In our recent trip to Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., collaboration, creativity and innovation are the qualities that resonated with me. Most in agriculture don’t think about the Northern Virginia and D.C. area having much to do with agriculture outside of politics. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Several of the places and people we met with all had a unique spin on conventional farming concepts that have allowed their operations to flourish. However, this has not happened without collaboration among several people.
Our first stop was to the “Lettuce Lady of Loudoun,” where I had the pleasure of introducing Mary Ellen Taylor, owner of Endless Summer Harvest. While doing my research to make a proper introduction I was very intrigued by her story. Coming from a long career in the corporate world, Mary Ellen was inspired by the ride “The Land” at Disney. After that ride she was determined to move to Loudoun County and grow hydroponic lettuce. Her creative juices flowed and she built an operation that produces in 12,000 square feet what would conventionally take 12 acres of land. When we arrived at Endless Summer Harvest we were greeted by one of the most energetic people – the other being Jessica Hall from Harmony Harvest Farms in our last seminar. “Wow” is all I can say. Mary Ellen Taylor exudes energy and passion not only for her business but for people and agriculture. After a tour of her operation and an amazing dinner prepared with greens from Endless Summer Harvest, Mary Ellen arranged for several speakers to join in and share their stories with us as well. Mary Ellen and the other speakers have done an amazing job collaborating with each other to grow and help other producers in their endeavors. It truly takes a village to be able to produce food and fiber in an area where there is very little land and what land there is comes at a premium. Mary Ellen is a true advocate for agriculture and is passionate about helping all types of producers provide fresh food for all.
From there we toured the Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum. It is bittersweet to see a county that has such an amazing, rich history in agriculture be developed into a suburban landscape; however, it was remarkable to see those farm families left in the area contribute to such an incredible place. The museum is intentionally located in Sterling beside a major subdivision and high school. The museum curators wanted to be close to those who may not have any experiences with agriculture to offer not only a history lesson but also several programs to bring awareness to agriculture.
Next stop: Washington, D.C. I will be the first to tell you I have heard of urban agriculture, which to me just meant some community gardens, but boy was I wrong! After a night of touring the monuments and reveling in our country’s rich history, we made our way to Food for the People. This is a temporary display by the Smithsonian in Anacostia that looks at who produces food, those who prepare it, public health, and who has access to fresh food. That last part might be confusing to some. Many people have had the fortune of not worrying about access to fresh fruits and vegetables; you simply go to the store or farmers market and buy it, or grow it in your yard. In densely populated areas this is not the case. There are very few grocery stores, and most people move around the city by public transportation or walking. This impacts where they can shop and what they have access to as well. Not only that but imagine your normal grocery haul and not having a car to pick it up and drive it home – you would either look like Popeye the Sailorman or still be on the sidewalk trying to make it to your apartment.
Our next stop, Cultivate the City, completely changed my view of urban agriculture. Niraj Ray, founder and CEO, has been able to utilize rooftop and other open area spaces to produce a variety of fruits and vegetables in an urban food desert. Niraj grows food for restaurants, their own community supported agriculture (CSA) and local food banks. Niraj is also very passionate about growing exotic foods for the diverse populations in the community and educating others to grow their own foods. His vertical strawberry gardens were amazing to see and taste!
We couldn’t leave D.C. without some stops related to politics, right? Even with COVID-19 limiting people working in person, we were still able to learn a lot. It was very eye opening to interact with lobbyists, legislators, and others in the political arena that influence the course of agriculture in a variety of ways. One key point that rang true with everyone we spoke with is that you need to use your voice and be heard. Reach out to the legislative assistants, Congressmen, Senators and regulatory agencies. Let them know your thoughts and concerns on policy and offer to be a resource for them to learn and understand more about how the work they are doing impacts you and the agricultural industry
After a full week, my takeaway is simple: for agriculture to continue to thrive in an ever-changing world we need to collaborate, get creative and be innovative, not only in our production methods but also in our interactions with everyone we come into contact with. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your legislators and be a consistent, reliable source to help advance agriculture and our food supply.