you pick that tomato in Ward 8, it’s better for you and better for the environment and better for the people eating it.”

This is where Axum and the University of the District of Columbia come in: As a land-grant university, UDC must provide educational opportunities both on campus and in the surrounding community. One of the school's focuses of late has been urban agriculture production and nutritional security in D.C.—where rates of obesity hover close to 75 percent in some wards—a charge the university’s president personally tasked Axum to home in on.

If the success of UDC’s new sustainable urban agriculture certificate program is any indication, interest in farming is high among residents. Within two weeks of the class being announced last summer, all 50 slots were filled.

A 21st-century farming revolution is a return to the district's agricultural roots. In 1790, the very selection of the area as the nation's capital was made partly because of its proximity to slaveholding agricultural interests. Two centuries before Michelle Obama, John and Abigail Adams planted the first White House garden in 1800, and seven presidents have been farmers. Washington's history is also full of ordinary residents who have grown their own food. Axum's own grandfather farmed in Northeast Washington in the early 1900s.

Today, Axum has pretty good company instigating fellow farmers to green the district. The Common Good City Farm, for instance, grows more than 5,000 pounds of food annually that it shares with its community. Many organizations, such as Love and Carrots and Neighborhood Farm Initiative, work to inspire and equip neighborhood food production throughout the area. With an incredible 27 community gardens per 10,000 residents, D.C. is already among one of the easiest urban places to find a patch of earth to grow food. But gardens alone won't solve a future food crisis, Axum says, because most casual gardeners aren't growing nutrient-dense foods or using the most efficient methods. What the pending bill will do, Axum says, is dramatically increase the available land for cultivation and also allow professional farmers to sell the food they grow without the owners of the land they tend getting hit with huge property tax hikes.

Axum took over the Center for Urban Agriculture and Gardening Education in 2013 after 25 years at the United States Department of Agriculture researching high-density, high-producing agriculture. Like a modern-day George Washington Carver, Axum and his colleagues test methods such as aquaponics, season extenders, and bio-intensive production on the university’s 144-acre Muirkirk Research Farm in Beltsville, Maryland, before scaling them down for application in an urban context. Given the relatively small size of many of the lots that are and will be under cultivation in D.C., Axum says he’s ready to show would-be farmers how to grow more with less—all in what he calls a "farming illiterate" society.

“It only takes one generation to lose knowledge of growing food," he says. "That knowledge has to be regained and practiced and forwarded. We can build it, but it’s going to take a little while. We have to start somewhere.”