D.C. building framework for urban agriculture

AFP Correspondent

(Feb. 17, 2015) When Gail Taylor first started farming in Washington, D.C., in 2012, it was no small feat to get the wormless, highly acidic soils at a two-acre plot in Edgewood to produce food.
Then, because she couldn’t afford to pay the taxes on the land if she sold the produce, she donated most of it to a local food pantry.
“I needed someone who would come pick it up, because I was already putting my own savings into growing the food,” she said while standing in the field, verdant with knee-high mustard greens and kale, this past summer.
The plot, owned by a church and assessed at over $5 million, was one of five Taylor farmed that season and her largest in the city.
If she sold the produce she grew on it, she estimated she’d pay $50,000 in taxes.
But a series of new policies taking hold in the city aims to change that — and to make urban farming a viable career in the nation’s capital.
A bill passed this winter will provide sizable tax abatements for farmers like Taylor who want to sell their produce at local markets and tax breaks for those who donate their produce to local charities.
Another measure establishes a new food policy council and director position that will help new food businesses, such as farmers, navigate regulatory processes and lobby for better policies as more food is grown and prepared in the city.
Both bills still need to be funded, which would be up to the newly elected mayor, Muriel Bowser, as she takes office this year.
If she doesn’t, D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh, who recently has presented a half-dozen food related bills and emerged as a dogged advocate for local food, probably will.
“The idea is to take a comprehensive approach,” Cheh said of the new food policy council, which is now accepting applicants, while speaking at the Food Tank Summit in January. “We want to have a broad, expansive, comprehensive approach to food policy in the District.”
Growing food in the city requires farmers to take an entirely different approach than they would elsewhere. They have to grow a lot in little spaces, and to work with soils that have a history.
Along with high taxes, city soils can carry toxins like lead stored up over years of development or industrial uses.
Meredith Sheperd’s Love & Carrots farming business helps residents launch and maintain edible urban gardens in their own backyards, and she often has to bring in her own composted soils to do so.
Her team of nine full-time employees also grows starter plants in a 1,000-square-foot hoop house to keep their costs down.
But the biggest costs, she said, are still taxes and insurance rates to drive cars and hire workers in the city.
For Taylor, one of the obstacles to farming in the District is that she doesn’t have access to the same resources as she would in Maryland or Virginia.
Since D.C. is not a state, it’s difficult to figure out how to apply for certain grants or where to turn for the type of services that would be offered by a state Extension office.
Mchezaji “Che” Axum is working to change that.
As the director of the Center for Urban Agriculture and Gardening Education in the College of Agriculture Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences at the University of the District of Columbia, Axum is getting the word out about his land-grant institution’s services for local farmers.
An agronomist by training, Axum runs a 143-acre farm in Beltsville, Md., where he experiments with the best growing practices for local, intensive agriculture.
He is growing food under high tunnels and alongside tilapia with hydroponic technologies.
Soon, he’ll be planting produce in an empty shipping container to see whether the concept is viable for distribution throughout the city.
The nutrient-dense produce he’s growing — from spicy Asian greens to rice grown on dry land — is now being integrated into the university’s cafeteria offerings, not to mention held up as an example for what urban farming can accomplish.
Between the new bills and the services Axum is providing, urban farmers in D.C. are beginning to have the support they need to “put a dent in” providing more of the city’s food, Axum said.
“If cities want to really get into true food-and-nutritional security, there’s going to have to be a systematic way of farming more intensively,” he said. “We have a lot to do.”