Org Establishes Farm Near Nation’s Capital to Bolster Sustainable Food System and Culture in D.C.
October 10, 2011 | Melinda Clark
Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture is a small start-up with big ideas. Begun just under a year ago, Arcadia has already dived into the sustainable agriculture world headfirst with a 4-acre demonstration farm, school fieldtrips and a mobile farmers’ market. And soon they’ll be tackling the issues of aging farmers and the disconnect between farmers and consumers. As Farm Director Maureen Moodie puts it, “It’s been a crazy first year.” We can’t wait to see what the next brings.
Arcadia was launched in November 2010 by restaurateur Michael Babin. Babin is president and co-owner of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRG), a consortium of restaurants dedicated to using high-quality, locally-sourced ingredients. Babin’s desire to be more involved in the local food system became the seed (and seed money) for Arcadia, a nonprofit in Alexandria, Va. whose mission is to “improve the health of our community, the viability of local farmers, and preserve our environment for future generations by combining education about healthy food and its sources with better logistical connections between local farmers and the urban and suburban core of the region.”
Through a serendipitous partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Arcadia was able to establish a functioning sustainable farm at the Woodlawn Plantation, a historical estate just a few miles from downtown Washington D.C. Woodlawn used to be a part of George Washington’s estate.
“The property is about 128 acres. It was historically farmland,” explains Moodie. “The historical society was looking to do something with the place, with this idea of active preservation… It turned into the perfect storm.”
After much elbow grease, the demo part of the farm, which is open to the public for tours, now encompasses four acres. Moodie says that one of the biggest challenges they’ve faced was reclaiming the soil from the saw grass that had spent the last 60 years making Woodlawn its home.
“There’s a whole host of issues that go into starting a farm,” explains Moodie. “The land hasn’t been farmed for 60 years…Converting the space back into a sustainable farm has been a big challenge. You always learn new things year after year about your space.”
Fortunately, learning is one of the primary purposes of the farm. The D.C. Farm to School Network, one of Arcadia’s core programs, focuses on education about sustainable agriculture and getting healthy, locally-grown foods into D.C. school meals. Or, as Moodie puts it, “Farm to School Network’s main goal is to get more fresh food into schools. Not only that, but to get kids eating it.”
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, groups of mostly inner-city kids come explore the farm and learn about sustainable agriculture. During National Farm to School week this past week, Arcadia had about 75 young visitors. Moodie says that at the farm, they emphasize letting the kids have autonomy in the space, hoping that the connection and ownership they feel with the farm will open their eyes to the possibility of farming as a career. Most of the kids that visit the farm have spent very little – or no – time in that type of environment. “We had kids last week who had never seen tomatoes growing on a plant,” says Moodie. “We really try to hammer home the connection between your food and where it comes from.”
It’s a message the local community also seems to appreciate. Moodie says that they’ve gotten a great reception from farmers and consumers in the surrounding area. “Where we’re located is a very urbanized area in Alexandria. We’re the last farmland in Fairfax County. There are a lot of people that are really excited, not only that we’re doing something with the space, but that we’re preserving and conserving the land that is there…That we’re doing something with the space that isn’t urban sprawl.”
In D.C., as in many parts of the country, farmland is a resource that’s fast disappearing. “This land gets developed so quickly that if we don’t preserve it, it will be gone,” Moodie says.
This lack of available land can be one of the main deterrents for young people who are considering a future in farming. “Access is by far the hardest thing,” says Moodie. “Most people I know are either on family land or they’re leasing their land. The problem with leasing land is that you can get kicked off whenever…Access to land is probably the most difficult piece of it.”
One possible solution to this, and one of Arcadia’s future goals, is uniting aging farmers with young farmers who can help farm their land while at the same time learning the skills of the trade.
Farmers’ Market Meets Food Truck
Arcadia’s Mobile Market Project is just that – a farmers’ market on wheels. More specifically, it’s a retrofitted, biodiesel-powered school bus that delivers fresh, affordable, healthy food to local communities that need it. And in D.C., there are many.
Moodie says that D.C. is “unbelievably segregated” in terms of income level. And the low income areas lose out in terms of food. She points out that of the city’s nearly 30 farmers’ markets, only one is located east of the Anacostia River.
After jumping through some logistical hoops, such as having to figure out where they fit in the food permitting world – turns out somewhere between a food truck and a farmers’ market – and having their manager get his commercial drivers’ license, Arcadia’s now working on partnering with community organizations in areas that could use the market’s services – particularly in the city’s food deserts (defined by the 2008 Farm Bill as “area[s] in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower income neighborhoods and communities.”)
Ideas and Initiatives for the Future
In addition to these core projects, Arcadia is brimming with ideas for the future – projects such as a Food Hub connecting small farms with school, restaurant, nonprofit, and retail business consumers through a wholesale operation. Arcadia also plans to begin a farm incubation program, where people who are interested in farming as a career can try their hand at it. Arcadia is the perfect place for this type of program for many reasons, not least of which is its location – just a few miles from the city. Program participants wouldn’t have to move to the rural countryside to learn how to farm.
Though it may seem obvious, Moodie says that the best way for people to figure out if they want a career in farming is to, well, farm. “I would always suggest to people to apprentice on a farm. If you think you want to farm, you’ve got to farm.” She continues, “You have to really want to do it. It’s a lot of hard work…Just get growing.”