City Paper is not for tourists
Two D.C. neighborhoods are about to gain green space.
Last fall, the Department of General Services put out a request for proposals for two plots of land totaling 20,000 square feet as a part of D.C.’s Urban Farming Land Lease Program. Site one is on the 1600 block of Kramer St. NE between 16th and 17th streets NE in Ward 6. Site two is at Longfellow and 9th streets NW in Brightwood Park.
Applicants had to be D.C. residents (or operate an organization incorporated in the District) and have experience in agriculture. Both for-profit and nonprofit proposals were fair game so long as the projects had significant community benefit and community engagement opportunities as a part of their missions.
The city received five proposals from which they selected two awardees last month. Winners were granted five-year leases, with the opportunity to extend for up to 13 years. While they’re not responsible for paying for the lease, awardees must fund the build-out, pay utilities, and foot the bill for other operating costs.
DGS accepted Apogee Farms‘ proposal for the site in Ward 6 (1600 block of Kramer Street NE). Founder Thomas Langan came to D.C. from the Colorado cannabis industry where, among other things, he worked for six years growing for a medical dispensary. He worked in a 40,000-square-foot greenhouse. But Langan is from Bethesda and wanted a change.
“I started realizing some of the issues with food deserts and got into the food end of things and started growing some food and experimenting,” he says. “Apogee means culmination or climax. I want to bring the technology and everything to an urban site.”
Langan says they’re planning to install a greenhouse on approximately 75 percent of the lot where they’ll grow hydroponic greens and culinary herbs for profit. Hydroponic farming is a method of growing plants without soil by using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent. “I debated the nonprofit thing for quite a bit and discovered the best way to go is for profit and inject our profits back into the community,” he says.
He’s wants to partner with organization Cultivate the City to engage students from the nearby Miner Elementary School in educational programming. “The coolest part of this partnership with Cultivate the City is teaching people to grow at home.” Additionally, Langan says he’ll be installing raised boxes outside of the greenhouse and growing seasonal herbs for the surrounding community to pick up.
Apogee Farms hopes to be growing as early as the fall. The only caveat about the Ward 6 site is that preliminary testing indicated that the soil there has high levels of arsenic. Applicants were aware of this when they submitted their proposals. Langan will have to determine how to farm the land safely.
The Ward 4 site at Longfellow and 9th Streets NW was awarded to Agricity, LLC. Founder Jeremy Brosowsky is best known in D.C. for his work with his community composting company Compost Cab. “Last year 51,000 people dropped off their food scraps totaling more than 340,000 pounds of food,” he says. “We managed it in a way that was reliable and growing at a rapid clip.”
Compost Cab regularly partners with local urban farms, gardens, nonprofits, and D.C. government agencies in its attempt to build a healthier, more sustainable food system they believe starts with the soil. Brosowsky hopes his new urban farming venture will further these goals.
“Our focus in year one is growing food and flowers and making sure we have a ready market for both in advance so we’re contributing to the long-term viability of the farm,” Brosowsky says. “We’re not going to grow a million different things and hope to sell them. We’re working with people up and down the chain in various places in the food system based on work we’ve been doing in the community over the last eight or nine years.”
Like Langan, Brosowsky hopes to leverage the farm as an educational tool. He says to expect a combination of greenhouses, raised beds, and a perimeter of flowers. “We’re very excited and looking forward to making this a big success for the city because then the city will get to do more of it,” he says. “I’m feeling very grateful that the city is investing in urban agriculture.”
Passing the D.C. Urban Farming and Food Security Act of 2014 was one of the city’s first big steps in achieving its goal of a more sustainable future. The two-pronged legislation offers tax incentives to open up private land for urban farming while simultaneously identifying empty lots owned by the city for the same purpose.
Sondra Phillips-Gilbert, the commissioner of ANC 6A07, initially had some concerns about the transparency of the process. “My job is to make sure there’s the community engagement piece and that we have a say in who our new neighbor will be,” Phillips-Gilbert told City Paper in the fall. Today, she couldn’t be happier about her new neighbor, Apogee Farms. She says she held two community meetings, one with DGS and the second with Langan.
“The community was really involved,” Phillips-Gilbert says. “They asked great questions. We learned the difference between community plots and urban farming.” She says her neighbors are interested in how hydroponic farming works and eating healthy. “Because I live in a community with a lot of low-income families and people that don’t have equal access or means to buy produce, this inspired me to become even more interested and involved.”
Phillips-Gilbert hopes the Ward 6 site sets a good example for future urban agriculture projects in the city.