A Farm Grows in Brookland

written by Kimberly Burge | published in the March 2015 issue of Sojourners

ON A TWO-ACRE parcel of land in Washington, D.C., tucked behind the provincial house of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Gail Taylor offers a visitor dragon’s lingerie.

Photo by Rick Reinhard

Photo by Rick Reinhard

“It kind of looks like fishnet stockings—that’s how it got the name,” Taylor says, holding up the heirloom snap bean, its pale yellow-green hull mottled with purple.

Across the aisle, Jack Be Little miniature pumpkins hide under leafy canopies. There are tomatoes and mustard greens, eggplant and legumes, lettuce and squash. “We’re doing a lot of intercropping and companion planting now,” Taylor says. So asparagus lies next to parsley, both behind a bed of raspberry bushes. Flowers also abound, with bursts of hot pink blossoms and purple clover that beautify the landscape while attracting pollinators.

For nearly 100 years this area, owned by the Oblates, a Catholic religious order, was only a grass field, a place where the priests would sometimes play soccer. In 2011, Taylor approached an Oblate priest and requested use of the land. “They were amenable and excited,” Taylor says. “They’re ecologically forward thinking, and they lead the Catholics in creation care.”

The space has become a location for Three Part Harmony Farm, the urban agricultural project Taylor established in D.C. She hopes it will become the first commercial farm in the District of Columbia since 1939, producing locally grown food to be sold in stores and farmers’ markets. First, there are some hurdles that the 36-year-old farmer must clear.

Taylor came to Washington in the late 1990s to work in social justice organizations. During a period of unemployment in 2005, she began volunteering at a farm in Upper Marlboro, Md. She enjoyed the work and began to think about a career change. The farm offered her a job the following spring, and she spent the next five years learning farming techniques.

After this apprenticeship, the logical next step was to think of establishing her own farm. At the same time, Taylor was in the process of forming an intentional community in the District’s Petworth neighborhood. “I decided if I was going to make a long-term commitment to living in the city,” Taylor says, “then I needed to commit to farming in the city, even if that means, for the first few years, developing a property where I can’t make money.”

While she envisioned a market farm in the city, lawyers for the Oblates investigated D.C. laws and found that if the order housed a farm that sold its products, it would be threatening its nonprofit 501(c)(3) tax status. They would also be responsible for the taxes on the assessed value of the land—an amount estimated at $50,000 for this two-acre spot. The venture, for now, had to remain noncommercial, the food produced shared between Taylor’s community, the volunteers who work on the farm, and the Oblates, who have a particular fondness for the potatoes that Three Part Harmony grows.

Photo by Rick Reinhard

Photo by Rick Reinhard

Unwilling to give up her dream of a working farm, Taylor shifted back into activist mode. She took the problem to D.C. city council member David Grosso, who lives near the area and who toured the farm. Grosso, along with city council member Mary Cheh, introduced the D.C. Urban Farming and Food Security Act of 2014. The legislation identifies vacant properties suitable for urban agriculture, provides a tax abatement for private land owners who lease their land to urban farmers and a tax credit for fresh produce donated to food pantries, and ensures that tax-exempt entities will not lose their tax-exempt status if grounds are used for urban farming or community gardens. The D.C. council unanimously passed the legislation in December; at press time, it awaited the mayor’s signature and funding to be fully enacted.

While this legislation will make it more financially feasible for people to grow fresh produce in the city, Taylor acknowledges that urban farming on a commercial scale is still a bit of a hard sell.

“SOME THINGS ARE very easy,” Taylor says. “Should we have healthy food? Yes. Should our kids have gardens at their schools and learn what kale plants look like? Yes. Is using space in the city for growing vegetables the best, most efficient use of our space? A lot of people aren’t sure. That’s harder to convince them of. How many people could live on this property if we built a building here? But urban planning and what we do with our space in our city isn’t just about farms and making sure we have local produce. It’s about parks and green space. It’s about taking up asphalt and concrete. It’s realizing the quality of life isn’t just about having condos and liquor stores and places that pay a lot into the tax rolls.

“There’s that thing you can’t measure. How is your life impacted when you feel this soil under your fingernails? Seeing the plants and the birds and the animals—I don’t know how you can place a value on that.”

Taylor has to laugh at the approach many people make to farming in the city. “We’re all so disconnected from the land,” she says. “We don’t have a clue what it takes, especially when you talk about urban farming. People have a lot of misconceptions. They come up with strange ideas. Like, ‘There’s this industrial wasteland site here, nobody wants to do anything with it. Let’s have a community garden here!’ Really? We can’t grow food there! It shows how little we value farming, only taking land no one wants, not thinking of the toxicity of the soil and the vegetables that would be grown.

