Our March seminar to Northern Virginia and Washington, DC gave me the opportunity to gain fresh perspectives on urban agriculture, food distribution, and food policy. It also provided a chance to develop a deeper understanding with the familiar through history and a meeting at National Milk Producers Federation headquarters.
Visiting with Mary Ellen Taylor at Endless Summer Harvest in Purcellville was a treat. Mary Ellen’s passion and enthusiasm for her work was evident as soon as we arrived at her operation. She excitedly told us about lettuce and microgreens production using hydroponics. It was fascinating to hear about production and marketing of her produce. Seeing the lettuce growing in the greenhouses was every bit as beautiful as visiting a flower garden. If ‘seeing is believing’ wasn’t enough, tasting provided confirmation. Mary Ellen served a delicious mean for us which included salad with multiple lettuce varieties, mushroom soup, quiche, bread, and wine. It was wonderful to witness someone so in love with their work.
It’s not often that one gets to view a rooftop garden and a major league baseball stadium from the same spot. Our visit to Up Top Acres provided just such a view. We could see into the Washington Nationals’ stadium as we learned about rooftop farming in downtown Washington. Kristof Grina, co-founder and farm director of Up Top Acres, shared the history of the business, how rooftop gardens are constructed, why property owners are interested in having the gardens, and how produce is marketed locally. I found it interesting that rooftop gardens have the potential to save 10 percent in heating and cooling by having a green roof. As someone who fears heights unless safety measures are present, I was relieved to learn that workers use tie offs for safety when working in the garden. I realized that urban agriculture connects with the urban consumer and is a means to be more environmentally sustainable.
Touring Wegmans in Leesburg was a fun experience. Grocery stores in Blacksburg and Christiansburg have made great improvements in recent years, but the shopping experience does not match what we saw at Wegmans. Quality and food safety were mentioned as priorities, but the customer experience was amazing, too. The produce section, meat packaging, cheese selection, ready to cook fresh dinners, and wine and beer sections were impressive. The store prides itself on being a knowledge-based seller and cultivates relationships with local farmers for locally grown produce. We were treated to an outstanding lunch from their food bar at the conclusion of the tour. Wegmans, which is based out of Rochester, New York, will be opening its 100th store in Raleigh, North Carolina in the fall. It was interesting to learn a little about how the chain identifies potential markets based on their core values.
The DC Central Kitchen offered a very different perspective of food procurement and distribution. The kitchen provides about 8,000 meals each day in District of Columbia Public Schools in addition to meals provided at homeless shelters and for home delivery. I was amazed by the scope of the operation including the number of volunteers involved, partner donations, and training programs offered to help individuals enter or reenter the workforce. The staff members at the kitchen are doing amazing work and provide a great service to their community by feeding those in need and helping people achieve their potential.
I was excited to finally tour the Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum. I have known one of the museum’s founders, Mr. Bill Harrison, for many years through extension and the dairy industry. I enjoyed seeing many familiar faces including some of my former 4-Hers as I walked through the exhibits. The museum is definitely worth visiting.
It was a pleasure to visit the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) headquarters and to meet Christopher Galen (senior vice president for member services and strategic initiatives) and Paul Bleiberg (head lobbyist). I learned more about NMPF’s history and key focus areas. The organization was established in 1916 to help farmers but also to provide safe, wholesome milk for consumers. Eighty-four percent of milk produced in the U.S. is marketed through a milk marketing cooperative. Roughly two-thirds of the nation’s dairy farmers are represented by NMPF through their cooperative. NMPF has numerous on-going programs including the Cooperatives Working Together (CWT) Program, dairy safety net (Dairy Margin Coverage), labeling of dairy products, farm labor, and animal health. It was a great visit with lots of useful information.
The Northern Virginia/DC trip was a great experience. I have a new appreciate for urban agriculture, food policy, and food distribution. I’m looking forward to our next adventure.