Growing Food in the City

A new blog called Capital Women printed a Q&A with Three Part Harmony Farm owner Gail Taylor.

What inspired you to found Three Part Harmony Farm?
I started Three Part Harmony Farm to fill a gap in the D.C. farming world. At that time in 2012, we had a lot of amazing school gardens, and several gardens that grew food specifically for the purpose of donating it to low-income residents and or teaching people how to grow vegetables. We did not have a farm in D.C. that was dedicated solely to production. The distinction is important, I think, because when a farm is focused just on production and not also on education, you really get a chance to see what’s possible in a city. We harvest for 33 weeks in a row to supply a 100-member CSA (community supported agriculture) plus farmer’s market and restaurants. In terms of food security, the harvest logs really speak for themselves. My intention is to demonstrate that we can feed ourselves in the city.

Creating a production farm in the city isn’t only about producing vegetables, of course, because I could have continued to commute 20 miles each way to the 285-acre farm where I trained if that was my only goal. I also craved being closer to my community, and was attracted to the idea of nourishing my neighbors.

I moved to D.C. in 1999 and have pretty deep roots here, so becoming the “people’s farmer” was the most significant factor in wanting to have a farm in the city. Before farming, I worked in the Latin America Solidarity Community. If there were such a thing as free time for a vegetable farmer, I would still do volunteer work to support those organizations. My customers are also my friends and my friends’ friends, etc. There is no greater joy than going to some social event or march downtown and see the folks doing good work during the day, getting fed at night by the food we provide. And the babies! Those are our farm babies; from womb to toddling toddlers, we’re amassing a pretty amazing cohort of healthy Three Part Harmony Farm young ones.

I like riding my bike to the farm every day and feeling connected to the city and the people in that way.

One of the great things about having a farm in the city is being able to bridge the people here with farmers in the DMV. Our CSA program is actually a multi-farm CSA that we manage. Because we only have half an acre of vegetable growing space, we have space constraints in producing some of the standard favorites like melons, potatoes, winter squash, sweet potatoes … things that take up a lot of space and time. We’re not allowed to have chickens in the city, so we source eggs from an organic farm in West Virginia. And we don’t have fruit, so we partner with a family-owned orchard in Pennsylvania. There’s something so wonderful and balanced about being able to play in the dirt all day, but still go home, shower, change, and bike to a yoga class at 6 p.m. I definitely have the best of both worlds.

What are some of the plants, vegetables, and fruits that you grow?
We have a long list of vegetables, herbs, and flowers that we grow at Three Part Harmony Farm. Each year, we focus more and more on growing a wide array of greens like lettuce, spinach, kale, collards, mustard, bok choi, radicchio, dandelion greens, mesclun, and sweet potato greens. Within the “roots” category, there are only radishes, turnips, beets, carrots, and parsnips, but it is kept interesting with the fact that there are more than six kinds of radishes alone. We have fresh and dried herbs for cooking, like the ones you find in the “spice” aisle as well as mint, anise hyssop, lemon verbena, nettles, and lemon balm for tea.

Flowers grace the entire length of our property that is closest to the street so that passersby can see them close up. It’s not unusual for someone to take a moment, while walking their dog, and pull out their smartphone to snap a pic of a sunflower just about to open up through the chain link fence.

Three Part Harmony Farm contributes to the Brookland community in so many ways, such as through a community-supported agriculture and food program. Could you elaborate on all of the ways your farm helps the local community?
Our farm, like all green space in the city, creates beauty and serves an environmental service as well since it is a two-acre parcel that absorbs large amounts of rain rather than repel it as is the case with concrete. Each season, we observe more and more extreme weather occurrences, including long stretches of time without rain (like [what] happened this year in September!), but then other times where storms bring a lot of inches at once. It’s important in a city to have spaces like our farm that have rich soil and plants with deep roots ready to soak up all of that moisture. Without these green spaces, the streets would just become rivers with the overflow.

The farm is also an oasis and a place where people come to access the healing power of the soil and build community through our volunteer program. Each season, about 30 different volunteers make a regular commitment to come out and take part in the essential weekly tasks. In exchange, they take home produce, make new friends, and contribute to something amazing in our neighborhood.

When did you start farming for the first time? And why?
I started volunteering at an organic vegetable farm in the fall of 2005. The underlying reason was that, as a vegetarian and as someone who cares about the environment, I was interested in learning more about where my food comes from. At the time, my goal was to become a more educated consumer. The specific thing that brought me to volunteer in that moment was also the fact that I was unemployed and had just returned to D.C. after traveling for a year and a half, so the produce I brought home was a pretty significant part of what we ate each week.

I call that era my “quarter life crisis”—I was in the process of looking for a job that would offer a career change. And in that moment, after just a few months of volunteering, the farm manager offered me a part-time job starting the next spring. After that, I put my resume in the way, way back of the filing cabinet and haven’t looked back since. It turns out I’m well suited to working outside all day, and rather unsuited to turning on a computer everyday, so I kind of got lucky really that farming found me.

How can people help contribute to your farm?
People can make a donation to the farm, which helps us make infrastructure improvements beyond what the vegetable sales alone can buy. Our annual fall festival is always a time when we invite the community to help us contribute towards building something at the farm. This year, we’re going to double our greenhouse space to help meet the demand for locally grown seedlings, and also build a more permanent wash station since our volume has increased exponentially in the last few years.

Joining the CSA is a great way to be part of the farm as well. The members of our community supported agriculture program make a commitment to financially support the farm for the growing season. They also commit to eating locally during the spring, summer, and fall months, which is no small feat and a makes a big difference for our planet. We sign up members starting in January for a season that starts in April.

Adults who can commit to working two to four times a month for three hours at a time are invited to join in on a work day during the March to November work season. The volunteers contribute a significant amount of work throughout the season and make it possible for us to do the day-to-day work as well as accomplish pretty big jobs like flipping the compost pile, doing major bed prep for a new planting season, and tackling big weeding jobs.

Are you a D.C. resident?
Proudly. “End Taxation without Representation”

What do you love most about living in Washington, D.C.?
To me, Washington is like a small neighborhood meets big city. Because of the tourists and commuters and especially because of the influx of folks who come here to do national and international work, our food, music, and arts scenes are pretty amazing. When I moved to D.C., we were under half a million in terms of population, but we get the benefit of a city that has a population in the millions.

Around that time, the Columbia Heights Metro station opened, and then later the Green Line connected all the way through. My time here in Washington parallels a lot of that development, so I’ve had a front seat view to a lot of the good and bad of gentrification. It’s definitely a mixed review, and, as someone who owns a farm in the city, I think it’s important to keep in mind the rich farming history of Washington, D.C. Three Part Harmony Farm is acutely aware that we are part of a legacy of growing food and contributing to food sovereignty, so we don’t have any illusions that we are the first at anything. I’m proud to add to that rich history.

What keeps me here, rooted in this community is the fact that it’s really so small. It’s really possible to walk or bike the few miles from one part to another. Each day when I step out of my front door, I always see someone I know. I think that’s partly because I’m a creature of habit so my commute routes are pretty predictable, and I pass the same places and therefore the same people every day. Also, I mostly ride my bike, so it’s easier to wave as you pass by someone who is on the sidewalk versus when you are in a car or even on the bus, you can’t really stop and say hello. Anyway, that’s actually my favorite part about living in this city is staying connected to everyone through those tiny moments as we pass each other in Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, Columbia Heights, Petworth … all neighborhoods I go to almost every day.