This must be the last frontier, the final conquest in a Washington where lawyers quit their jobs to churn ice cream and patrons of a Georgetown cafe pay $15 an hour to chill with cats.
Now, the District is one of those cities where wide-eyed young people look at empty lots next to AutoZones and think: This would be the perfect place for a farm.
Not a community garden. Not some group-house bonding exercise.
If you’ve ever tried to nurture tomatoes or even a few measly leaves of basil in the back yard of your Logan Circle rowhouse, you know something about the futility of this endeavor. After all, the District isn’t exactly known for its terroir.
So it’s fair to ask where in the District tall stalks of corn and Chinese long beans would go, exactly. Somewhere along the hotly disputed property lines of Kalorama, or behind the Costco off New York Avenue NE?
Actually, Eden is already rising around us. Particularly if you can stretch your definition of the words “farm” and “Eden.”
In Brookland, Three Part Harmony Farm has sowed the seeds for a year-round operation that produces kale and greens in the winter, asparagus in the spring and fat gourds and plummy Japanese eggplant in the summer.
The Shaw nursery Old City Green has re-christened itself Old City Farm, piled soil onto 1,000 square feet of concrete, and planted basil, lemon grass and tomatillos.
This spring, Up Top Acres, a rooftop farming enterprise founded by a trio of D.C. natives, turned the roof of the Penn Quarter restaurant Oyamel into a micro-arugula-producing wonder.
Meanwhile, newbie Flannel Tie Farms is aiming to launch a collective of D.C. growers and amass enough Israeli cucumbers and Swiss chard and kale to supply local grocers.
Dine at Beau Thai, Table, Oyamel, Pansaari or Smoke & Barrel, and you may be served okra, chilies or micro-arugula sprouted by farmers in the District.
“The last couple of years have been a time for incredible growth in urban farming in the city,” says Rachael Callahan, executive director of LeDroit Park’s Common Good City Farm, which, eight years and a half-acre in, seems like the granddaddy of D.C. farms.
So the question that remains is not whether Washington can be an urban-farming town, but rather: Why is it trying so hard to be one?
The answer lies somewhere between altruism and individualism. Mostly, it’s about the innately first-world instinct to go ghost on work e-mails and spend our days harvesting Thai chilies in a field somewhere.
“I’m not a professional social worker or therapist, or whatever,” says Gail Taylor, who runs Three Part Harmony Farm, “but every year, incredible numbers of people come to our farm and heal themselves, just by putting their hands in the dirt.”
Before she found her own salvation in the soil, “I spent way too much time on Capitol Hill,” the 36-year-old former legislative director says in a way that must elicit sympathetic nods in this city full of people who have spent too much time on Capitol Hill.
When we find her amid myriad rows of eggplant and Jack Be Little pumpkins, she is wearing baggy cargo pants and a tank top covered by a long-sleeve shirt so threadbare that it has begun to sprout holes. Big ones. We’re the only ones who seem to notice.
Taylor began farming a decade ago, trading her labor for vegetables and experience at a farm in Upper Marlboro, Md. When she decided to pursue her farm dreams a little closer to her Petworth home, it took ages to land upon this plot, tucked behind chain-link fencing on Fourth Street NE, close to a Busboys & Poets, a Potbelly and a string of luxury apartments where two-bedroom flats command a soul-crushing $3,700 a month.
Now, her mornings begin at 6:15 with coffee, then a bike ride to her farm.
Which, at two acres, encompasses more land than any other farmer in the District seems to have. And acreage is the great white whale that every would-be D.C. farmer is chasing.
L ate last year, prodded in part by Taylor, the D.C. Council passed an urban farming act that will open the doors for other budding Old MacDonalds to stake out a little cheap acreage within city boundaries, grow some Thai basil and, if all goes well, make a living doing it.
One who hopes to do that is Niraj Ray, who has been known to drive across town tallying the vacant lots. Developers are simply squatting, waiting for neighborhoods to turn, the 29-year-old says, and in the meantime, he is hoping to cut deals that will allow him to plant on the grounds.
Ray founded Cultivate the City to teach the next generation of city dwellers to farm. (Never mind that they, too, will somehow have to figure out where to do it.) He has a few farms in the District, each less than a quarter of an acre, much of the space devoted to greens and long-season strawberries. (He, like Old City Farm, grows on land belonging to D.C. Public Schools.) “There’s so much opportunity,” he says, “for turning abandoned areas in D.C. into places to grow.”
Others are simply looking up. This spring, Kathleen O’Keefe and two former classmates from the District’s Wilson High hauled bags of soil up the stairs of a building at Seventh and D streets NW, spread out a handful of beds four inches deep on the rooftop and began growing lightweight “micro-greens,” including mustard, tiny radishes, cilantro and watercress. Within weeks, the three 25-year-olds were culling enough to supply to restaurants including Oyamel, which happens to be directly downstairs.
“Land in D.C. is expensive,” O’Keefe says. “The soil maybe isn’t the best quality, and it’s going to take a couple of years to get it where you want it to be.”
Their new rooftop farming business, Up Top Acres, is already plotting the next big score: a 35,000-square-foot farm on a roof in Northeast Washington. Says O’Keefe: “We just wanted to be doing something different than a normal job. We had this passion to create something connected to nature in D.C., which we felt we were lacking.”
Of course, nature — and many, many farms — can be easily found a 30-minute drive into Maryland or Virginia. But to be a D.C. farmer is to reject the terrain, and often, the reality. If there’s no soil to dig your hands into, you can just lay your own.
For the record, when Taylor took over the land for Three Part Harmony Farm — rent-free, a kindness from the Catholic order that owns it — there was soil.
“When we turned it over, it was like this pale color, and there were no worms in it,” she recalls. It took 3
Now it can yield 500 pounds or more of vegetables and herbs a week. Last month, the fields were flush with juicy Sungold tomatoes the color of yellow topaz; sweet potato greens; and zephyr squash, fashionably color-blocked in green and yellow.
A day may never come when Taylor will be able to feed 650,000 people. “I can’t feed a thousand people,” she says.
But “there’s something about this healing space we’ve created,” she says of her field. This is what the farm life is all about. “Life is valued . . . and made to thrive — humans and plants and insects.”
“Well, except for the bugs that eat the vegetables.”