“People need to understand the realities of growing vegetables. Soil is the most valuable part, and you don’t just develop it overnight. In a city garden space, you can’t just truck in $25,000 of topsoil, grow some carrots, and call it a day. It’s a long-term investment.”

After three seasons of working the land behind the Oblates, Taylor estimates that 2015 will be the first season the farm will be able to grow food with the soil sustaining and feeding itself.

FOOD AS MEDICINE. Food as culture. Food as the future. This trio inspired Three Part Harmony Farm. When she speaks in public about her work, Taylor brings along bulbs of garlic, cotton bolls, and ears of corn to illustrate their interconnectedness.

“Garlic as medicine was an important crop at the farm where I used to work. It can cure you of every ailment, including people standing too close to you,” Taylor says with a chuckle.

As a young farmer who is also African American, Taylor has grappled with the culture and history of farming and what she chooses to grow. “Everybody’s identity influences them as a farmer,” she says. “For me, the story of who I am, what I decided to grow, and who I grow for comes from my family story. First, being forced to labor in the fields, then later fleeing as quickly as possible to get higher and higher levels of education so they never have to touch dirt again.”

Growing cotton, for Taylor, represented this ancestral struggle. No one sat her down and explicitly explained that her grandfather, who could not read or write, picked cotton. To avoid that life, her father went into the military, serving and nearly dying in the Vietnam War, so he could go to college and earn a degree. Now Taylor and her cousins have progressed even further, with graduate degrees. Her vocational shift to farming required an internal examination of the sort of farmer she wanted to be. “Part of being a black farmer is doing the things our ancestors did every day, but waking up and fighting for my right to work in dignity,” Taylor says.

“I didn’t know if I could handle growing cotton,” she adds. “I’m trying to establish myself as a different sort of farmer, a 21st-century farmer, growing vegetables without chemicals, without pain and suffering, without trauma. We had a barbecue at our house and in conversation I said I don’t know if I could pick cotton. And a friend told me, just embrace it. You’re choosing to grow something that has meant so many different things to people. Just claim it. It’s yours now. So that’s what I did.” Now Taylor grows half a row of cotton, for decoration at home and special functions, and “for my grandpa,” she says.

THREE PART HARMONY Farm is part of Seed Keepers, a people-of-color-led seed-saving collective that maintains the culture, knowledge, ancestry, and actual seeds grown from North Carolina to New York City. The collective is based at Tierra Negra Farm in North Carolina; members maintain seed banks and educate one another in farming practices.

The future of corn in particular concerns Taylor because of the wide influx of GMO (genetically modified organism) corn. Because corn is pollinated by its seeds blowing in the wind, it is especially susceptible to cross-pollination and contamination with GMO seeds. “Food sovereignty has everything to do with people being able to choose what they eat and farmers being able to choose what they grow,” Taylor says. “The companies promoting GMOs are the opposite of that. Their main interest is making money and getting the most people to buy their product, and the chemicals you also have to buy to make them grow. They’re making it harder for people who don’t want to buy their product to then be outliers. And they’re doing this all over the world.”

To resist this sort of takeover, Taylor again combines her dual vocations as farmer and activist. In 2012, she helped establish a cooperative, the Community Farming Alliance, which is aimed toward women, people of color, and gender-nonconforming people—“basically all the minority farmers who don’t get access the way other farmers do.” Members pool their resources and energy to buy seeds and soil in bulk, and to support each other’s efforts. They also bridge the rural-urban farming divide. “We really wanted to be intentional about saying that we’re in the city now,” Taylor says, “but we want to maintain partnerships and especially build on our connections with black farmers in the mid-Atlantic and the South.”

Farming has also enriched Taylor’s Christian faith in unexpected ways, especially as she thinks about the gospel parables originally directed at an agriculturally based audience. Take, for example, the story of the mustard seeds, a revelation she shared at her ecumenical, lay-led church in D.C.

“When I was small, I always heard this story about how something small becomes something big,” Taylor explains. “I also think, for me, it’s a story about knowing what saving seeds is all about and how that can inform my faith. This is the first year we’ve committed so much space to growing seeds [for future seasons] as opposed to just food. With seeds, you need to wait a long time. There were many weeks I would come to see each stage, from the flowering stage to making the seeds to waiting for them to dry. I was thinking, That’s a lot of lettuce we could have harvested in that time. But we didn’t. We waited and let that space be saved for the seeds.”

“If [farming] were just about money,” Taylor says, “then this is the wrong career. I think we’re creating a beautiful, healing, inspiring space every day. And we get that benefit that is intangible. All of us do. We’re creating this space that’s magical and you can’t explain it and you can’t put a monetary value on it.” n

Kimberly Burge is a Sojourners contributing writer and freelance journalist in Washington, D.C. Her first book, The Born Frees: Writing with the Girls of Gugulethu, will be published in August by W.W. Norton.