Photo of site one by Laura Hayes
Photo of site one by Laura Hayes

Marcus Roberson has a vision. He wants to grow crops on an empty lot in the Kingman Park-Rosedale neighborhood, close enough to Miner Elementary School to hear children during recess. “If we can get to the kids, we can get to the parents and touch the community,” he says. 

Roberson is the co-owner of Woodbox Farms in Alexandria and graduated from Arcadia Farm’s 2017 Arcadia Veteran Farmer Program. The Southwest D.C. resident is submitting a plan to the city, hoping to be awarded the 10,000 square feet of public land to use as an urban farm.

In addition to engaging the elementary school through educational programming, Roberson imagines creating a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that relies on cyclists to deliver produce to neighbors. He was among a handful of likely bidders at a site visit on Oct. 24. 

Earlier this month, 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. 

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. The former has proven challenging. As for the latter, some question why it took the city so long to convert District-owned land into fertile ground. 

“We applaud the city for moving forward on opening up more city parcels for urban agriculture,” says DC Greens Executive Director Lauren Shweder Biel. DC Greens has operated one of the city’s most significant urban farms, the K Street Farm, since 2010. But that site, which abuts the Walker-Jones Education Campus, is set to become a Pepco substation in 2019.

“We think having thriving green spaces in our city is a key component to building a healthy city. At the same time, it’s been surprising how long it has taken for the city to actualize the legislation that was put in place in 2014, and these goals have been on the books since 2010 through Sustainable DC.” Sustainable DC is a city plan to make D.C. “the healthiest, greenest, most livable city in the nation.” 

Competition for the two open sites is expected to be steep, and site one, on Kramer Street NE, comes with issues. That site was slated to become affordable housing, but the city determined it wasn’t appropriate for development because of the location of certain utilities, according to Anthony DeLorenzo, the urban planning project manager at DGS. 

Preliminary testing indicates that the soil at site one has high levels of arsenic. The individual or organization awarded the land will be responsible for further testing and determining how to farm the land safely, such as installing raised beds. Roberson is contemplating an innovative geo-dome. 

Applicants must have experience in agriculture and be District residents (or have an organization that’s incorporated in D.C.). The city is open to nonprofit or for-profit proposals. Leases will be granted for a minimum of five years and a maximum of 13 years, and the awardee is not responsible for paying for the lease. Awardees must fund the build-out, pay utilities, and foot the bill for other operating costs.

Proposals are due Nov. 21 and DeLorenzo says he hopes the winners get up and running in 2019. He will review the applications with a representative from the DC Food Policy Council and a few DGS employees from different departments. When asked if anyone with urban agriculture experience is included in the evaluator panel, DeLorenzo asserts, “I’m knowledgeable and qualified to review them.” 

Criteria include the cost of the proposal, timeline, site design, and business plan. But evaluators will weigh community engagement and community benefit the highest at a combined total of 30 points out of 100. It’s these critical components that motivated Sondra Phillips-Gilbert, the commissioner of ANC 6A07, to get involved. She will observe the judging 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 says. She wants applicants to introduce themselves to neighbors. “They need to tell us who they are, what they intend to do, and what they want to offer.”

Phillips-Gilbert feels that her constituents are confused, even after a community meeting with DeLorenzo and about 30 neighbors. “There’s a lot of uncertainty—I don’t think the idea of urban farming is really understood,” she says. “I made it very clear to government officials that the process has to be more clear.” 

At the site visit on Oct. 24, DeLorenzo admitted as much. “At first there was a little bit of confusion as to whether this was a commercial farm or a community garden,” he told the group. “Distinguishing those two took a little bit of massaging with the ANC commissioner.” He then recommended that applicants seek a letter of support from Phillips-Gilbert as a part of their application packages. 

Phillips-Gilbert is curious about how the immediate community will benefit, how neighbors can engage with the project, whether the awardee will hire from the community, and who will have access to the produce grown on the site. She describes her jurisdiction as a mixed community with retirees and newcomers and a range of income levels, including several housing facilities with low-income residents receiving SNAP benefits. 

In 2017, local urban farmer Brian Massey penned an article for Civil Eats titled “D.C.’s Urban Farms Wrestle With Gentrification and Displacement.” He grappled with how many urban farming organizations have noble goals of addressing food injustice in city settings while the populations they hope to serve are simultaneously being forced out of their neighborhoods. He worries that long-term residents, particularly people of color, end up feeling that “urban agriculture is not for them.”

“I want to make sure that whoever comes in understands that if you’re going to be for-profit and you’re getting a lease for five years, that the community should get something,” Phillips-Gilbert continues. “There should be educational programs and opportunities for families to learn about nutrition and learn how to garden.”

If the awardee is a for-profit business, it’s not necessarily a negative, according to Shweder Biel. “A lot of the intention around including for-profit farmers in the original legislation was making sure that farmers from marginalized communities were able to enter the farming economy and we were maximizing city land to support long-term residents by using farming as a tool for economic stability,” she says. 

Sam Fitz, the president of for-profit business ANXO Cider, is gunning for site two in Brightwood Park. “The lot is between the cidery and my house,” he says. “I’ve been trying to put apples on it for three years then this RFP came out, which is great.” The ANXO Cidery & Tasting Room is located at 711 Kennedy St. NW.

“We would ultimately want to use the apples to make cider, but it would also be about creating a community space offering neighbors and local schools the opportunity to experience urban agriculture and connect with nature in their own neighborhood” he says. 

Fitz is in close contact with ANC 4D01 Commissioner Nancy E. Roth, who thinks Fitz is a good choice. “Sam has a record of hiring from the community,” she says. “I feel sure he would use it in a good way.” 

Roth describes site two as a lot surrounded by alleys and points out that there are more like it in the neighborhood. “They’re a no-man’s land,” she says. “They collect trash. That area is a dumping site for unwanted furniture and all kinds of crap. It’s just sitting there. It will only be an asset compared to what it is now.” 

While enthusiastic about the future urban farm, Roth is disappointed in the level of outreach and transparency from the city. “The least the city can do, with these plots of land that it’s managing and not maintaining very well, should absolutely be soliciting residents’ input on what can be done there.” 

Outreach is a little trickier in Roth’s corner of the city. “It’s complicated by the fact that there’s no commissioner there,” she says. “There has to be some sort of plan on the part of the commission if they don’t have a representative.” Roth would take on the role, but she’s stepping down from her current seat. She wonders who will hold community meetings, disseminate flyers, and otherwise reach neighbors about the urban farm proposals. 

At least one group is planning to apply for both sites. Compost Cab founder Jeremy Brosowsky says, “We plan to submit to both sites and we think that the network effect is powerful. They have more value together than they would separately.” 

Compost Cab has been around since 2010 and has specialized in composting as a puzzle piece in a larger, more sustainable food system. Brosowsky says his plans for the site go beyond turning food waste into nutrient-rich soil to include actual urban farming. 

“We think we’ve gotten good at designing systems that are sustainable financially and environmentally, and D.C. is the perfect city to prove these models,” he says. “We’re thrilled the D.C. government is making the land available and doing what it needs to facilitate urban agriculture.”

If applicants lose out this time around, there will likely be opportunities in the future. “It’s just the beginning,” DeLorenzo says. “We’re identifying at least five additional acres by 2032 for urban farming production on public land with our partner agencies. And, we’re mandated to do an inventory scan yearly.”