On a field in Brookland just off Fourth Street NE where priests used to play soccer, Gail Taylor harvests an ear of Bear Island Flint corn and peels back a husk to find a worm nibbling at the pomegranate-red kernels. Without hesitating, she executes the pest with the quick slice of a knife and reaches for the next ear.
“We have a bit of a corn worm problem,” she says casually. “Usually I just kill them with my hands.”
The two-acre plot, with its urban soundtrack of cicadas, cars and church bells, is Taylor’s farm, courtesy of the Catholic order housed there, which lets her work the land free.
Since 2012, the 36-year-old former policy activist has been using the skills she learned from five years on an organic farm in Maryland to grow crops such as eggplants and tomatoes. She would like to be able to sell her fresh, locally grown produce to neighborhood residents, but doing so would trigger a dramatic hike in the tax assessment for the property. Likely, the nonprofit Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate would be forced to end the noncommercial contract that allows Taylor to use the land.
Taylor has turned her frustration into action, and with the help of American University’s law clinic and council member David Grosso (I-At Large) has drafted a bill to change the city tax regulations that make it difficult for urban farmers to create economically viable businesses.
“The goal is not to get rich,” says Taylor, who gives away the food she grows and pays her farming expenses with her own money and donations. “I’m pushing so the work that we do will be recognized more officially, so that we won’t have to struggle so much to do something so good.”
The city has a number of vacant lots that urban agriculture proponents say could be put to use growing food. But the District encourages development by taxing vacant and blighted land at higher rates, providing little incentive for private landowners and aspiring farmers to strike leasing deals. Nonprofit organizations, such as religious groups, risk losing tax exemptions if they lease their land for commercial purposes.
Echoing similar initiatives in cities such as San Francisco and Baltimore, the D.C. Urban Farming and Food Security Act would change that. The bill outlines a plan to connect publicly and privately owned vacant land with urban farming ventures in an effort to provide more sustainable and healthy food options for surrounding communities and to transform unused and sometimes unsafe areas into productive green spaces.
Introduced in February, the bill offers private owners a substantial property tax deduction — 50 percent — if they lease the land for farming. Supporters said they hope to see the bill extend tax-exempt status for commercial urban farms on land owned by nonprofit groups and religious entities.
The bill also encourages the farms to donate to District food banks or shelters by creating a “farm to food donations” tax credit.
“We have a ton of room,” said Grosso, who introduced the bill with Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). The bill has gained substantial support in the council with Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) joining as co-sponsors.
“If we could create more food in the city, we could decrease the cost and increase the quality,” Grosso said. “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.”
At a public hearing in June, the city’s Department of General Services, which is responsible for city land, identified 16 public lots that could be used for urban agriculture. Many vacant lots are located in the same communities that could benefit the most from access to fresh food.
Taylor conceived the idea for the bill after running into obstacles trying to find land for her farm a few years ago. She consulted with the free law clinic at American University to research and help draft the legislation, eventually seeking out Grosso because she knew he had worked on his parents’ organic farm in Loudoun County, Va.
For the Brookland plot, Taylor cannot make any commercial transaction without triggering an estimated $50,000 property tax hike for the owners. She donates nearly all of the harvest to local charities and to volunteers who work on the farm. She funds the seeds, compost, tools and equipment with a combination of donations and her savings. She also works part-time at a yoga studio.
The Urban Farming Act stipulates that the leases must be for a minimum of three years so farmers have enough time to make their investment profitable. The bill doesn’t address what would happen if a developer purchased the lot after a farm becomes established in a community.
A provision also requires applicants for vacant city land to have at least one year of farming experience and to be a District resident for at least one year. The fiscal impact of the bill on the city has not been estimated, Grosso said, but the council has budgeted money to create a new food policy director.
Baltimore piloted a program in 2011 that leased vacant public lots to two farms and has almost completed the process for a third. It is also considering a tax incentive to entice private landholders to follow suit. The new farms have rapidly established themselves, Beth Strommen, the director of Baltimore’s office of sustainability, said in an e-mail.
“The urban agriculture movement is still very new, and best practices are changing and developing,” Strommen said. “Some things, like zoning and tax issues, do need to be matters of law, and so we’ve crafted legislation where necessary.”
The District bill is one of the first municipal acts in the country to be released on an online platform for the public to comment on and annotate legislation. The OpenGov Foundation, a District-based nonprofit group trying to bring public engagement online, worked with Grosso to release the act on its MadisonDC site. Grosso added comments from the site, some suggesting vacant land be made available as community gardens, to the official record at the public hearing.
Lawmakers could also consider making a new tax rate specifically for urban agriculture and support zoning that would allow industrial spaces to be used for hydroponics and vertical farming, said Lillie Rosen, food access director of nonprofit group DC Greens.
“Urban agriculture is already starting to be part of the urban development in D.C. This helps us be able to actualize it,” Rosen said.
As she uproots weeds, wearing old jeans and her less expensive, dark-framed “farming glasses,” Taylor says she remains as driven to produce fresh food for the city she loves as the day she started.
“The first thing we planted were little tomato seedlings, and we didn’t have anything,” Taylor recalls. “There was nothing. We didn’t have a hose, hadn’t hooked up water. So I checked the forecast for a day when it might rain, and we planted and crossed our fingers. As soon as we were done and packed, the clouds opened up and it poured. I’ve never been happier to be absolutely drenched riding my bike home.”