Credit: Courtesy of Calvin Hines Jr.

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“This started out with me being pissed off that I had to go to the grocery store far away,” says Calvin Hines Jr.The D.C. sommelier and bartender, who has been mixing drinks most recently at Hank’s Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle, grew up in Hillcrest in Ward 7. Later in life he lived off the U Street Corridor as the neighborhood rapidly developed. Recently, he moved back east of the river and settled in Barry Farm in Ward 8.

“I forgot that you used to have to travel to go get food,” Hines says. “There’s no place we can walk.” He drives to the Harris Teeter on M Street SE for groceries. “The Safeways that are closer to me don’t have great food.” There are only three full-service grocery stores for the more than 150,000 people living in Wards 7 and 8, though others broke ground in 2019. 

This got Hines thinking about food deserts and socioeconomics. “What can I do that would be most effective in solving the problem or multiple problems?” he asked himself before diving into urban agriculture research. 

Havana, Cuba emerged as a source of inspiration. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba entered a phase known as the “Special Period” in the early 1990s, residents had to work quickly to find new and sustainable ways to feed themselves. “They were able to build urban agriculture in Cuba to help them with their food shortage and also increase employment,” Hines says. 

The Cubans did so with great success. As of 2014, Havana, a city of two million people, had dedicated more than 87,000 acres to urban agriculture. “If they’ve been doing it for this long, why can’t we do it in D.C.?” Hines asks. “I live here.”

Hines is launching a for-profit urban agriculture company of his own—EightFold Farms. The name is a nod to Hines’ Buddhism practice. The Eightfold Path consists of eight directions, including mindfulness and effort, that are supposed to lead to liberation.

“We can build these small sustainable intensive farms through the city and throughout Wards 7 and 8,” Hines says. “Through these farms we can sell to restaurants, which I’m linked into. We can start farmers markets in Ward 7 or 8 or any other area that lacks food in D.C.”

He’s starting small with one or two shipping containers that he will convert into mobile mushrooms farms. “We’re starting with oyster mushrooms and maybe some lion’s mane and shiitake,” Hines says. “Oyster [mushrooms] will be the bulk of it. They’re easy to grow and there’s more of a demand.” 

EightFold Farms aims to have an educational component Hines calls “From Farm to Table” that will teach young Washingtonians both practical urban agriculture skills and the business side of restaurants. He hopes to accept them into the program as early as elementary or middle school and keep them through high school, when they would potentially be ready to attend the University of the District of Columbia’s College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences. 

“There are not enough people that are into urban ag,” Hines says, noting this is particularly true for people of color. “We’re creating a workforce that can bridge that gap. They’ll already have a good foundation, a practical education.” 

Hines has even bigger goals down the line, including launching an all-encompassing space that would have indoor and outdoor farming areas, a market, and food vendors. For now he’s just hoping to have a quarter to a half acre of space planted the first year EightFold Farms gets off the ground.

He estimates he’ll need about $125,000 to buy and refurbish the shipping containers and purchase equipment. Omar Hakeem from buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, a Texas-based nonprofit community design center, is helping with the design of the containers. Hines launched a fundraising campaign on GoFundMe today.

“We’re trying to attack the problem through food,” Hines says. He hopes EightFold Farms grows healthy food that can lead to better health outcomes while also creating pathways to employment for his neighbors. 

Update: A previous version of this story said the shipping containers would first be housed at the MidCity’s Art Park @ RIA. Hines now says that arrangement has not yet beed solidified. 

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